Careers in Academia & Research
Part 2: Skills & education to enable this career
by Hari Raghavachari
The qualification required to pursue a career in Academic Research is the Ph.D (the DBA, or Doctor of Business Administration is a more recent variant).
More & more schools are inviting senior executives without Ph.Ds to teach in their courses, as executives-in-residence – but this practice hasn’t achieved wide-ranging credibility just yet.
Achieving a Ph.D takes typically 4-6 years with about 80% of entrants taking about 5 years to graduate. The degree is conferred on people who complete a comprehensive body of work under the guidance of a senior professor, including but not restricted to:
- Passing a set of research-field courses at doctoral levels (most demanding)
- A comprehensive field expertise exam at the end of the 2nd/3rd years
- Bodies of original, published, verifiable work in credible professional journals/publications
- Teaching experience on courses chaired by the professor/guide
- A full-on thesis of original research; defended orally to faculty and peers
Needless to say, the top schools for PhD
entrants who will have the attributes and the attitude to endure these 4-6 years and come out successful. Appropriate therefore, to analyze what attributes make up the right profile, and a great application to a Ph.D Program abroad:
– High GMAT
/ GRE scores
. GMAT are 750+, while GRE scores in the quant section hit 800 (with 700+ in the verbal section).
Quantitative ability is not negotiable! Verbal ability is increasingly expected with years of professional (not necessary research) experience you bring to the table.
Where the levels of quant research are extremely strong – GRE subject tests (mathematics, economics) or CFA qualifications would also communicate your quant proficiency.
– Most Ph.D applicants come with 4-10 years of experience in research heavy fields or industries (think tanks, consulting, equity research / asset management, pure sciences, engineering).
Their expertise is centered around product development / engineering / R&D / process design & engineering.
– You have a clear idea of your broad area of intended research. This will hopefully match or fit within the key broad areas of research conducted by the academic department in that b-school, but unique enough for the academic department to consider.
Example – if you propose around “customer acquisition through social media marketing”, and someone in the Marketing department of XYZ Top b-school is doing exactly that, it is unlikely to derive interest.
IF however your proposal could be tweaked it to something like “predicting product life-cycles when marketed through social media”, or something similarly intellectual; that “might” drive interest. In short – be flexible.
You will need to conduct your own research into the academic departments of the schools you could potentially apply to. There’s only one way to find this potential match, and that is by researching and (where possible) visiting schools, contacting faculty who appear to be conducting or sponsoring research in the areas you seem interested in.
The process to have your interests matched with the area(s) of an academic department’s research is long & iterative. It will take you a year or longer to come a set of schools that you want to definitively apply to.
That will take diligence, persistence, patience and luck; similar to the iterative research you would undertake when IN your Ph.D. The diligence in following the processes will help you articulate your future research in your SOP and be appreciated by schools & faculty.
– Good to great applicants generally have a record of publishing their work (internal journals or industry, scientific or functional journals / publications), with the really strong ones having published and independently verifiable intellectual property (Patents, trademarks etc). Even better if you have a strong & consistent record e.g 2 publications a year over a 3-4 year period. Writing a blog doesn’t count!
– Your recommenders will be able to comment not only on your superior academic ability, but also your ability to plan and conduct empirical, minimally supervised research.
Your recommenders should talk about your communication skill
, analytical ability and intellectual curiosity, with specific examples. They should ideally be Ph.D’s themselves, as they would understand the challenges of achieving the qualification.
Without exception, every Ph.D that I’ve met planned, strategized and executed the move over minimum 2 years.
IF you’re interested in this field, but are NOT in a research and analysis heavy job / career, there’re alternative ways to get there:
– Interim education / career, through a research associate role or an interim Master’s degree with a heavy research element.
Nearly all areas of Ph.D level academics and research are highly quantitative in nature (including HR, marketing and strategy); an interim Masters (e.g M.Phil in the UK or MS in the US) would offer a good place to acquire research skills, and develop your proposal.
