Samuel H. Preston
Professor of Demography and Sociology, University of Pennsylvania
Director, UPenn Population Studies Center, 1982–1990
President, Population Association of America, 1984

How did you decide that being a demographer was the career path for you?

In 1965, when I entered graduate school in economics at Princeton, I intended to become a labor economist. In fact, demography was the only course offering I had crossed off among the courses offered. But a fellow graduate student recommended that I take a course in demography taught by Ansley Coale since the subject was somewhat related to labor economics. It was clear after two lectures that my career path had shifted: a genuine conversion experience. Births and deaths were far more appealing subjects than wages and interest rates. Careful measurement seemed more worthwhile than speculative hypothesizing. And population mathematics had at its core a beautiful construction, the stable population model.

What kind of education and training did you pursue to get to where you are in your career?

My dissertation topic, recommended by Ansley and enthusiastically adopted by me, was on the mortality effects of cigarette smoking as they were manifesting themselves in international mortality patterns. Why this topic was acceptable for a dissertation in economics is a mystery to me, but I’m grateful that it was. This research began a life-long interest in mortality analysis, which at the time was a neglected field.

I was fortunate to receive a job offer from the Department of Demography at Berkeley, the only such department in the U.S. then or now. I was one of three members of the department, with Nathan Keyfitz and Judith Blake. So by the time I was twenty-four years old, I had studied with one of the two leading technical demographers in the world and had become a colleague of the other. They set a standard of excellence in research and citizenship that provided a wonderful example for a budding demographer.

Describe your work/research as a demographer. What do you consider your most important accomplishments?

My first project was an effort to assemble, publish, and interpret all the data that had ever been collected on mortality rates by cause of death, age, and sex. This was a project that an older and wiser person would never have attempted, but it led to two useful books and provided some infrastructure for later volumes by Chris Murray and colleagues on the Global Burden of Disease.

In 1975 I published an article called “The Changing Relation between Mortality and Level of Economic Development,” which is my most-cited work. It argued that technical improvements in medicine and public health had been the principal factors responsible for 20th century mortality improvements, rather than increases in income. Angus Deaton of Princeton has dubbed the graphical core of the analysis “The Preston Curve,” a term that has caught on without resistance from me. I followed up this paper with more research with Michael Haines, Doug Ewbank, and Gretchen Condran. We concluded that the germ theory of disease, embodied in public health practices but also in health behaviors within the home, was the principal source of advance. This work was aided by samples that drew from U.S. censuses of 1900 and 1910, the first historical census samples to be publicly released.

In December 1980 I was on an airplane returning from a conference in Manila, musing over a mathematical equation developed by Shiro Horiuchi and Neil Bennett. I started fiddling around with it and realized in a flash that the three basic equations characterizing a stable population were a special case of an (almost) equally simple set of equations that characterize any population. This was a moment of joy and transcendence that I haven’t felt before or since. I still can’t shake the idea that I was being rewarded for returning to cold Philadelphia to teach my last class of the semester, while all of my demographer friends stayed in Manila to splash in the hotel pool and eat mahi-mahi. The expressions have proven useful in understanding population behavior and in estimating demographic parameters in countries with flawed data.

During the 1980s I became involved in two research projects that had public policy implications. In the first project I asserted that the well-being of American children was suffering because of family change and policy neglect, while conditions among the elderly were improving because of successful policies aimed at them. Because the lobby for older people benefitted from the perceptions of widespread elderly poverty, Modern Maturity, the official organ of AARP, called me in an editorial “America’s leading crusader against the elderly.”The second project was a National Research Council publication entitled Population Growth and Economic Development. This was presented in a monograph written by Ron Lee, Geoff Greene, and me that seemed to many people to diminish the importance of population growth as an obstacle to economic advancement. Such a diminution was not appealing to agencies and individuals with a stake—financial or intellectual—in magnifying the threat of the “population explosion.” Although I did not enjoy participating in the public fray surrounding these projects, I was pleased to be contributing to the analysis of important issues.

From 1998 to 2005, I took a seven-year sabbatical from demography when I served as Dean of Arts and Sciences at Penn. Returning from that hiatus was difficult. I told someone that it was like coming out of graduate school all over again, but without a dissertation. Whether consciously or not, I responded by returning to the subject of the dissertation, the mortality effects of cigarette smoking. Those effects had been primarily visible among men in the late 1960s, but by 2006 they were clearly visible among women as well. A National Research Council committee that I co-chaired with Eileen Crimmins attempted to account for the poor ranking of the United States in life expectancy. My work with Dana Glei and John Wilmoth estimating the impact of smoking on life expectancy played an important role in explaining the U.S. shortfall.

What do you see as the field’s most important contribution as well as its greatest challenge?

I think my career illustrates that there are huge opportunities for demographers in the field of population health. This was an unknown term twenty years ago but the field has taken off. Studies of population health use quantitative measures to describe levels of health, identify their determinants, and explain how and why they vary across and within populations. There are terrifically interesting research questions in the area of population health. There are also large numbers of undergraduates who are interested in health, especially global health. There is a great opportunity for demographers to teach large-enrollment undergraduate courses in the health of populations. Reproductive health fits comfortably into such a course, and undergraduates are always interested in reproduction. Being able to teach large-enrollment undergraduate courses is an advantage for any discipline—just ask a dean. Demography lost enrollments when populations stopped exploding. Now is the hour for population health.

Christine Almy Bachrach
Co-Director, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholars Program
Research Professor, University of Maryland
Branch Chief, at NIH and Acting Director of OBSSR, 1992–2010
President, of the Population Association of America, 2013
Demographer/Statistician, National Center for Health Statistics, 1979–1988

How did you decide that being a demographer was the career path for you?

In part, it was the sexual revolution, which was in full swing during my years as an undergraduate at Harvard. It inspired me to volunteer at Planned Parenthood—my first foray into reproductive health issues. This could have led nowhere—but fortuitously I was becoming disenchanted with my major in psychology. I decided to finish up my requirements and spend my senior year in college getting a liberal arts education. I took a wide range of courses—Shakespeare, history, and a course in demography taught by David Heer

After my first class I was hooked—demography provided a way to study human behavior that was straightforwardly quantitative and methodologically rigorous. What’s more, it dealt with deeply important aspects of human life—birth, death, and migration. I resolved to work in the field after graduation, and set out to write to every population-related organization in Washington, DC to ask for a job.

What kind of education and training did you pursue to get to where you are in your career?

As it turns out, no one would hire a college graduate with one course in demography for a job in a population organization. I got three responses: a letter from the head of the Population Crisis Committee telling me to get a PhD, an offer of a secretarial position (“college gals make great secretaries!”), and a possible work-study arrangement at the Population Division of the U.S. Agency for International Development if I went to graduate school. I enrolled at the master’s program in demography at Georgetown University, and worked two days a week at USAID. I then went to the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health for a PhD in population dynamics.

Describe your work/research as a demographer. What do you consider your most important accomplishments?

I’ve had a career in public service, and I’ve loved every minute of it. My professional life has consisted of three distinct “careers.” The first was dedicated to the development and analysis of survey data on U.S. fertility with the National Survey of Family Growth in the National Center for Health Statistics. One of my first jobs was to redesign the survey, which had originally included only married women and never-married women with children, to include single women. This was in response to evidence that, by 1979, was irrefutable: single women were having sex and getting pregnant.

My second career, from 1988–2010, was at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This job was completely different. Instead of creating science, I was now funding it. In this job, my goal was to advance demographic research. I worked first as a program official, and then as Branch Chief of the Demographic and Behavioral Sciences Branch (DBSB) at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).

During my years at NICHD my branch supported large-scale data projects that provide the foundation for demographic research; expanded research on families and children, intimate relationships, and immigration; led the incorporation of social science into AIDS research; and expanded our support for demographic research on health.

