Interview with Douglas Miller

What do you remember about being a PPE major?  What was your motivation, in terms of deciding to major in PPE?

I didn't enter Penn knowing that I wanted to do PPE. I didn't know I wanted to do PPE until my sophomore year, which presented some challenges because I was already majoring in environmental studies. So, I had to really load up on the courses. Ultimately, I made the decision because I was looking for a complementary discipline to support my keen interest in developing solutions that actually worked to solve some of the greatest environmental challenges of our time.  I originally thought that PPE was something along the lines of urban studies. But, I got a better understanding of the program and how it teaches you both the fundamental underpinnings of society, in terms of philosophy, and the systems of government that emerge from these underpinning philosophies. And then, how economics emerged from that, and then even, beyond the main PPE, you learn how the theoretical person works based on economics. PPE teaches how the actual person makes decisions and does things, and to me, that was a powerful story if we're trying to provide perspectives and tackle things like climate change. We need to indulge strategies that are based on the real person, and understand the way that people actually make decisions, not the theoretical one. I think that’s why so many initiatives in my field have failed, because they've been focused on, for example increasing awareness, which we know as PPE majors, isn't enough to spur social change.  So that’s why I got into it. It was a combination of things that really made me love the program.  Partially, It was because I sort of had a crash course in it. I was taking so many courses all in the major at one time, it got me really into the subject matter.

 Did PPE play a role in your decision to pursue particular career opportunities?  I guess you already explained this in terms of environmental research. But, how did you frame your PPE background when applying for full-time jobs?

I knew since I was in high school, since my freshman year of high school that I wanted to get into the green field.  I just didn't know the exact angle. The interdisciplinary nature of PPE encouraged me every summer to get an internship, or even two internships. The last two summers I worked in two different fields within the environmental state. I think the program encouraged approaching the same problems with different lenses. I wouldn't say PPE put me on the path directly. But, because I went through a diverse set of experiences, I learned that the think tank approach is one that I enjoyed. For example, where I work today, I get a combination of the sort of research academic stuff that I enjoy, but I also get to apply it to more of a consulting perspective and run workshops and things like that. Yeah, I would say that unfortunately, not just PPE, but Penn in general, doesn't provide much support for those with a focus on something like the environmental field, for example. I think PPE, it doesn't do it purposefully, but it does push students directly to either do consulting, law, or policy, and it's one of those three things.  So, I felt like a bit of an oddball that I didn't go down any of those routes per se and that I did graduate school research in something other than law or public policy.  But, at the same time, it’s great to hear that you're looking to push examples like myself. You encourage those handful of students every year to not feel pressured into the more conventional route.  Not that PPE is by any means a conventional education, but some of the outlets are.

If you could go back and give advice to your underclassman self at Penn, your freshman or sophomore year self, what advice would you give in terms of job search, or kind of career trajectory?

So, I think it's useful to be true to yourself, especially if there is something you're passionate about. Not to just do what every other Penn student does, and become a consultant or investment banker or a lawyer. The bulk of my peers who work in those fields don't seem like they're enjoying their lives. At least be open to other ideas and to seek them out, test out other opportunities over your summers.  I didn’t work for a single large firm at any of my summers.  Also, use internships as a way to test out different routes you might go. I think a shortcoming of the interdisciplinary education is that it pushes people to not be interdisciplinary in their internship approach. Another thing is to really value the time you have when you're in school. I was somebody who certainly focused on getting top grades and also getting on as many boards, including PPE, as possible. There’s value in having that free time. It’s important to focus on building relationships with your peers when you're in school.  Focus on finding those spontaneous opportunities to do something interesting in Philadelphia, or whatever it might be. I think there's a general pivot in society where wealth is less about financial resources, and it's more about time resources. I work in the nonprofit world.  My salary isn't that high, but, I have been able to save because I haven't had to live in high-cost cities, or at least until I just moved to DC 2 weeks ago. But, at the same time, I have, relatively speaking, great working hours for something that I care about and I have weekends. I have evenings.  Many of my peers do not. Their first 2 or 3years worked 'til 2 in the morning.  They might have to twiddle their thumbs for 10 hours during the day because the other people don't send them stuff 'til 10 at night, but they're in the office for 18 hours a day, or whatever it might be. They might be making double my salary, but they don’t have an opportunity to use it. And they have to, you know, go to certain venues to show off the money to, uh, and all that kind of stuff.  So, I think that's something else worth sharing is just think about career and the benefits you gain from a particular industry, not just in terms of financial wealth, but time wealth. I also got a great piece of advice my freshman year, and I share it with any student who's entering college get to know one professor a semester. I think it’s a really concrete thing to try to do, and it's something that has provided me a ton of opportunities and benefits. I think it was my second semester, I got to know Christina Pickiari. During office hours, I would go in and just chat it up with her about her interests what she's excited about, in terms of her field of study. And she got a greater understanding of my interest in developing innovative environmental solutions. She suggested I go work with a professor over the summer at Oxford and it ended up working out. I got funding for it. Going into my senior year, I was able to do an experiment in Oxford which formed my thesis for both PPE, and then my second interest for environmental study.

Is there anything that you would like PPE to do more with alumni, in terms of keeping PPE alumni connected with one another, or keeping you all in the loop with things going on on campus? 


I guess I feel like I'm still fairly connected, because I've gotten to teach two classes at Penn since graduating a couple years ago and both times I stopped by PPE, and one time I was able to see Christina. So, I know there was something she wanted to put together as a way for people to donate directly to PPE, that's something I would love to do.