With the rising costs of quality education, it has become difficult for candidates from middle-class families to be able to afford the fees and cost of living at the top universities.
For instance, consider doctoral degrees at the top universities and business schools. Without getting a fully funded PhD, it is impractical to cover the expenses for the long 5-year (or more) duration that it can take to complete the degree.
Pulkit Yadav started his journey in Alwar, a small town in Rajasthan. Harbouring doctoral ambitions from early days, here’s how he traversed his way to one of the best business schools in the world.
How I got a fully-funded PhD in entrepreneurship
PhD in Europe with full scholarship worth $350,000
by Pulkit Yadav
Born into a family of academicians, I grew up watching my parents enjoying their work and work-life balance compared to the parents of my friends.
Watching their life from up close sowed the seeds of a career in academia during my childhood itself.
After spending 2 years in Kota, I pursued my undergrads at BITS Pilani in Computer Science (class of 2017).
During my undergrads, I was exposed to the fundamentals of entrepreneurship. The strong entrepreneurship culture at BITS allowed my friends to follow their passions.
Quite a few of them were interested in venture creation. I saw a few of them creating successful ventures while others who were equally talented, had the same education and similar network failing to do so.
This raised a question for me:
What is special about these people?
I tried looking for answers in entrepreneurship literature, spent a year at an incubator (thanks to the 0 attendance policy of BITS) just watching and observing successful founders versus less successful founders.
I also participated in over 3 dozen hackathons, just to understand what does it take for an entrepreneur to be successful.
Unfortunately (fortunately in the hindsight), I wasn’t able to reach close to any conclusion.
Combining my curiosity for this research question and my family background, I decided to pursue a PhD in entrepreneurship although, at that time (2016), I didn’t know that a PhD in entrepreneurship exists so I started looking for PhD in strategy.
After skimming through the profiles of people currently pursuing PhD, I realized that it’ll be IMPOSSIBLE for me to get into a decent program (forget elite).
I started looking for graduate-level courses in strategy or general management. After spending few weeks, I concluded that for me a Masters in Management degree (MiM) is the way to go.
However, I realized most of the top B-Schools were located in the US and they didn’t have MiM courses. MiM was essentially a European concept.
My target schools were Wharton and INSEAD but none of them was offering MiM in 2017. I think at that time I subconsciously decided to target these 2 schools for my PhD.
Since I was targeting MiM, I went to the FT ranking, the gold standard for B-School rankings, and decided that I’ll target just the top 8 schools.
I did know that MiM courses are essentially professional courses so pursuing one-year programs won’t help me for PhD.
So I decided to target just the 2-year programs this criteria further ruled out LBS and the Spanish Schools. St. Gallen doesn’t take engineers.
Ultimately my shortlist came to 3 Parisian Schools (HEC, ESSEC, ESCP). I was told they are equivalent to IIM A,B,C in France.
ESSEC became my top priority for 3 reasons.
- The primary reason being the apprenticeship program, a student can graduate debt as his/her studies are financed by a firm.
- The second reason being the exchange program of ESSEC is second to none, ESSEC has Kellogg, Duke, Booth, Cornell as its exchange partners (MiM students attend classes with MBA students!).
- The third reason being the flexibility offered by ESSEC, you can work 2 days and come to school 3 days or you can take 6 months off for an internship or any of these combinations.
Ultimately, I decided to join ESSEC even though I wasn’t offered any scholarship.
I joined ESSEC in Aug 2017, the first 2 trimesters went pretty quickly as I was familiarizing myself with the core management courses and I was experimenting with all the different domains of management.
During my third trimester, I started looking for apprenticeships in the qualitative heavy field.
I was actively trying to avoid banks as I wanted to develop skills that I was lacking. And being an engineer I was pretty confident regarding my quantitative skills.
I finally started my apprenticeship as a negotiation consultant.
Meanwhile, I started meeting ESSEC professors and discussing my PhD plans so that later down the lane, I can ask them for very personalized LoRs.
I also started looking for a reliable indicator of the school’s research potential and output.
Until then, I was using FT ranking as gold standard for any B School regarding questions. After asking a few PhD students and Professors, I concluded that the best ranking for research is published by Naveen Jindal School of Business.
I spent roughly 400 hours researching everything about the top schools, their admission stats, what kind of students do they prefer and their placements.
I was shocked (not surprised though) to realize that the acceptance rate was less than 2%.
Most of the candidates were from the reputed international universities and almost everyone had around 18 months of research ex.
At this point, I realized I can not afford any slip-ups in the process. I started looking for consultants to guide me.