Perhaps the most dramatic aspect of my tenure at NICHD was the periodic requirement to defend the research we were supporting in the face of congressional attacks. We were funding research on sexual behavior, a basic element in understanding both fertility and reproductive health. But sexual behavior studies sometimes attract the attention of members of Congress, especially around election time. They can easily be taken out of context to be made to sound prurient or unnecessary.

The most serious attack occurred in relation to a large new survey on teenagers’ sexual behavior. The American Teenage Study was designed by top scientists to provide definitive answers on the causes of teen pregnancy. But, soon after I arrived, the study came to the attention of conservatives in Congress who objected to asking minors explicit questions about sex. After the Secretary of Health and Human Services was told about it on a talk show, the survey was shut down. The press erupted in outrage over political interference in science and our office was inundated by mail from conservative groups.

We provided the NIH leadership with ammunition to defend the research and worked behind the scenes with advocacy groups who rallied to our cause. After three years of effort, Congress passed a law requiring the NIH to conduct a new comprehensive study of adolescent health—described in terms that left no doubt that a study like the American Teenage Study, but with a general focus on health, would be appropriate. We received and funded a new proposal to conduct what is now the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health). When it came time to release the first results of Add Health, the findings emphasized the importance of parents for protecting adolescent health—drawing praise from the very same conservative groups who had shut down its predecessor.

In 2008, I was appointed Acting Associate Director of the NIH for Behavioral and Social Sciences and Acting Director of the NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR). My main focus here was to support and leverage the work of behavioral and social scientists across the NIH; and to amplify the message that health is a function not only of molecules and cells but also of behavior, social systems, and human environments. We launched the NIH Basic Behavioral and Social Science Opportunity Network (OppNet), a five-year, trans-NIH initiative with $120 million in funding.

I retired from federal service at the age of 59, recognizing that I had an opportunity to explore other aspects of a career in demography. Since that time, I have taught a course in health disparities, done research exploring models of culture in demography, co-directed a fellowship program in population health, and served as President of the Population Association of America. It’s been grand!

What do you see as the field’s most important contribution as well as its greatest challenge?

Demography is interdisciplinary. It is a great place for creative people who don’t want to be boxed in by any specific discipline, but are willing to take the best scientific approaches and the most useful knowledge from each. Integrating some fields (anthropology, for example) is harder because of differences in methods, but still very important because of the insights other fields bring.

Demography has a willingness to tackle new problems outside of our traditional core of fertility, mortality, and migration. We have addressed all sorts of population issues—creating productive adults, understanding the determinants of health, changes in marriage, the impact of immigration, and poverty and inequality. We’ve brought demography into the conversation in other fields and made tremendous contributions.

Victoria A. Velkoff
Chief, Social, Economic, and Housing Statistics Division, U.S. Census Bureau

How did you decide that being a demographer was the career path for you?

I knew I wanted to be a demographer when I was working on a master’s in Russian and East European Studies at the University of Michigan. A demography professor, Barbara Anderson, needed a research assistant who could read Russian and she hired me to help with her research. My job was to look through Russian journals and statistical yearbooks for certain demographic topics and data. As I worked for her, Barbara began to explain the work she was doing and I found it to be extremely interesting. She encouraged me to take a few demography classes, which I did. I enjoyed the classes and I decided to pursue a PhD in demography.

What kind of education and training did you pursue to get to where you are in your career?

I have a BA in economics and an MA in Russian and East European Studies from the University of Michigan. My master’s thesis examined the demographic impact of the famine in Russia and Ukraine during the 1930s. I have a PhD in sociology from Princeton University. My dissertation focused on infant mortality in the former Soviet Union. As part of my dissertation work, I spent several months in Moscow in 1989 getting data for my work. It was an interesting time to be in Moscow as there were food shortages, as well as shortages of many other products. Every time I saw a line, I would join it because sometimes it turned out that the line was for fresh fruit or some other scarcity.

When I finished my PhD, I went to work for the Census Bureau and I have worked there ever since in several positions, each with increasing responsibilities. I am now Chief of the Social, Economic, and Housing Statistics Division. As the Chief, I lead the bureau’s work on income, poverty and health insurance statistics; the new measures for same-sex relationships; and the development of the new supplemental poverty measure.

Describe your work/research as a demographer. What do you consider your most important accomplishments?

My first job at the Census Bureau was in the International Programs Center (IPC), where I did research on other countries’ populations. While in the IPC, my research focused broadly on the impact of aging populations worldwide; gender issues; and the collection, analysis, and dissemination of demographic data. When I first came to the Census Bureau, I analyzed demographic data and wrote reports with a special emphasis on aging and health issues in the countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics. It was a great job as I was able to focus on an area of the world in which I had an interest.

I also coordinated the gender statistics research and technical assistance program, which included developing and carrying out research projects, teaching workshops, and providing technical assistance overseas. I developed a two-week workshop on gender statistics and taught the workshop in several countries. Teaching this workshop was rewarding because not only was it about gender issues but it also taught people how to present data graphically. I served as the Chair of the UNECE’s Work Sessions on Gender Statistics for several years. Working with the UNECE gave me access to people from other countries’ National Statistical Offices and allowed me to see how they did their work. It also created a great network of colleagues doing work on similar topics.

One of the projects I developed while working in the IPC provided me with hands-on experience with a wide range of statistical survey methodologies. In response to a demand for data on mortality in developing countries, particularly data on AIDS mortality, I collaborated with colleagues from Measure Evaluation to design, develop, and test a sample vital registration system that uses verbal autopsies in order to obtain data on mortality by cause. This is a system designed to collect nationally representative data on mortality by broad age groups and by broad causes in developing countries.

I think that my most important demographic accomplishments are the work I led on improving the Census Bureau’s annual population estimates and our work on the demographic analysis estimates used to evaluate the 2010 decennial census. The Census Bureau produces annual population estimates for the nation, states, counties, cities, and towns. These estimates are used to allocate federal funding and as statistical controls for the Census Bureau’s household surveys. Every 10 years we have a census that we use to evaluate the population estimates. Over the 2000s, I led the team of people who produced the population estimates and we were continually researching ways to improve them. We focused mainly on improving the estimates of net international migration as well as the estimates of domestic migration. In 2010, the census count was 308,745,538 and the population estimate was 308,450,484. The difference between the census count and the estimate was less than 300,000 people or 0.1 percent. This was a remarkable level of agreement between a census count and a population estimate.

I also led the team that produced the demographic analysis estimates for the 2010 census. Demographic analysis estimates (DA) are developed from historical vital statistics, estimates of international migration, and other data sources that are essentially independent of the census. For 2010, we produced five series of DA estimates to show that there was some uncertainty in the estimates. We released our DA estimates prior to the release of the 2010 census and without knowledge of the 2010 census counts. As with the population estimates, the DA middle estimate was extremely close to the 2010 census counts, less than 300,000 people different or 0.08 percent.

A few things about my job have really shaped my career. First, throughout my career, I have been fortunate to work on a wide variety of topics. I also have had several wonderful mentors, each of whom provided me with valuable lessons from different perspectives. And while at the Census Bureau, I have had the opportunity to travel to many countries. Sometimes I went to teach workshops or provide technical assistance. Other times I traveled to give talks, attend professional meetings, or represent the U.S. government at meetings of international organizations. I learned a lot from these travels and I enjoyed meeting new people and learning about different countries/cultures. These elements have made for an interesting and rewarding career in demography. They also made me a better demographer because I benefited from meeting and working with demographers from around the world.

What do you see as the field’s most important contribution as well as its greatest challenge?

Demography’s most important contribution is providing policy relevant data and information to help decision makers make informed decisions. Doing this with increasingly limited resources is one of the biggest challenges currently facing the field. I think another challenge is maintaining the core essence of demography. However, having said that, demography is a great field to work in. As demographers our work can be critically important at several different levels. If you look in any newspaper or online news site, you can almost always find a story that uses demographic data.

