A $38,000 per year fellowship at Yale will see 2008 graduate Kevin Baker through to his Ph.D. in economics by 2013. He has already completed what was a challenging first year, and Baker gives a great deal of credit for his success to his undergraduate studies.
"Some students had a lot of trouble with the first year, and not everyone always passes their exams right on the first try, but I had already learned a lot of the material at Notre Dame."
Now that the preliminary work is done, Baker is looking forward to more in-depth research on an area of particular interest: the U.S. health care system and whether or not overall individual health can be affected by personal income. He sums up his focus with a seemingly straightforward inquiry: "Does higher income improve health outcomes, and [conversely] can low income be the cause of poor health?"
Weeding out the multiple social and cultural variables at work to reveal the specific impact of income on health, however, makes answering these questions anything but simple.
Ultimately, Baker wants to do research that will have "real world" impact. He's planning to mine existing data to help discern what social policy could contribute to better health results for all. "Is there anything the government can do to change health outcomes?" he asks. "What works?"
Baker says it's no accident that his choice of research revolves around a social issue of acute interest to improving living conditions for the nation's most poor and vulnerable communities. "I would say Notre Dame gave me all the tools necessary to have a solid introduction into work in economics, basically the same package I would have developed at a non-Catholic school like Yale.
"But there is definitely something about the Notre Dame campus and the environment there that makes you want to answer questions that reflect what the church teaches about social justice and care for the poor."
Confident that his ND years spent studying "public economics"—welfare policy, AIDS in Africa, the U.S. health care system—have properly girded him for the years of work ahead toward his dissertation, Baker has some advice for incoming economics majors.
"Work hard, put your trust in the faculty members," he says. "Oh, and don't be surprised if your friends have no idea what you're talking about when you try to explain what it is that you're doing with your life."