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Murphy to 2014 PhD Candidates: Create Your Own Career

The Duke Graduate School held its 2014 PhD hooding ceremony on May 10 at the Durham Convention Center, where 205 PhD candidates received their hoods and celebrated the successful completion of their graduate studies.

The students were part of the 333 PhD candidates who graduated from Duke during the 2013–2014 academic year. Nearly 1,500 family members, friends, faculty, and staff attended the hooding ceremony.

Evelyn F. Murphy, who earned a PhD in economics from Duke in 1965, received The Graduate School’s Distinguished Alumni Award during the ceremony and addressed this year’s graduates, encouraging them to "create a career that's unique to you—one that embraces your values and uses your special talents (see her full remarks)."

Photos from the 2014 PhD Hooding Ceremony


Remarks by Evelyn F. Murphy, PhD

Recipient of the 2014 Distinguished Alumni Award


Thank you Dean McClain and members of the committee for this distinction. I am deeply touched. And thank you to all the Duke professors who imbued me with an intellectual love of economics that has lasted a lifetime.

You just heard that I was in politics in Massachusetts. So now you know that I am a recovering politician. And we recovering politicians love a captive audience like you! But here’s my predicament. I’ve sat where you are several times. And I cannot remember the name of one graduation speaker....much less what they said.

So I know that I’m a fleeting figure in your life. But if I could plant one notion in your memory today, it’s this: create your own career.

Don’t just follow a course that you think is expected of you; or that you see someone else pursuing. Create a career that’s unique to you—one that embraces your values and uses your special talents.

So here are my three ingredients to successfully create your own career.

First ingredient: We’ve all heard the platitude to aim high. That’s not good enough. Aim higher. Aim to make the largest contribution—to have the biggest impact—on our society that you can. Earning your PhD from Duke is proof that you have the skills to be incredibly productive. You can have an enormous impact.

Aim higher also because you can take risks. Your PhD is a financial safety net. I always knew that if I lost an election, my PhD in economics would enable me to earn a living giving lectures, teaching, or consulting.

That’s exactly what happened. You heard that I was the first woman elected to constitutional office in Massachusetts. You didn’t hear that I lost my first campaign for Lt. Governor. It took me eight years to finally get elected. And through those years, my PhD enabled me to earn a decent living.

The second ingredient is adaptability. When you create your own career, be adaptable. Careers usually don’t follow a straight line. After I graduated from Duke, I started working in a nonprofit organization. Then I worked for an international business. Then I went into state government, back to a nonprofit, back to state government, then back into business. Now I’m again running a nonprofit.

Sometimes these changes were my choice; sometimes they were not. You heard about my battle, when I was secretary of environmental affairs, to protect the vast fishing grounds on the Georges Bank from contamination by drilling for oil and natural gas. The value of one week’s supply of gas did not justify risking this food supply. But the next governor didn’t agree. He supported the oil industry and sent me packing. So, I returned to nonprofit work.

You have to be willing to move from one sector to another in order to keep working on issues that reflect your values. Whether you find yourself working in government, a nonprofit, or industry, learn the levers of influence in each realm while you’re there. Each is complex and different. In doing so, you will learn about the interplay of government and business, and how best to make your contribution.

The third ingredient: personal satisfaction. When you create your own career, use your discipline in ways that bring you great satisfaction. At graduation, my fellow grad students talked about becoming professors. Not me. When I taught introductory economics as a graduate student, I designed my lectures from The New York Times that was delivered daily to the West Campus library. President Kennedy was cutting taxes, and I loved showing students how economics played out every day in Washington.

So, while others looked to academic appointments, I set out to apply economics—just as I did in the classroom and in my dissertation. I found my satisfaction through applying economics to turbulent social issues in America in my time—civil rights, women’s rights, and later, the environment.

Finally, let me bring you up to date with the career I created. In this current chapter, I’ve aimed the highest yet. Ten years ago, I set out to eliminate the gender wage gap in America. Now, this gap dates back to biblical times. In Leviticus, the Lord says to Moses that a man is worth 50 shekels of silver; a woman, 30 shekels. That 20 cent/shekel gap still exists today!

Every day my colleagues and I in The WAGE Project apply economics by doing salary negotiation workshops to teach women how to get paid fairly. We’ve run workshops in 48 states, on 300 campuses, 20-40 women at a time, adding up to tens of thousands of women who can now earn what they are worth. Life and work don’t get any better for me than seeing this impact.

Do what you love with your discipline. My passion and my energy come from applying economics. Yours may come in the application of computer engineering, in teaching political science, in genetics research, whatever. You know what intellectually energizes you. Make that central to your career.

If you do all of this—aim to make a real difference, evolve into positions that keep building your impact wherever they are, and apply your discipline in ways that energize you—your unique career will enhance our society and enrich your soul.

Thank you. I wish you enormous success.