Wendy Baldwin
President, Population Reference Bureau
Program Director, Population Council, 2006–2012
Executive Vice President for Research, University of Kentucky, 2003–2006
Deputy Director, NIH and NICHD, 1994–2002

How did you decide that being a demographer was the career path for you?

In my sophomore year in college I took a course on population and knew immediately that it combined my interest in social issues with quantitative methods. I was hooked!

What kind of education and training did you pursue to get to where you are in your career?

As part of my BA program I was able to do a five-week self-directed activity. I chose to do all the research I could on how family planning became an issue in the U.S., how it evolved, what the challenges were, and so forth. I augmented that with visiting and talking with the local family-planning program.

I felt strongly that if women could not control that fundamental aspect of their lives, they would be unable to control others, such as investing in education and professional lives. That said, I worked for a year and then went to graduate school to build more skills. My experiences while doing dissertation research in Bogotá, Colombia, reinforced my view of the key importance of understanding how women and couples made decisions about family and how they were able to implement them.

After graduate school I went to the NIH on a two-year appointment—and stayed for 30 years. I was able to develop a research program on adolescent sexual and fertility behavior, advance our understanding of AIDS risk behaviors, and much more. It was a great experience. Now, I have been able to extend those interests in my work at the Population Council and most recently at the Population Reference Bureau.

Describe your work/research as a demographer. What do you consider your most important accomplishments?

My work has been largely in research administration—which sounds dull, but is anything but! It has placed me at the interface of academic research advances and the process of getting those advances known and understood by policy makers. There is a great need for demographic information in many sectors and there is a need for those who can help translate information for those audiences.

As president of the Population Reference Bureau (PRB) in Washington, DC, we get data to decision makers to inform, empower, and advance population issues in the United States and around the world—actions that are critical to the support of strong, effective policies and programs to advance reproductive health and the well-being of populations.

In my past work at NIH, I helped to craft the policies on sharing data and on the inclusion of women and minorities in research, both key issues for how research is done to the benefit of all. At the Population Council, I worked toward helping adolescents make the transition to healthy, productive adulthood.

The kinds of problems we deal with take a long time to address but we have seen success. There may be long-standing traditions of child marriage, for example, but families and communities can learn ways to redefine those traditions that also protect young girls from marriage. The younger the girl, the greater the age gap between her and her spouse, the less voice she is likely to have in the decision to marry, the end of schooling, and the beginning of very early childbearing. So, when we see communities that begin to value their daughters more, provide alternatives for them, support their schooling, and open up new opportunities for them . . . well, that looks like success to me!

I believe that whether or not girls are valued is an issue that everyone can relate to. Too often problems in developing countries seem so far away and it isn’t clear what can be done to make the lives of girls better. I have seen programs that have a transformative effect on girls; I’ve talked with fathers who were so appreciative of the help in finding a better life for their daughters. There is a fundamental satisfaction that comes from such work and this is an important way to spread a vision of the compassion of people for others.

What do you see as the field’s most important contribution as well as its greatest challenge?

The field of demography faces several challenges. While there are massive amounts of data available, they are not necessarily easily available. We should always be looking for ways to ensure that data are truly available and accessible to “end users,” not just demographers! Also, demography deals with fundamentally personal topics—sex, fertility, marriage, and death. We must forge strong alliances with many disciplines so that we can obtain the most valid information in a way that protects the sensibilities and rights of respondents.

Tukufu Zuberi
Lasry Family Professor of Race Relations, Africana Studies and Sociology, University of Pennsylvania
Research Associate, Penn Population Center
Documentary film writer and producer
host PBS series History Detectives

How did you decide that being a demographer was the career path for you?

By my second year at the University of Chicago, I knew that demographic methods would allow me to profoundly confront my sociological interests. For me it was as simple as knowing that this is the only social science in the world defined by a balanced equation. The only problem we have is having data of a quality sufficient to estimate the different parameters of this equation.

We know what goes into making population numbers what they are. The distinction of this disciplinary uniqueness was attractive to my sociological imagination. I was convinced as a young man that if I were to make a contribution to understanding and society, I would need to ground my understanding of society in facts.

What kind of education and training did you pursue to get to where you are in your career?

I entered San Jose State University in 1977 as a member of the track team. After a year of running track and actively participating on the team, I decided that my future lie elsewhere. I informed the coach that I needed to spend more time with my studies, and left the track team.

My undergraduate degree is in sociology with minors in economics and Afro-American studies. After receiving a wonderful education at San Jose State, I spent one year studying law at Martin Luther King Junior Hall at the University of California Davis. It was during this year that my great love for sociology was confirmed. After taking my first year exams, I transferred to Sacramento State University where I received an MA in sociology. I next entered the University of Chicago. After four years of the most rigorous sociology training that could be offered, I left the University of Chicago for my first job as an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.

While I attended the University of Chicago, Evelyn Kitagawa, a professor of sociology who did path-breaking work on demography with an emphasis on the study of mortality, inspired me to think about demography as an essential tool in my research. It was in her methods classes that I was able to really come to appreciate the potential of the science of demography in helping us understand society. Other professors, like Dennis Hogan and Douglas Anderton, while a different generation of scholars, confirmed for me that demography was an essential method to be employed in my sociological practice.

Describe your work/research as a demographer. What do you consider your most important accomplishments?

I have thought of my contributions primarily in terms of projects. These projects always have the objective of providing education, which might help make the world a better place. My research interests have focused on racial stratification and African and African Diaspora populations.

My first major project was collaboration with Phil Morgan and Sam Preston to study racial differences in family structure using historical census data from the United States. Following the successful publication of a number of articles, this collaboration led to my next project, which was an examination of mortality in historical Liberia. This project, in which I collaborated with Sam Preston and several graduate students, produced a number of important articles and resulted in the publication of my first book, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot: The Mortality Cost of Colonizing Liberia in the Nineteenth Century.

This project was followed by the study of the methods used to understand racial differences, entitled “Thicker Than Blood: How Racial Statistics Lie.” This ongoing project attempts to broaden the scope of demography by suggesting a more scientific understanding of human difference. The past and current fascinations with the biological basis of human difference are misguided and reflect political and ideological orientations more than science.

To complement these efforts I have organized a number of programs to recruit more African American and Latino scholars to demography. The successes of these efforts are the significant number of students that have benefited from these programs. Some of these students and others that have been influenced by our work were part of a recent edited volume on the same topic, White Logic, White Methods: Racism and Methodology.

My third major project is the African Census Analysis Project, which I founded in the 1990s. This project became an international collaboration between myself and a number of African scholars, universities, and governments. At its height, the project served as a rallying point for enhancing our understanding of African census data. In fact, the project can be credited for establishing the credibility of African census data in the understanding of African demography. The project has become dormant due to funding cuts, but I still very much believe in its aims and objectives and hope to someday reinvigorate the project.

The project helped to educate hundreds of students and provided a significant number of post-docs and visiting assistantships for African scholars at the University of Pennsylvania. The significant amount of published articles and number of students trained in the project are an apt testament for engaging in such analytical collaborations. This project also resulted in the publication of The Demography of South Africa, Volume 1 of the General Demography of Africa series, which I co-edited with Amson Sibanda and Eric Udjo.

In addition to being a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, I have been a visiting professor at Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda, and The University of Dar-Es-Salaam in Tanzania. My current demographic interests and projects are concerned with population and the environment.

What do you see as the field’s most important contribution as well as its greatest challenge?

The study of demography offers scientific answers to basic social questions. The actual study of demography has gone up and down in the field of demography. Much of what we consider demographic research today does not employ demographic methods. In fact, much of what is considered the most important work done in the field of demography today is done with statistical methods. The future of demographic research will rest on our ability to reintroduce demographic methods and to maintain the scientific basis of the discipline.

