Alumni Profiles Series: Kivanç Kirgiz
Kivanç Kirgiz received his undergraduate degree from Cornell University before joining the Duke Economics Ph.D. program, where he specialized in Industrial Organization, Econometrics, and International Economics. When he finished his Ph.D., he got his first job as an associate at Cornerstone Research for their new Washington, D.C. office, and he’s now a vice president. Within the company, he has taken various leadership positions, and he’s currently a member of the recruitment and pro bono committees.
What has your career path been since you graduated?
I joined Cornerstone as an associate based in their recently opened D.C. office after I graduated from Duke in 2001. I’ve been here for almost 20 years! I saw the company grow from close to 200 people to now 800! It’s been rewarding to see other vice-presidents, who started around the same time as I did, and young analysts making progress in their career and how they have developed and learned from the experience at Cornerstone.
Tell us about your job. What do you like most about it?
In my job, we take economic problems from litigation and apply insights from academic research. For example, it can mean applying economic theory or using econometric techniques to test certain hypotheses coming from litigation issues. At the end of the day, we use advanced economic research and data to provide economic arguments to a government agency, judge, or jury. It is intellectually challenging because we often deal with novel questions and have to provide data and theory-based analysis that is convincing. There is often another consulting company on the other side making the opposite argument so our analysis and results should withstand close scrutiny.
In terms of what I like most, first, I like applying the skills I learned during my Ph.D. It is rewarding to work on high-profile matters, what we call “front-page Wall Street Journal cases.” Also, I appreciate the culture of the company because we prioritize our staff by making sure we recruit the right people, mentor them, and provide the support for them to succeed.
Could you share an interesting project that you have worked on?
I’ve worked on a recent case that received some media attention. It was a trade dispute between the U.S.A. and Canada about softwood lumber, a product that is primarily used in construction. This trade market is one of the largest in the world in terms of dollar amount.
The Canadian government hired me as the economics expert for the case. My assignment was to understand the impact of the Canadian lumber imports in the U.S. market. Have they depressed domestic price? Have they replaced or reduced domestic production? All these questions were similar to my dissertation project, where I studied the automobile industry in Turkey and how the implementation of certain taxes impacted the composition between importing and the domestic production of vehicles.
For this project, I collected data and went to lumber dealers in the U.S. to really understand how the market works and substitution patterns between different products. When talking with the lumber producers, I asked about what product characteristics their customers were most interested in when buying, how price responsive they were, what distinguished the products, etc. In addition, I developed a quantitative analysis on the substitution between types of lumber imported from Canada and produced in the U.S.
What surprised you the most in this project?
I was impressed by the size of the trade volume! It is a huge market and made me think about the interdependencies between countries. Also, when diving into the details, I’ve discovered a lot about the lumber industry. Due to their different attributes Canadian and U.S. lumber are suitable for different end uses. For example, when most people think about lumber, they consider it all to be the same, when in reality the lumber from Canada comes from largely different species, which are lighter and softer but carry less weight when compared to lumber from the U.S. Per building codes, a builder might need a pair of Canadian lumber sticks in a floor frame so they are as strong as one piece of American species lumber, but this would imply a greater cost for the builder. In contract, a builder may prefer Canadian species in a wall framing application.
What skills did you learn at Duke that have helped you thrive at Cornerstone?
Working in study groups helped me develop skills working with other people and in fostering a collaborative environment. I also improved my presentation skills while preparing for the job market: I presented my research and received questions and feedback from professors and friends, and it would be videotaped for improving my body language. It was challenging, and the more we practiced, the more we were prepared for possible questions. At Cornerstone, I use these skills a lot because I work with my teams, and we often present our research to others.
What career and professional plans do you have in mind for the future?
I really like what I’m doing and I hope to continue at Cornerstone. Within the company, I’m looking forward to being more involved in pro bono work. These are more policy-oriented issues where we volunteer our time, usually for a nonprofit organization or a policy group, because we believe the cause can have significant social impact.
What is the best career advice you've ever received?
The best advice was from my dad a long time ago. He said, “You’ll be doing whatever you choose for a long time, so find something that you like. You will be fully committed and successful only if you do something you enjoy.”
I thought about it after my undergraduate studies, and I didn’t prioritize my short-term income at that time. Instead, I focused on what I liked the most, which was thinking about economic issues and how rigorous economic analysis can be. So, I decided to continue studying economics and ended up with a Ph.D. When I was looking for a job after completing my studies at Duke, I again reflected on what I liked doing and went into consulting.
Is there any advice you would like to share with current graduate students at Duke?
Economics is a field with plenty of career possibilities after graduating. The skills you learn enable you to not only analyze data but to understand what is in the data and its implications. With that in mind, I would recommend gaining experience outside academia over the summer, completing an internship in the consulting or tech sectors. It’ll help you find what you like, what you are good at, and make a better decision regarding what to do once you finish your studies.
What are your favorite memories of Duke?
I enjoyed teaching at Duke because it was such a pleasure to have smart and motivated students. I learned a lot while teaching, especially on developing techniques to communicate with the audience and improve student learning. This experience was very rewarding and, for one of the courses I taught at Duke, I won a Distinguished Lecturer Award, based on student evaluations.
I also have fond memories associated with Duke basketball. Every year, the graduate students from Economics Department camped out for season tickets. In my last year, Duke won the NCAA championship!
Ph.D. candidate, Economics
Leonardo Chaves is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Economics at Duke University. His primary research interests are in high frequency and time series econometrics, finance, and macroeconomics.