Coming Full Circle
MBAs in the HBS Doctoral Programs bring a special perspective to their role as future business educators
As an assistant professor at Columbia Business School, Modupe Akinola (MBA ’01, PhD ’09) sees her vocation in plain terms: “You are an entrepreneur who is selling ideas that have been tested through rigorous research,” says Akinola, who teaches the first-year MBA course on leadership development. “To me, it’s just as stressful as being in a corporation, but the great thing is that I’m my own CEO.”
If the mission of HBS is to educate leaders who will make a difference in the world, the Doctoral Programs educate people like Akinola who will educate future generations of business leaders. “We have a powerful multiplier effect,” says Doctoral Programs chair Mihir Desai, the Mizuho Financial Group Professor of Finance. “And as doctoral candidates, our MBA alumni are particularly well suited to ask and answer the big questions tied to the real world of practice. They combine an ambition for big, relevant ideas with an intellectual curiosity and rigor.” (Earlier examples of MBA doctoral students include longtime faculty members Carliss Baldwin, Carl Kester, Michael Porter, and Howard Stevenson.)
Interviews with some of the MBA alumni currently enrolled in or recently graduated from the Doctoral Programs underscore that observation. But first, you have to get in. Last year, 935 applicants resulted in a yield of 24 students; currently, 132 students are studying to receive a DBA (offered in accounting, management, marketing, strategy, and TOM) or, in collaboration with Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, a PhD (business economics, organizational behavior, and health policy management).
Ryan Buell (MBA ’07) entered the doctoral program in TOM directly out of HBS at the encouragement of faculty member Frances Frei, chair of the MBA Required Curriculum. “They say getting an MBA is a transformational experience, and it really was, just not in the way I expected it to be,” remarks Buell, an entrepreneur who initially thought he’d have a career in the private sector before pursuing academia. He spent the summer between his first and second years as an MBA working as a consultant and discovered he loved the process of researching and answering questions for clients — but he wanted to go into more depth.
“At HBS, the faculty think about things on a different level,” he says. “It’s intoxicating, so exciting and fun. That’s when I realized that in academia you can think about questions that fire you up and use what you learn to help companies be successful by engaging with customers in a more productive and positive way. There’s no better lever for making a difference in society than business.”
“As an academic, you can have a big impact,” agrees Francisco Queiró (MBA ’07), a PhD student in business economics. “You’re trying to say something useful to the world, not just to one company but about a more general situation. That’s very powerful.”
Sameer Srivastava (MBA ’99) was already a partner at Monitor Group when he felt the call to shift gears. “The itch that didn’t get scratched as a management consultant was the desire to go really deep in a topic and become expert at it,” says Srivastava, recalling that he reached out to classmate and HBS associate professor Noam Wasserman (MBA ’99, PhD ’02) to get a better sense of whether academia would be a good fit. Now, Srivastava is following three streams of research on social networks in organizations and their ultimate impact on the success of employees and companies.
“I came to the program on the late side, but I think I’ve found a set of research topics that thread the needle between relevance to real organizations and scholarly interest,” he comments. “HBS is a pretty special place to be in terms of resources, and the access we have to companies to conduct research is extraordinary. If you’re entrepreneurial and can find your path, I can’t think of a better place to be.”
The high levels of access and trust engendered by the HBS name were of crucial importance to Amanda Merryman (MBA ’03, PhD ’11), whose dissertation focused on organizational mutiny. “Mutiny happens, but it’s hard to study,” says Merryman, noting that her interest in the topic was sparked by the 2006 resignation of Harvard President Larry Summers in the wake of a no-confidence vote by members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “Mutiny is a rare and extreme example, but my findings also apply to situations where it becomes necessary to manage conflict or create buy-in for organizational change,” she adds.
Merryman cites HBS professor Joshua Margolis as just one of the faculty members who influenced her decision to pursue a doctoral degree. “It was made clear that choosing academia requires a great deal of perseverance,” she comments. “It’s a long and difficult transition from being a consumer to a producer of knowledge, but it’s also stimulating and entrepreneurial. You work the same hours as an investment banker, but with more flexibility.”
Claudine Gartenberg (MBA ’06, DBA ’11) had envisioned a career in academia, but expected it to be in physics, her undergraduate major at Harvard. But she didn’t feel a strong enough passion for the field. After seven years in the private sector, she applied to the MBA Program.
“I was 95 percent sure I wanted to be a general manager. But after I got to HBS I recognized that you can stay in the field you love and be an academic at the same time,” says Gartenberg, adding that HBS professor Tarun Khanna made a “huge” impact. “I admired his teaching style, the way he thought, and the influence he had on his students,” she remarks. “I also respected his career path in terms of his research and its impact in broader policy contexts.” This fall, Gartenberg will have the opportunity to launch her own path as an assistant professor teaching corporate strategy at NYU’s Stern School of Business.
At least one doctoral candidate is experiencing a slight detour in his course of study, but happily so. Last November, Ethan Bernstein (MBA/JD ’02) took a phone call from former mentor and HLS professor Elizabeth Warren and her adviser Raj Date. Warren was standing up the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and wanted his help. “It was one of those calls you don’t say no to,” says Bernstein, now serving as the bureau’s deputy assistant director of mortgage and home equity markets. “The CFPB is the largest federal agency of its kind established in the United States since the SEC was created in the 1930s, so this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to contribute to building an orga-nization within government; to see how interactions between individuals influence the design, processes, and results that the bureau will deliver; and to improve the state of consumer finance for American families, for the financial industry, and for the US economy.”
As much as he relishes the opportunity, Bernstein is eager to return to his research and ultimate goal of a faculty appointment. As a former MBA student, he says he feels a particular responsibility to conduct rigorous research in areas with a clear connection to practice. For example, to study the conditions under which workplace transparency improves performance, Bernstein embedded Harvard undergrads on production lines at a Chinese mobile devices factory and conducted cross-line experiments. Despite the popular notion of management by walking around, management by standing still may offer untapped value: installing privacy curtains around several production lines improved defect-free output by 10 percent, a result he terms the “transparency paradox.”
“If I can’t tell alums at an HBS reunion about my research and have them think that it’s relevant, I haven’t earned the right to stand in front of a classroom of new MBAs,” he says.
“We are committed to ensuring that our students’ research is robust and relevant,” confirms John Korn (PMD 78, 2003), executive director of the Doctoral Programs. “MBA alumni in our programs are extraordinary individuals. Each had great success as consumers and users of management knowledge. Now, in the Doctoral Programs, they are producers of knowledge that will shape and influence management thinking and the next generation of business leaders.”
David A. Nadler (MBA ’72) has parlayed a lifelong interest in the field of organizational behavior into two careers. Encouraged by HBS professors Jay Lorsch and Paul Lawrence, Nadler pursued a PhD in the subject at the University of Michigan and taught at Columbia Business School for seven years before leaving in 1980 to found Delta Consulting, a firm that merged with Mercer Consulting in 2000. Now vice chairman of Marsh & McLennan, Mercer’s parent company, Nadler continues his engagement with academia through his financial support of the HBS Doctoral Programs. “It’s a multiplier effect,” Nadler says of his commitment. “If I can support doctoral students, they will go on to teach hundreds if not thousands of students and impact even more people through their research.”
On the topic of organizational behavior, Nadler emphasizes the evergreen quality of a field alumni often cite as having ongoing relevance in their daily lives as general managers. “Because of the nature of human beings, OB is an area that never becomes obsolete,” he comments. “Organizations are social constructs; I strongly believe effective leadership involves understanding the patterns of organizational behavior and being able to positively influence them over time.”