Robert A. Hummer
Howard W. Odum Professor of Sociology and Faculty Fellow, Carolina Population Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2015– )
Past Professor of Sociology and Faculty Research Associate, Population Research Center, University of Texas at Austin (1996–2015)

How did you decide that being a demographer was the career path for you?

I entered graduate school with the intention of becoming a sociology professor at a small liberal arts college. I had only a very vague notion of what demography was. But shortly after starting my first semester in graduate school, Professor Ike Eberstein asked if I was interested in working on a project with him and his colleague Charles Nam on patterns of infant mortality in Florida. They needed a research assistant who was not afraid to work with quantitative data. A requirement of working on that project was that I also enroll in a graduate-level course on demographic methods. Between the infant mortality project and that initial demographic methods course, I realized that demography offers a fantastic set of theories, concepts, data, and methods to understand social trends and inequalities in a concrete, quantifiable manner. Thus, by the end of that first semester, I knew that my academic future was in demography.

What kind of education and training did you pursue to get to where you are in your career?

I received a PhD in sociology, with an emphasis on demography, from Florida State University. Professors Eberstein and Nam were incredible mentors; they not only taught me all they could about demography, but they demonstrated to me on a day-to-day basis that hard work, honesty, concern for students, and humility were characteristics that helped make them both great demographers and professors. Throughout my career, I’ve tried to emulate their passion for research, teaching, and mentoring in the context of tremendous professional and personal integrity.

After earning my PhD, I served short stints at East Carolina University and Louisiana State University prior to spending 19 years at the University of Texas at Austin (UT). There, the Population Research Center (PRC) was a wonderful academic home. Most recently I accepted a position in the Department of Sociology and Carolina Population Center (CPC) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In particular, the CPC is an academic context that fosters the highest level of demographic research and student training in the country and perhaps the world, and I’m looking forward to being a part of that exciting and rich research and training environment.

Describe your work/research as a demographer. What do you consider your most important accomplishments?

Since graduate school, I’ve worked on projects that aim to better document and understand population-based health and mortality disparities in the United States. This research area continues to capture my attention for two reasons: (1) the United States performs very poorly relative to other high-income countries in terms of our overall levels of health and life expectancy; and (2) our country is characterized by very wide disparities in health and mortality across groups.

Over the past 10 years, I’ve focused a great deal of attention on educational disparities in U.S. health and mortality. On the bright side, patterns of health and longevity look quite good among the highly educated in U.S. society. In this age of information, people who are fortunate enough to attend college, graduate from college, and earn advanced degrees obtain all kinds of advantages across the life course that result in better health and longer lives. On the down side, however, patterns of health and longevity look very poor for U.S. adults with low levels of education; for example, people without a high school degree live on average 12–15 fewer years than people with advanced degrees in our society. And, unfortunately, about 11% of U.S. young adults do not graduate from high school and another 28% or so graduate from high school but never go to college.

In my view, these are unacceptable figures in such a wealthy society—and we need to collectively do a much better job in making sure that all of our nation’s children, adolescents, and young adults have the opportunity to obtain a quality education that helps insure their future health and long life. And for those who do not obtain high school or college degrees, we need to do a much better job of making sure that our society has policies in place so that low education is not a ticket to poor lifelong health and a short life. Together with my co-author Elaine Hernandez, I summarized research on educational attainment and U.S. adult mortality and made policy recommendations in a Population Bulletin (2013) published by the Population Reference Bureau.

Research-wise, I think my most important contribution to demography is the consistent message throughout my work that a highly inequitable distribution of societal resources—whether by race and ethnicity, educational level, gender, or immigrant status—results in highly inequitable levels of health and longevity across social groups. In a highly unequal society like the United States, these are troubling patterns that, in my view, require serious policy attention from federal, state, and local governments. My research attempts to place health and mortality inequalities on the public radar screen and to prevent our society from being complacent with this state of affairs.

What do you see as the field’s most important contribution as well as its greatest challenge?

I think demography’s most important contribution is that we have the utmost concern for getting the facts right. Demographers try very hard to collect and/or use high-quality data, to apply careful methods in our work, and to interpret our findings with substantial caution. Demographers make very useful contributions to science, policy, and humankind because we are believable. Moreover, we work on topics that are important to societies throughout the world—morbidity and mortality, reproductive health and fertility, migration, family structure, age structure, and more. In other words, we do relevant stuff!

That said, I think we face a number of challenges as a field, just two of which I’ll mention here. First, federal government investments in basic science, including demographic research, have stagnated in recent years, making it increasingly difficult for researchers to obtain funding to do good science and effectively train the next generation. Forward-thinking societies need to invest substantial money in science so that we better understand ourselves and create programs and policies to insure our health and well-being into the future. Second, I think demography, as a field, needs to better serve undergraduate students in American universities. Why don’t we offer students an opportunity to major in demography? Some may argue that there is not enough student demand. However, demography is a highly relevant and interesting field with well developed theories, concepts, data, and methods. Pitched this way, there is bound to be substantial interest.

Monica DasGupta
Research Professor, University of Maryland, 2012–present
Visiting Fellow, Population Reference Bureau, 2012–2013
World Bank Senior Demographer, 1998–2012

How did you decide that being a demographer was the career path for you?

I always wanted to work on development issues. Having studied social anthropology, demography seemed a good complement in quantitative methods to work on development issues.

What kind of education and training did you pursue to get to where you are in your career?

I received a bachelor’s degree in social anthropology and a master’s degree in demography from the London School of Economics, and then a doctorate in social anthropology and demography from the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom. Doing two years of intensive fieldwork in a North Indian village for my PhD dissertation was a huge educational experience for me, and one from which I have derived a lot of the ideas I subsequently worked on through my career. The only way I could repay the people in that village for their incredible generosity and patience with my endless questions was through my grammatical mistakes. The local language is a dialect of Punjabi and Hindi, and like French and German, has genders for most things like tables and chairs—this was something I never mastered, and it made them cry laughing.

The next crossroads moment was while working at the National Council for Applied Economic Research in New Delhi, where I was able to do a large-scale longitudinal survey to test some of the hypotheses I developed during my intensive fieldwork. It was an extraordinary privilege to be able to do both of these types of complementary research, with the in-depth qualitative research informing the quantitative data collection and analysis.

Working at the World Bank was a tremendous opportunity for me to immerse myself in development issues. There is such a wide range of areas being addressed there and so much collective expertise. I found that colleagues were enthusiastic about sharing their expertise, not worried about having their ideas “stolen.” In my fourteen years there with the Development Research Group I focused on development in India, China, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Vietnam, and Nigeria. Working there enabled me to work on many research areas in different geographical settings. This was paradise, especially the prospect of your work actually having some impact on people’s thinking and policy making.

Describe your work/research as a demographer. What do you consider your most important accomplishments?

I have worked on various aspects of population, poverty, and development. I began with extensive village-level research on how communities respond to population pressure, and on community-level factors that encourage circular migration. I then did survey-based research on child health, including an apparent tendency for child deaths to cluster in a few households; and the tendency for gender bias against girls to increase with birth order.

Building on my field experience, I studied how family systems shape the life chances of different categories of household members—including gender differentials in health in Asia, as well as the household regulation of marriage and childbearing. More recently, I have also worked on public goods in health, focusing on public health systems to reduce a population’s exposure to disease. This has included studying the institutional design of successful models of low-cost preventive public health systems in South Asia and other developing countries. Other recent work has been on state policies to reduce sex-selection; and a review of the interrelationships between population, poverty, and climate change.

My most useful contributions are perhaps in the fields of child health, family systems, public health systems, and the links between population, poverty, and climate change.