As usual, I researched a lot and finally zeroed down on MBA Crystal Ball (MCB) as I found Sameer Kamat very straightforward. He gave me his honest views about how he can help me.
Later, I worked with Manish Gupta (MG) from the same team for my PhD application. I found him immensely helpful as he never sugarcoated things and kept me grounded. He was always available to discuss.
I wholeheartedly recommend MBA Crystal Ball to anyone applying for MBA or PhD and looking for a good admissions consultant.
I started reading research papers to further understand the nuances of the research and to narrow down my interest in specific topics.
After a lot of trial and error, I realized I have the necessary skill-set and passion to pursue a PhD in entrepreneurship.
During fall 2019, I went to Fuqua School of Business for my exchange term. I took courses in Private Equity (PE) / Venture Capital (VC) and innovation.
This exposed me to the other side of a venture, which further strengthened my interest in entrepreneurial research.
I started looking for research opportunities as it’s almost impossible to get into a top B-School without relevant research experience.
I started contacting professors around the world, even after contacting 75+ profs, I did not get a favorable response.
At this point, I realized it’s a chicken and egg problem, to work with good professors I need good research experience and to get good research experience, I NEED to work with research-oriented professors.
Simultaneously I started GMAT preparation. I needed at least a 740, as 735 was the median GMAT for Wharton. Fortunately, I scored a 740.
I again started my cold emailing marathon. As luck would have it, one of the professors from INSEAD replied as he was already working on a topic that was very close to my research interest. He thought, with my skill-set, I’ll be a good addition to this team.
From that point, it was all a snowball effect. I worked with few other top researchers in the field.
I applied to 8 Top Schools in the US, 2 in Canada, INSEAD, LBS, HEC, and Imperial in the EU.
I was in the interview process with 6 schools when my first admit came and it was from INSEAD with a fully-funded PhD.
It covered 100% of the tuition fee – 60,000 euros per year (for first 2 years) and 5,000 Annual Dissertation Fees (from 3rd to 5th year). It also included a net stipend of 32,000 euros per year for 5 years.
That’s a total of 295,000 Euros. That’s over 350,000 US dollars, or roughly 2.5 crores in Indian Rupees!
After receiving my admit from INSEAD, which is the best school for entrepreneurship research and probably the only one with a dedicated department to it, I withdrew my applications from all other schools as the academic community is very close-knit and small.
You can’t (shouldn’t) negotiate like MBA offers, as it’s extremely risky (reputational risk).
The other reason being, I was in the same boat with other applicants and its very stressful to wait for your admit given that every good school has 1 or 2 seats available.
Now that I had already decided on my school, I wanted to clear the queue for others.
Tips for PhD applicants
- It’s best if you can initiate the PhD application process early (I’d suggest 2-3 years before the year of application).
- Make sure you start interacting with the right professors early on.
- If you can learn programming in Python and/or R, that will make you highly attractive to professors.
- In order to show your familiarity with their work, read up on the professors’ research papers thoroughly. It’ll help you convince them that you’ve done your homework.
- Aim for a a GMAT/GRE score that puts you in the 95 percentile or higher.
- The courses you take up should show diversity and rigour. Also ensure your GPA remains high.
- See if you can get a research associate opportunity. Do that for year, at least.
- Adopt a missile strategy, and not a shotgun approach. In other words, i.e narrow down on only a handful of business schools & professors. Find out all you can about them. This is much better than spraying bullets all over the place in the hope that one of them will hit the target.
- During your application process, getting emotionally connected to any school is a bad idea. Keep all your options open.
- Find out helpful people and resources. As an example, I found Prof. Abhishek Nagaraj from Berkely Haas to be quite helpful and sympathetic towards minority candidates. He understands how tough it can be for minority candidates to get into PhD programs at the elite business schools. He shares a lot of helpful tips on his site
- Try to get impressive LoRs from well-known professors in the field you’re interested in. For business schools, PhD programs are massive cost centers. So they are looking out for the most worthy and talented applicants. That explains the super low acceptance rate of under 1% for top PhD programs. Even after filtering through the big pile of PhD applications, there are still over 50 impressive candidates (98 percentile in standardized scores, nearly perfect CGPA, great research experience, 3-4 publications, top schools) competing for just 10 seats. I think it all comes down to what the admission committee thinks about the calibre of your recommenders, their work in the field and what they say about you.
- Don’t shy away from hiring top admission consulting companies such as MBA Crystal Ball early in the process. The quality infused in my PhD SoP by the MCB consulting team was unparalleled.
– Pulkit Yadav