– IF you don’t have a record of research and publication, you will certainly need to start with an interim Masters Degree, perhaps undertake 2-4 years of professional research; then apply for a Ph.D, deciding fairly early on what broad topic area you want to research, then diligently research and publish around that topic.
– Some business schools offer a Research Associate Program as a stepping stone to a Ph.D. Check the examples from INSEAD. Excellent starting points to acquire the skills and build your own research agenda, preparing yourself for a Ph.D.
Career dynamics, School choices and costs
Unlike the job market for MBA’s which ebbs and flows with economies and policy, Ph.Ds from the Top schools will see a stable & growing job market. Academics are some of the hardest talent to find, particularly for several newer, but credibly good MBA/MS programs around the globe.
But Ph.Ds still have to convince prospective employers that they have the ability to bring previously not-conducted research, and effectively teach students at all levels. The job is not guaranteed, but the market is wide enough for those flexible enough to relocate.
Being the highest & most intellectually challenging qualification – Ph.Ds are normally exempt from immigration restrictions or work-permit quotas.
Further – every Ph.D program in the US Top 30, EU Top 10 and the Asian Top 10 (including the IIM Fellow programs), is more competitive to enter than a Top 10 MBA Program (e.g Stanford, Harvard); Wharton’s Ph.D entering class in 2011 was selected at a ratio of 3%
The quality of your academic peers is therefore likely to be excellent with no exception. Unlike MBAs which force schools to offer a broader generalist curriculum, Ph.D programs and their resources can be geared to the school’s or the university’s core strengths.
As a result, a school (not always by its choice) would have to offer MBA courses in areas they’re traditionally weak in, and get poorly marked in rankings anyway.
But this would likely NOT happen with a Ph.D program. Example – Georgia Tech’s offers the world’s finest Operations, Decision Science and Supply Chain Ph.D program.. period! Graduates are known to teach in the best Engineering & Business schools around the globe. Georgia’s tech MBA program ????
If you want to do a good to great doctorate in management, the US Top 30, EU Top 10 (including LSE here), MIT’s Engineering Systems Division, Georgia Tech’s ISYE Program, Stanford’s Management Science & Engineering are pretty much the gold standard for Business Ph.D programs globally.
Doctoral Graduates of these programs can feel confident of their employment prospects in business schools anywhere in the world. Starting salaries in US Schools (reference point) for Assistant Professors average $100k base + associated benefits.
These advantages are a good reason why there’s no rankings scramble for Ph.D programs.
Cost is a key advantage when in a Ph.D. Barring the EU/UK schools, which don’t have a blanket policy – all the US Schools in the Top 25-30 will have GRA (graduate research assistant) programs that will not only waive tuition, but also pay the Ph.D a healthy stipend (varies between $25-35K /year) for their work.
Consider this a salary for contributions to the school. Tuition waiver, benefits and the GRA work out to an investment (like a “CTC) of ~$100K/year per Ph.D student for the school. You can understand why the Ph.Ds & their work is precious, and why schools can be picky about who they admit.
Schools want to see their research published and publicized to attract revenue, talent and endowment. A poor applicant & a poor researcher won’t contribute to success.
If you have to go in for an interim Masters Degree, you will have to invest some of your own money for it. While US Schools are a little more generous with scholarship / GRA funding for pre-Ph.D Masters courses, it gets more difficult in the UK.
You will have to pay pretty much full-fare in the UK as a non-EU student (£8-14K / year). In the EU, tuition fees for Ph.D / bridge Masters Programs are minimal largely because such academics are state or corporate –sponsored.
You may be able to still negotiate the right financial aid package with the program director. It also makes EU schools very choosy about the research they want to conduct, therefore the Ph.D students they want to take on.
If you have the passion and motivation to work hard for the next 10-12 years, a Ph.D and a future career in academia / research is fulfilling and rewarding. Success takes discipline, motivation and unflagging faith that your research will yield something intelligent, and usable.
Here’s a related article about research careers in the industry