What do you see as the field’s most important contribution as well as its greatest challenge?

The field of demography’s most important contribution has been to the study of mortality. Its greatest challenge today for students is the limited number of jobs available, so the “sales pitch” to prospective demography students would be to bear in mind that the field offers infinite opportunity for multidisciplinary work in a very wide range of subject areas, and they need to be creative to benefit from this.

Mohammad Jalal Abbasi-Shavazi
Professor of Demography, University of Tehran, Iran
Director, National Institute of Population Research
Founder and Past President the Asian Population Association
Laureate of the United Nations Population Award

How did you decide that being a demographer was the career path for you?

“Introduction to Demography” was one of the first courses I took as an undergraduate at the University of Isfahan. My interest was further fueled by the debate on the population explosion going on at that time in post-revolutionary Iran. I then entered the demography program at the University of Tehran (UT), becoming the program’s first MA student in demography where I defended my thesis under the supervision of Mohammad Mirzaie, who was a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. That was the beginning of my career in demography.

What kind of education and training did you pursue to get to where you are in your career?

I have had a long journey to get to where I am now! In 1970, I started my primary education in Shavaz, a small village with around 150 households but with more than 1,000 years of history. There was no secondary or high-school there, and after finishing primary school I moved to Yazd city as an 11-year-old student to continue my education. I had to work and manage my own life during my secondary and high school education. After completing my undergraduate study, I got a job as a high school teacher in the Hormozgan province. When I was admitted to my demography MA program, I continued to teach high school two days a week and traveled 800 miles by bus to Tehran to take my classes (the equivalent of travelling between Rochester, New York, and Iowa City, Iowa!).

In 1994 I received a scholarship to the demography PhD program of the Australian National University. I was fortunate to meet Peter McDonald, the past President of the IUSSP, who advised me to study the fertility patterns of Australian immigrant groups for my dissertation thesis. This marked a milestone in my academic life as I continued working with Peter in a very productive and fruitful collaboration for the next two decades.

Describe your work/research as a demographer. What do you consider your most important accomplishments?

My early research on immigrant fertility in Australia showed that second-generation Lebanese and Turkish women adopted Australian patterns of lower childbearing. This work is often cited as an example of demographic adaptation even in societies where multiculturalism is the official policy, as in Australia.

During my studies, I noticed the dearth of knowledge on the demography of the Middle East, and of Iran in particular. As a result, my colleagues and I were among the first scholars to examine available demographic evidence in-depth, revealing that Iran’s fertility had dropped by 70% between 1980 and 2000, the fastest fertility decline ever recorded in the Muslim world. With Djavad Salehi-Isfahani and Meimanat Hosseini, I found that Iran’s proactive strategy of seeking out women in rural areas to provide them with maternal and child health care reduced mortality and supported the expansion of family planning.

Aware of the importance of considering cultural aspects in developing effective programs, we documented how a pragmatic religious approach to population policy was compatible and supported the expansion of family planning in Iran. Our decade-long research resulted in the 2009 book, The Fertility Transition in Iran: Revolution and Reproduction, among the few case studies of contemporary fertility decline outside the West.

My ongoing collaborative research on Muslim demography has shown that the social, economic, and cultural differences among Middle Eastern countries are more important than religion as determinants of differences in population dynamics. My research in this area has demonstrated the fallacy of assuming that Islamic teaching is incompatible with low fertility and also pointed out that higher educational attainment for women in Iran is associated with democratization.

I am a member of the Developmental Idealism Study Group based at the University of Michigan led by Arland Thornton, which explores the ideas of social and economic development held by people in everyday life. I have been involved in the design and implementation of this data collection in Iran. We are investigating how developmental values influence marriage, childbearing, divorce, health behaviors, and health outcomes.

I have become increasingly concerned with increasing refugee and forced migration movements. With a team of demographers, sociologists, and anthropologists, I conducted four major surveys on the 2.5 million Afghan refugees living in Iran since 2004. Our published research has become the primary reference point on the status of Afghan refugees in Iran. I am chairing an IUSSP Scientific Panel on Demography of Refugees, and with Graeme Hugo, I am editing a volume on the Demography of Refugee and Forced Migration.

I believe that research should result in policy. This can be done through advocacy, resource mobilization, and institution building. Despite the importance of Asia in global population issues and policy, there was no regional population association to mobilize demographers in the region. I played a major role in the establishment of the Asian Population Association. I also have been involved in population policy design and advocacy in Iran, and have collaborated with national and international organizations toward this end. I was honored to recently receive the United Nations Population Award in recognition of my contribution to Iranian and Asian demography.

What do you see as the field’s most important contribution as well as its greatest challenge?

Demographers can greatly influence the development of societies and improve the lives of current and future generations. Their research can lead to better policies and are able to evaluate the success and failures of development plans. As countries enter new eras of social change, expanded theories explaining demographic behaviors are needed. For example, currently some Asian and Muslim countries are experiencing low or ultra-low fertility, the level that demographers could not anticipate four decades ago. The fall of fertility in these settings cannot be fully explained by the conventional demographic transition theory, and thus, it is a theoretical challenge for the discipline.

Also, my research shows that refugee and involuntary migrations have increased substantially in scale, complexity, and diversity in recent years. While other disciplines have made major contributions to refugee and forced migration studies, a demographic approach is sorely missing. Demographers are needed to develop innovative methods of data collection and data analysis during war, conflict, and disasters. Understanding how such refugees adapt to new societies is another unresolved matter that should be the focus of demographers and policy makers.

Ron Lesthaeghe
Emeritus Professor of Demography and Social Science Research Methods Free University of Brussels
Fellow, Class of Social Sciences, Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium of Arts and Sciences.
Life Time Award Recipient, International Union of the Scientific Study of Population (IUSSP), 2008

How did you decide that being a demographer was the career path for you?

After a bit of an overdose of law and history during the first two years at the university, I discovered Roland Pressat’s textbook L’analyse Démographique, which was a striking example of methodological clarity, all based on the unifying analytic use of the Lexis diagram. At that time demography proved to me the ideal window to the world of social change as experienced by successive generations. My own world was already so different from that of my parents and even more so from the traumatic life experience of my grandparents. Furthermore, not any hyperbolic description with anecdotal evidence, but a clear text based on an analysis of representative data was what attracted me.

What kind of education and training did you pursue to get to where you are in your career?

During the 1960s Belgian universities had not yet “balkanized” the social sciences, but offered general undergraduate programs combining law, history, sociology, macro-economics, statistics, and social science research methods. That proved to be a major asset as it prevented me from ever thinking “within any box.”

With an interest in both demography and wider horizons, I applied for a Fulbright travel stipend and admission to an American university, and after graduating from the University of Ghent in 1967, I continued at Brown University, where Robert Potter and Sid Goldstein were my MA supervisors. With a Belgian National Science Foundation Fellowship and far better insights in formal demography, I returned to start my PhD thesis studying the age-structure changes and waves caused by a fertility transition. That dissertation led me to the Office of Population Research (OPR) at Princeton, where Ansley Coale and Etienne van de Walle had started the European Fertility Project.

Two years later, the Belgian monograph on the fertility and nuptiality transition was finished, and I was married as well. Although it was Christmas Day 1971, Ansley and Sue Coale provided their home and the Princeton township judge, whereas OPR organized a surprise wedding party shortly thereafter. The superb atmosphere at OPR and the friendships that budded there have been a major stimulus all the way. Demography had become “family.”

Describe your work/research as a demographer. What do you consider your most important accomplishments?

