Oleg Urminsky, '91


When you first came to Princeton what did you think your major would be?

I came to Princeton planning to major in mathematics.

What made you decide to major in Philosophy?

I discovered that, coming from a rural public high school, I had a lot less background in theoretical mathematics than many of my fellow students. I also struggled with the abstraction of pure math.  I don’t think many people turn to philosophy for concreteness, but that was my path.  I really appreciated how the courses I took in logic and decision theory used rigorous mathematical methods to tackle basic universal questions about decision-making.

Are there any stories about your experiences as a Philosophy major at Princeton that you would like to share?

I had a terrific experience working with my thesis advisor, Richard Jeffrey. He was brilliant but incredibly clear, patient and accessible.  With the benefit of perspective, I marvel at the time he invested in me and the serious consideration he gave to my largely half-baked and fairly undeserving ideas.

I did an independent study seminar with him (along with one other undergrad) and John Earman, who was visiting for a semester.  We read the book Earman was in the process of writing (Bayes or Bust), chapter by chapter, debating the points he was making about Bayesian decision theory.  It was the kind of experience that I think many doctoral students would envy.

What did you do immediately after leaving Princeton?

After Princeton, I worked in political polling and survey research as a statistician. But I kept missing the kind of in-depth intellectual engagement that I had experienced at Princeton.  I started a graduate program in statistics at NYU, but left to work on a Presidential campaign, and then worked in advertising on a global survey of brand perceptions.  I went back to grad school in applied statistics, at Columbia, where I discovered research in the psychology of judgment and decision-making, which is what I ultimately did my PhD in.

What do you do now?

I’m a professor at the University of Chicago, in the business school. I study behavioral decision-making, primarily in economic settings. Some of my research intersects with issues in philosophy – I’ve studied how good people are at actually implementing Bayesian decision strategies, and I’ve employed ideas from Derek Parfit as empirical hypotheses about how people make decisions involving tradeoffs over time. [This interview was conducted in 2015.]

Final words?

Majoring in philosophy provided me with great training in thinking, reasoning and debating. It took me a while to find my place at Princeton at first, but it all came together for me academically when I started studying philosophy. I didn’t become a philosopher, but the way of thinking has stayed with me and shaped what I’ve done since.