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PhD Alumni Profile and Spotlight: Olaf Unteroberdoerster

A PhD Trailblazer

Olaf Unteroberdoerster, PhD

Olaf Unteroberdoerster, PhD '98
Vallendar, Germany

Dr. Olaf Unteroberdoerster, MS ’98, PhD ’98, has lived a life filled with and enriched by memorable international experiences. He has traveled to and worked with people from Europe, North and South America, the Asia-Pacific region and Africa as part of his work with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), where his career and impact have evolved for nearly two decades. Unteroberdoerster began as an economist at the IMF shortly after graduating from the Brandeis International Business School (IBS) PhD program as part of its inaugural class.

Unteroberdoerster now serves as division chief overseeing the IMF’s concessional financing operations for the benefit of some 70 eligible low-income countries around the world. He arrived at Brandeis IBS as an exchange student from Germany during his master’s studies and returned to the business school based on the expertise of the professors he’d worked with during that pivotal exchange semester.   

Your work at the International Monetary Fund has evolved significantly. Tell us more about that career trajectory.

The IMF was at the top of my potential employer list when I was finishing my PhD. I started out as an economist working on country cases, analyzing economic data and providing policy advice on fiscal, monetary and exchange rate issues. I moved on to become the IMF’s representative in Hong Kong, where I conducted outreach with financial market participants and monitored global movement in major markets. When I returned, I became deputy division chief of the Asia-Pacific studies division, which entailed preparing analytic reports and making policy recommendations for the region as a whole, from India to Japan and China to Australia. From there, I became deputy division chief for low-income countries in the strategy review and policy department, where I helped ensure fair implementation of IMF policies in those countries while simultaneously developing new policies to help the IMF’s most vulnerable member countries in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. Over the past three years, I’ve taken on the management of all of the IMF’s concessional financing operations for the benefit of its 70 low-income-country members as a division chief in the IMF’s finance department. I ensure that we have capacity to provide subsidized lending to those countries and that our lending policies are applied appropriately across the board. 

It takes great dedication and investment to develop a career like yours. What’s your secret?

In my first country assignment, I put together a budget report for my mission chief that highlighted projections for revenue, investments and other metrics. The next day, I opened the newspaper to see my numbers on the front page. It was empowering to see that what I was doing had relevance and influence. On top of that, I have always enjoyed the fact that I work with a great pool of very talented people from all over the world. My colleagues come from over 140 countries, and we work with nearly 180 countries that are IMF members. It is truly a place where you can experience first-hand what is happening in the world and in the global economy. That still fascinates me every day when I come to work. 

How did the environment at Brandeis IBS impact your career?

It’s a very special community – both small and student-centered – which helps foster the diverse interests of students. As the first class of PhDs, my colleagues and I were kind of the guinea pigs, but we were also the pioneers. Though we took a risk by being the first class, we viewed it as an opportunity to help shape the program. Then there’s the faculty. Professor Rachel McCulloch served as my thesis advisor and provided a strong intellectual rigor alongside practical lessons for life. When I need to explain something complex to a junior colleague or to a minister or government official, I still think about how she would explain it. She had a knack for being patient and for explaining something complex in very clear ways. She will always remain a role model for how I work with colleagues and partners at the fund. 

What advice might you give to students seeking a career path similar to yours?

The world needs global solutions more than ever. If you have an inquisitive mind and derive satisfaction from the pursuit of contributing to that greater knowledge in the service of global cooperation, getting an international business or economics degree is a good start. After you graduate, every path and every career is different, so have an open mind. You need to be curious and committed to the cause. Career progression and finding the right employer will eventually take care of itself. Don’t focus too heavily on what might look great on your CV or on what your employer’s prestige says about them. Think more closely about what you want to do and what is important to you. When you really enjoy what you are doing, you will excel at it.