While working for the Population Council stationed in Lagos, Nigeria, my wife Hilary Page and I embarked on fieldwork in all corners of that city, gathering data on the birth-spacing aspects of fertility. This culminated in a book with several colleagues and an article on the analysis of breast-feeding, amenorrhea, and postpartum abstinence durations. In tandem with the later World Fertility Survey data, this line of work was prolonged with a small team of junior researchers and graduate students at the VUB in Brussels, and this led to a second book on the impact of different types of social organization, religious traditions, and patterns of structural modernization on sub-Saharan fertility and marriage. For me, that also connected demography to ethnography.

In the meantime, it became more and more evident that cultural elements (religion and secularization, political aspect, ideational and ethical “revolutions”) are an indispensable part of any story of demographic change. This was also brought home in a forceful way by studying the fertility, marriage, and acculturation patterns of Turkish and Moroccan immigrants and their second generation in Belgium. Hence, back I went to the Boolean model underlying Ansley Coale’s succinct three-conditions paradigm, also known as the “Ready, Willing and Able” model of social innovation. And this would then lead to a short Dutch language article co-authored by Dirk van de Kaa with the title “Is There a Second Demographic Transition?” (note the question mark), proposing that the “cultural revolutions” of the 1960s would permit the development of new lifestyles.

In modern democracies, the strength of the principle of individual freedom of choice and the concomitant tolerance for diversity would foster demographic changes characterized by cohabitation, postponement of parenthood, and sustained structural “below replacement fertility,” even in periods of strong economic growth. At that time, i.e. 1986, we did not predict the dip to “lowest-low fertility” with TFRs below 1.3, but merely the continuation of fertility below two children for more decades into the 21st century.

And that sparked a major debate with initial reactions often being of the type “not us, we’re different.” In other words, the “second demographic transition” (SDT) would only remain an idiosyncratic Western European feature. However, evidence from Japan and Taiwan, and especially from Latin America, by now indicates that the SDT is no longer a “provincial European phenomenon” but a much wider one, be it that different sub-patterns are equally unfolding. Current research with colleagues in Barcelona using the Latin American census data now begin to reveal how pervasive the SDT changes can be, even in areas where cohabitation was not grafted on older historical patterns. All of this makes me jealous of my younger colleagues who can now delve into this gold mine for research currently offered by the diverse unfolding patterns of the SDT!

What do you see as the field’s most important contribution as well as its greatest challenge?

On the technical side, I would single out two major innovations in demography since the 1960s. Firstly, the use of life-table techniques and hazard analyses to all demographic phenomena, and not solely to mortality. Secondly, the broadening of stable population theory into “multi-state” demography has opened up so many possibilities, not only because of the incorporation of migration, but also because of its massive potential to all studies involving transitions of both a cultural and a structural nature. But there are dangers as well: quickly constructed, but widely used synthetic “period” measures can produce distortions, especially in periods of rapid change. By contrast, more sensitivity to measures that respect the longitudinal sequences of events during the life course of successive generations is essential.

The challenges for the future are precisely the attractions for the incoming cohorts of demographers: the high resolution capturing of the course followed by humankind anywhere in the world, by stimulating high quality data gathering and engaging in fine-tuned comparative analyses. It’s a thoroughly scientific vocation, which may not offer the prospect of great financial gain, but instead assures a front row seat in the “theatre of history.” Furthermore, the quintessential multidisciplinary nature of demography, involving scientists and colleagues with the widest range of backgrounds, is a joy forever.

Welcome to the multi-faceted world of demography!

Douglas S. Massey
Henry G. Bryant Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs, Princeton University
Director, Office of Population Research, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton
President, American Academy of Political and Social Science, 2006–2015
President, American Association of Sociology, 2000–2001
President, Population Association of America, 1996

How did you decide that being a demographer was the career path for you?

I was always interested in people, their behavior, and their social organizations and so was drawn to the social sciences when I entered college. It was 1970 and the zeitgeist of the 1960s was still very much in the air. Economics was uncool and psychology was in, so I started off taking psych courses.

I did quite well and ultimately finished a major in psychology, but experiments conducted in laboratories gradually came to seem too far removed from the real world for me, even if they were conducted on people rather than rats. Psychology prized the ability to make causal statements even if their generalization to the real world was dubious. So I swung 180° around and began to study anthropology, which investigated people in their real-world settings. I liked physical anthropology quite a lot, but in those days cultural anthropology was in the grip of cultural relativism, at least in my department, and since everything was relative one could not draw final conclusions about anything, which in the end seemed to lead nowhere.

In my senior year, however, I discovered demography, which was precise and made strong statements about causal processes but at the same time was intimately grounded in the real world, grappling with fundamental issues such as birth, death, marriage, childbearing, migration, and belonging. I first studied demography as a reading course and then took a formal class—my first course in sociology (I’ve never taken intro sociology)! That was when demography became my calling.

What kind of education and training did you pursue to get to where you are in your career?

After discovering demography I decided I needed to improve my quantitative training, so I delayed graduation until the next year and used the extra time to learn computer programming, take calculus and linear algebra, and completed the graduate statistics sequence in psychology as well as the graduate course in factor analysis and undergraduate methods course in sociology.

I also started doing my own research and submitted my first paper for publication while I was still an undergraduate (it appeared in Population Studies). I then applied to demographic training programs around the country and ended up going to Princeton, where I entered in the fall of 1975.

In my first year I took the two-semester demography sequence with Ansley Coale and completed my general examination in demography during the spring of 1976. In my second year I finished all remaining required courses and general exams, and in the third year I completed my dissertation, which was the first nationwide analysis of Hispanic residential segregation. I then spent an additional year as a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton, where I developed my interest in international migration, and then moved to a second postdoc at UC Berkeley in 1979–1980. I began my academic career as Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania in the fall of 1980, where I was part of its Population Studies Center and Graduate Group in Demography.

Describe your work/research as a demographer. What do you consider your most important accomplishments?

I have always had diverse interests in social science and one of the reasons I chose demography is because it is inherently interdisciplinary and provides a framework for learning and investigation across a variety of fields. From the very beginning I pursued two parallel lines of research in residential segregation and international migration, and over time these dovetailed into broader interests in Mexican society, stratification, education, and methodology.

I currently run two large data-collection and dissemination projects on Latin American migration in collaboration with my longtime colleague Jorge Durand at the University of Guadalajara, the Mexican Migration Project, and the Latin American Migration Project, which provide basic data on documented and undocumented migrants to the U.S. to thousands of users and also supports our own research. I also co-direct the New Immigrant survey, which is a longitudinal survey of the cohort of legal immigrants who entered the United States in 2003, with a follow-up survey in 2008. It has also become a key data resource in migration studies. Finally, with Camille Charles at the University of Pennsylvania I established the National Longitudinal Survey of Freshmen to study processes of minority under-achievement at selective colleges and universities. Like all my projects, the NLSF is publicly available from the web and has sponsored numerous studies by a diverse collection of data users.

I have certainly had no scarcity of recognition as a social scientist—prizes, presidencies, awards, grants, and prestige positions—but while recognition is nice, the accomplishments that are really important are the products I have produced and the effects that they have had inside and outside the academy. I have already spoken of the data products, which help literally thousands of people conduct reliable research on important topics.

I have also produced a body of work on racial segregation culminating in the book American Apartheid, which has become a basic source in thinking about stratification and poverty in the United States and led to testimony before Congress in hearings that ultimately led to legislation strengthening the Fair Housing Act. I have also produced a body of work on Mexican immigration, including the book Beyond Smoke and Mirrors, which has led to multiple testimonies before both the House and Senate on behalf of immigration legislation.

What do you see as the field’s most important contribution as well as its greatest challenge?

Ultimately demographic trends underlie every facet of human society. Sociology, economics, and political science all rest on demographic foundations and demographers have something of interest to contribute to virtually all social science disciplines. The great challenge now is to bring demographic insights to bear in the study of biosocial interactions—the interplay between biological and social processes in determining human outcomes and behavior.

