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Ph.D. Grads Prepared to Change the World of Business Research and Teaching

As undergraduate and masters degree business students walk the stage for their diplomas each academic year, one can envision hundreds of bright business careers ahead.

The small minority of students earning doctoral degrees at the McCombs School of Business is less visible, although their career possibilities are equally promising. For most of these graduates, the next step involves a professorship at one of the preeminent business schools in the world, rather than a corner office.

In 2012-13, Ph.D. graduates in business from The University of Texas at Austin were notably distinguished, with 20 of 21 graduates receiving academic positions (one graduate was not seeking immediate placement), and 43 percent being placed at schools ranked in the top 50 as measured by research productivity. These top schools included Stanford University, University of Georgia, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and University of Florida.

Graduating Texas Ph.D.s Placed at Top 50 Schools

Of the graduates, 17 were hired into tenure-track positions, meaning they will be pursuing full professorships while teaching their students and creating new business knowledge through academic research and writing.

"We have seen a significant upward trend in the career placement success of our Ph.D. graduates over the past five years," says Laura Starks, associate dean of research at McCombs. There are currently 102 students enrolled in the rigorous Texas doctoral business program, which boasts an admittance rate of only 5 percent of applicants.

Growing Up to Be a Ph.D.?

There are many paths to a life in academia. For Christopher Yust, a Ph.D. student in accounting, it began with an early desire to be a teacher. "My dad had other ideas, and he did his best to nurture my interest in business," Yust recalls. After a positive experience with a high school accounting class, he decided that business was indeed his calling, and soon found himself as a freshman business major at Texas A&M University.

"Soon enough, I started to have second thoughts," he says. Over the years he began to look for ways to combine his attraction for business and teaching.

Yust had little awareness of doctoral degrees, but as he finished his undergraduate and master's degree, several professors shared with him their academic research. "I saw a match made in heaven," he says. "I'll forever be grateful to Professor Ed Swanson at Texas A&M for spotting those traits in me and encouraging me to pursue a doctorate."

For Daehyun Kim, another accounting Ph.D. student, it began with an admiration for his father, a professor and successful researcher in radiation oncology. "He was very successful, but only because he worked so hard," he remembers. "I want to be a scholar like him so that my daughters can look up to me as I do my father."

One Tough Labor of Love

"I didn't fully grasp that I would be given the opportunity, resources, and guidance to pursue scholarly research from the first day I walked in as a student," says Niket Jindal, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in marketing. That quick start is the reason several Ph.D. students at McCombs have research either published or under review at top journals in their field.

"It's the perfect match for me at this stage of life," he says, but warns that those thinking of a Ph.D need to be prepared for how their time will be spent. Before making the commitment to the program, Jindal followed Ph.D. graduate advisor Susan Broniarczyk's advice, immersing himself in the top marketing journals to more fully understand the academic research world.

"I wanted to be challenged because I knew that would better prepare me and give me more options when I leave," says Yust, who credits a genuine love for the subject matter and an eyes-wide-open acceptance of the inherent sacrifices as keys to his doctoral program survival.

"The nature of research requires patience," Kim asserts. "It takes months of hard work to form an interesting idea and to gather data, and the results are never guaranteed." He sees the rewards as much greater, finding satisfaction in pushing what he calls the "knowledge frontier."

Research, Texas Style

Jindal was attracted by the diversity of research interests found at the University, believing that Texas would give him the opportunity to find an advisor with similar academic passions. Professor Leigh McAlister helped Jindal target his research pursuits while retaining the value of insights he'd gained from 13 years as an engineer, followed by an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management.

"She understood the biases and perspectives I had coming into the Ph.D. program, helping me match that with the research world she so clearly understood as the executive director of the Marketing Science Institute," Jindal explains.

Yust knew he would find academic rigor at the No. 1 accounting program in the country, but an additional attraction was the UT Austin reputation for having a very collegial and supportive faculty. "I knew from my first interview that the faculty and my fellow Ph.D. students would be a really good fit for me," he says. 

Dan Mitchell, a Ph.D. student in Information, Risk, and Operations Management, quickly found his fellow students at UT Austin to be formidable intellectual peers. He says, "A student has to work much harder that he or she ever did as an undergrad to be comparable to the other Ph.D. students here."

Honing the Doctoral Skills

Nicholas Crain, Ph.D.Nick Crain, who just graduated from the Ph.D. program in finance in 2013, has found the transition to his position at the Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management to be surprisingly seamless. 

"Being a faculty member isn't that different from being a relatively senior Ph.D. student at Texas, except the compensation is much better," he asserts with a laugh. "Yes, my teaching load is a bit higher, but I also have more resources to pursue research."

Crain credits the Ph.D. research seminar, a class run by Professors of Finance Andres Almazan and Sheridan Titman — both research heavyweights — as an influential factor in his Ph.D. preparation. The class enables doctoral students to present their ongoing work and receive objective feedback.

"Generating ideas is not the real challenge of research, but rather choosing which ideas to pursue," he says. "That only comes with experience."

Fuel for the Ph.D. Engine

Tuition and other costs for a Ph.D. student are covered in the form of a teaching assistantship, research assistantship, fellowship, or special grant, usually for a period of five years. Students are also assisted with travel costs to allow them to present papers at academic meetings. Distinguished faculty members personally mentor the students, assist with research opportunities, and help set priorities to ensure they achieve key milestones. In short, running a prestigious doctoral program takes money and other resources.

Program administrators are responding to that need. As an example, graduates of the Finance Ph.D. program have recently come together to donate to the Finance Ph.D. Graduates Excellence Fund, providing funding for scholarships, seminar speakers, student travel opportunities to conferences, and other activities that benefit doctoral candidates.

For Kim, the Ph.D. journey is about gaining "the unbounded freedom to pursue knowledge," a pursuit driven by love for discovery and increased insight. For the next generation of business students at top schools around the world, it increases the chances that a Texas Ph.D. graduate will be there to guide their academic journey.

Alumni and other higher education supporters are encouraged to support the Finance Ph.D. Graduates Excellence Fund with an online contribution.

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