In the future it will be very important for demographers and other social scientists to be a part of ongoing research in neuroscience, epigenetics, and epidemiology, studying how the social environment shapes brain development, gene expression, and biological functioning within human beings; and of course the traditional subjects of fertility, mortality, nuptiality, migration, and ecology will grow no less important in the world to come. All in all, it is an exciting time to be a demographer.

Myron P. Gutmann
Professor of History and Director, Institute of Behavioral Science, University of Colorado, Boulder
Assistant Director, SBE of the National Science Foundation, 2009–2013
Director, Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research, 2001–2009

How did you decide that being a demographer was the career path for you?

I suspect that I began to really think of myself as a demographer when I got settled as a young faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin (UT-Austin) in the late 1970s. Prior to that I was comfortable as a historian who dabbled in a lot of approaches, one of which was demography. Being thrown into an environment at the Texas Population Research Center, where everyone else thought of themselves as demographers, made a big difference, giving me confidence that my knowledge and skills were up to the task.

What kind of education and training did you pursue to get to where you are in your career?

I discovered demography as an undergraduate at Columbia University, but I came to it as a historian. In the late 1960s historians were beginning to make use of quantitative approaches to the study of society, and as a young social historian I was drawn to those approaches. At the same time, I was engaged by an emerging community of French historians who made use of innovative research sources and methods. My most important mentor at that time, the Dutch historian J. W. Smit, introduced me to this literature and encouraged me to think about it.

My real demographic training came at Princeton, with Ansley Coale and Etienne van de Walle. That solid training in core concepts of demography has stood me in good stead ever since. I used some of it in my dissertation (on 17th and 18th century Belgian and Dutch history of the social, demographic, and economic consequences of war), and expanded that knowledge later. As I was finishing my dissertation, I worked on Etienne’s La Hulpe population register project, and together with him, Susan Watkins, and George Alter we developed and refined methods for working with longitudinal data in historical settings that are used widely today. These approaches are at the core of the summer workshop on longitudinal approaches to historical demographic data that George and I led from 2006 to 2013.

Describe your work/research as a demographer. What do you consider your most important accomplishments?

Chance plays a big role in the development of everyone’s career, and mine is no exception. In the mid-1980s one of my colleagues at the University of Texas asked me to think about new approaches to teaching, and I decided that teaching the micro-historical approaches that I had developed for the study of European communities would be useful, but that teaching about the U.S. would be easier and more interesting for my students. This shifted my interests to the western U.S., and taught me lessons about the ways that population processes were different in Europe and the Americas. I became especially interested in the role of migration, ethnicity, and environment on demographic processes, which are less complex in the American context. The ideas I developed teaching about the social and demographic history of Texas led me to spend time on a micro-historical study of six Texas counties in that time period, work that I did with the late Kenneth Fliess. Later, the interest I developed in ethnicity and migration led to a series of incredibly interesting projects with Brian Gratton of Arizona State University on immigrants to the U.S. and their demographic and family behavior.

Working with students always gives me new ideas and spurs new insights. When I became interested in the relationship between population and environment my then-student (now faculty at the University of Saskatchewan) Geoff Cunfer pushed me to have extremely ambitious ideas, through which we would study the whole Great Plains region instead of just a few communities. That spur has led to nearly two decades of research with a large number of collaborators across many disciplines. It also finally pulled me away from my emphasis on single communities and micro-level studies to the largest kind of regional, macro-study, with the county as the unit of analysis. That work has produced no shortage of great ideas, valuable research, and real pleasure in collaborations, especially with Cunfer, Bill Parton, Glenn Deane, Susan Hautaniemi Leonard, Ken Sylvester, Emily Merchant, Dan Brown, and many, many others.

All these collaborations are my greatest accomplishment. From 2001 to 2009 I was director of ICPSR. Leadership jobs often limit scientific energy, but that job did exactly the opposite for me. Not only did the work on the Great Plains project continue and flourish, but I developed a real interest in how to think about protecting the confidentiality of survey and census respondents, and what to do in order to ensure that protection, especially where geospatial information was involved. All that arose out of the requirement as a manager to think hard about data, and from the relationships I developed at the University of Michigan with researchers who were deeply involved in large-scale survey projects.

After ICPSR I spent four years as Assistant Director of the National Science Foundation, responsible for NSF’s portfolio—and Directorate—for the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences. Work at NSF gave me a unique insight into the breadth of scientific research done in the United States, and of the important place that demographic research has as part of that breadth. It also helped me understand the strong connections between the basic scientific research that demographers (especially historical demographers) do, and both more applied scientific research and development, and the formulation of public policy. It showed just how great are our abilities to contribute to better lives in the U.S. and around the world.

What do you see as the field’s most important contribution as well as its greatest challenge?

Demography is deeply embedded in everything that we need to know about society, and vice versa. Explicating those relationships makes demography exciting. Its breadth and integration with the rest of science and our understanding of the world allow for great accomplishments, but also provide substantial challenges. How do we engage society in a world where questions of human behavior are contentious, and where many of the things that we study (marriage, reproduction, the provision of health services) are the cause of strident debate and misunderstanding? Overcoming those challenges will keep us busy long into the future.

In my role at NSF I found myself neatly positioned between ideas of social science as a “basic” science, generating and testing general hypotheses about human behavior, and a more applied science that solves immediate societal or economic problems. What I say to students about demography is that it is uniquely qualified as an area of study to allow them to stay in that attractive middle ground, where what they do allows them to understand the fundamentals of human behavior while contributing ideas that will lead to the betterment of society. That’s a great place to be.

Ana L. Gonzalez-Barrera
Research Associate, Pew Research Center in Washington, DC
Past Director for Population Distribution and Sustainable Regional Development, Mexican Population Council (CONAPO)

How did you decide that being a demographer was the career path for you?

It all started when I came to the U.S. from Mexico for graduate school, during a summer internship researching Latino health demographics for the YMCA of the USA. I was given complete freedom to design my own research project, so I immersed myself in all relevant academic literature and available statistics regarding the health of Latinos.

I quickly found that there was a paradox: Hispanics as a group had lower educational attainment and income than other groups in the U.S., yet they also had some of the lowest rates of morbidity. My gut feeling, however, was that this paradox was hiding a selectivity bias. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough data to test this paradox, nor had there been enough experiments or studies testing it. Furthermore, finding statistically reliable information about the well-being of undocumented immigrants was simply impossible. I knew most undocumented immigrants were included in government surveys, but there was no way to distinguish them from other Hispanic immigrants. At the end of the internship, I had few recommendations and guidelines to give to my employers. I realized at that point that I wanted to help fill this void by studying the well-being of Latinos in the U.S. to better understand this seeming paradox.

What kind of education and training did you pursue to get to where you are in your career?

I received my BA in international relations from Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City in 2003. I had a very short stint in finance working as a junior broker until I realized I didn’t want to be in a highly stressful job. I took up an offer from a former employer at Mexico City’s Center for Research and Teaching in the Social Sciences (CIDE), where I had interned as a research assistant during my junior year of college. There I had the opportunity to help develop a groundbreaking national survey on public opinion and foreign policy, the first of its kind in Mexico, which compared the views of the Mexican public with the views of the U.S. public. The way I see it now, I was just lucky enough to be there at the right moment when this big project was born. Not only did I enjoy learning about questionnaire development, but I was also thrilled at helping to analyze the survey results. Drawing conclusions and providing policy recommendations based on the actual views of the people was very fulfilling.

Under the guidance of my supervisor and mentor, Susan Minushkin, I learned about scholarship opportunities and graduate programs in the United States. I decided to attend the University of Chicago as a Fulbright Scholar where I received my master's degree in public policy in 2008.

Describe your work/research as a demographer. What do you consider your most important accomplishments?

After completing my master’s and spending a year as research analyst at Pew Research Center, I was hired back by CIDE as an affiliated professor and researcher. Besides coordinating the team working on the 2010 installment of the Mexico, the Americas, and the World Foreign Policy survey being fielded in several countries in Latin America, I continued doing quantitative research on Mexico-U.S. immigration patterns and coauthored a piece on the educational selectivity of Mexican immigrants to the U.S. with professors Carla Pederzini and Alfredo Cuecuecha. I was then hired as a Director at the National Population Council (CONAPO), which is the main entity in the Mexican government that performs demographic research for public policy and is tasked with developing all the demographic guidelines for the National Development Plan. I oversaw the publication of the 2010 Marginalization Index and the 2010 Delimitation of Metropolitan Statistical Areas of Mexico. Both products are fundamental instruments to the policy-making process in Mexico. The Mexican congress in particular uses these instruments as guidelines to assign money for all social development and metropolitan urbanization programs.

Since late 2011, I have worked at the Pew Research Center in Washington, DC as a Research Associate for the Hispanic Trends Project and I have been lucky enough to participate in some of the most important and groundbreaking studies we have produced. This includes a report I coauthored with our senior demographer Jeffrey Passel and senior writer D’Vera Cohn, which used all U.S. and Mexican governmental data available at the time to estimate immigration and outmigration flows of Mexican citizens from 1990 to 2010, concluding that Mexican immigration to the U.S. was at a net zero flow in 2010 and might have even reversed by 2011. Even though a number of researchers studying U.S.-Mexican immigration had hinted at this based on ethnographic research and some partial evidence of the flows on one side or the other of the border, we were able to ascertain this with concrete numbers from both sides of the border and produce an estimate of the flows of Mexican immigrants into the U.S. and back to Mexico. This report received a great deal of popular attention from the U.S. and Mexican media, as well as from Mexican President Calderon, who kept quoting our results as evidence of the success of his social development policies. Even Jay Leno mentioned our results in a monologue at the beginning of his show. I felt like a total rock star, in a very nerdy fashion, of course!

What do you see as the field’s most important contribution as well as its greatest challenge?

The most important contribution of demography is producing population estimates and making projections that become guidelines for policy making that improves the well-being of the entire population and helps countries plan ahead. Even though demographic projections are fallible, as they rely on a number of assumptions and may be affected by the shortcomings of the available data, they are the best instrument we have to design and plan public policy in the long term. I think one of the field’s biggest challenges is figuring out how to transfer statistics and projections into regular people’s jargon, and how to actually be heard and understood by the individuals for whom these data are most useful—average people whose everyday decisions might be crucial to furthering the overall well-being of the population.

Zhenchao Qian
Chair, Department of Sociology Ohio State University

How did you decide that being a demographer was the career path for you?

After studying English in college in Shanghai, I was assigned a job in the Shanghai Statistics Bureau. Little did I know that it marked the beginning of my career as a demographer. After a few months in the National Bureau of Statistics honing my professional English skills, I spent six months in Japan in 1984 at the Statistical Institute for Asia and the Pacific, learning survey methods and statistics.

I met Dr. Sam Preston when he attended the China Census Workshop in 1985. He later became my advisor in graduate school, although I never knew then that our paths would cross again. I participated in China’s In-Depth Fertility Survey, the last project of the World Fertility Survey (WFS). I learned survey operations, questionnaire designs, and sampling in the WFS headquarters in London, and data analysis at the International Statistical Institute in the Hague. I had the pleasure of learning from, and providing language interpretation for demographers John Casterline, John Cleland, Gabriele Dankert, Noreen Goldman, Barbara Vaughan, Vijay Verma, and Zeng Yi. I was so fascinated with population issues that I often went beyond my role as a translator.

What kind of education and training did you pursue to get to where you are in your career?

I went to the University of Pennsylvania in 1989 and received a joint PhD degree in demography and sociology in 1994. I was fortunate to work with several great demography scholars at Penn. Working with Phil Morgan, I completed my master’s thesis on marriage transitions in China using data from the China In-Depth Fertility Survey, the data I had helped collect. I was Herb Smith’s research assistant and conducted field research for his project, Introducing New Contraceptives in Rural China. Under the advising of Sam Preston, I wrote my second year paper and the dissertation on changes in American marriage and assortative mating patterns. I have worked on these research areas ever since.

Describe your work/research as a demographer. What do you consider your most important accomplishments?

I study “who marries whom” and “who cohabits with whom,” their patterns, trends, and consequences. I explore who is available in marriage markets and how men and women pair up to form marital and cohabiting unions in terms of age, educational attainment, race and ethnicity, and nativity. This research agenda fits squarely in the area of demography and social stratification.

I’m interested in marriage patterns and the extent to which they reflect social structure, social stratification, and the extent of openness in societies. Indeed, mate selection reflects the dynamics of social structure in many areas. This line of work contributes to the sociological knowledge of inequality in family resources and intergenerational transmission of social statuses.

My work on mate-selection patterns examines how education and race affect mate selection. I published my first article in this area with Sam Preston. We have examined temporal changes in marriage and cohabitation by men’s and women’s age and educational attainment. This work disaggregates recent changes in marriage into changes in population structure and changes in the “force of attraction.”

I have continued to conduct research in this area, revealing how cultural shifts in addition to economic factors have played a prominent role in changing marriage rates. This work contributes to the demographic understanding of rapid changes in marriage and cohabitation in the past decades and how these changes are related to improvement in women’s educational attainment and increases in female labor force participation.

My long-time collaborator, Daniel T. Lichter, and I have published several articles on changes in interracial marriage. Interracial marriage not only indicates that marital partners of different racial and ethnic backgrounds treat each other as social equals, but also reflects race relations, racial residential patterns, and racial inequality in American society more broadly. We have shown that intermarriage with whites is more likely for Hispanics and Asian Americans than for African Americans. Our results reveal the effects of rapid immigration, rising cohabitation, and educational upgrading on intermarriage patterns. This line of research contributes to the understanding of salience of race in American society and diversity of race and ethnicity in social distance.

I’m also interested in exploring who marries, who cohabits, and who makes transitions from cohabitation to marriage in order to better understand the role cohabitation plays in increasing selectivity of marriage. Some of my current work investigates how assortative mating patterns, changes in marital status, and marital transitions influence individuals’ well-being.

What do you see as the field’s most important contribution as well as its greatest challenge?

One of demography’s important contributions is to help understand the role social context, structure, and composition play in socioeconomic outcomes. It provides a larger picture of how changes in social structure matter when we examine a particular social phenomenon. A case in point is my 2007 article with Dan Lichter published in American Sociological Review, entitled “Social Boundaries and Marital Assimilation: Interpreting Trends in Racial and Ethnic Intermarriage.” In this article, our focus is to examine changes in interracial marriage over the past decades. A simple examination of such changes may miss the large picture of social change in America. In this article, we identify changes in racial classification (i.e., in the 2000 census, for the first time, Americans were allowed to indicate one or more racial categories) that are likely to confound changes in interracial marriage.

In addition, we take into account the massive influx of new immigrants especially from Latin America and Asia (which replenishes the marriage pool for their U.S.-born counterparts), the rise in cohabitation (which may depress rates of interracial marriage), and changes in the educational composition of some racial/ethnic groups (which may change the dynamics of marriage markets). Controlling for structural and compositional changes, we were able to reveal changes in interracial marriages, a strong barometer of social distance among various racial/ethnic groups.

The field’s great challenge and opportunity, in my view, is statistical software. Statistical software has made demographers’ research much easier as it faithfully runs every single model. While formal demography emphasizes controls through standardizations, demographers work through these techniques with a good sense of how structures and compositions influence socioeconomic outcomes. Statistical software is like a black box that churns out statistical results. I always encourage students to run statistical models with care and think beyond what statistical controls mean in a larger picture of demographic standardizations.