Stern fosters academic careers with pre-doctoral programs

Certain images quickly come to mind after hearing the word “professor:” intellectuals poring over research, scholars standing authoritatively at the front of large lecture halls (and with elbow patches, probably). But what many don’t consider is the long, concentrated trajectory required of anyone entering academia. Most academics achieve professional success through a carefully crafted route, one that requires a great deal of time, substantial resources, and fastidious adherence to a long-term plan.

For those who have taken a different path on their way to a life in academia, though, Stern is at the vanguard of a new kind of program—one designed to ensure that the brightest among us don’t fall through the cracks.

The Stern Pre-Doctoral program, first introduced in 2004 and re-launched in the 2016-2017 academic year, “seeks to promote a diverse, scholarly environment and encourage promising individuals from under-represented or non-typical backgrounds (personal, academic, or employment) to enter the academic profession,” as offered by the program’s website. In short, the pre-doc program guides students through both research and quantitative coursework, in an effort to make them more competitive applicants to full Ph.D. programs in business.

The definition of a Ph.D. program can be difficult to pinpoint for those on the outside looking in. For the sake of simplicity, Ph.D. programs can be loosely categorized into three groups. Many of the more prestigious institutions offer programs that prepare their students for a career in academia, and emphasize substantial research expectations. Schools like Stern, Wharton, and Chicago Booth fall into this category. Other schools, like the University of Virginia, prepare students for academic careers at institutions that emphasize teaching over research. Still others—some, notably, with part-time program options—position their students for careers in industry.

That first category of highly productive research institutions is where we see the biggest gap to bridge, particularly for students coming from underrepresented or non-traditional backgrounds.

“Students from underprivileged backgrounds, no matter how smart they are, have less of a chance to go to undergraduate institutions like Harvard, Yale or Princeton, or NYU; and even if they get into these schools, they, as well as students from more privileged backgrounds, are still behind the eight ball when it comes to Ph.D. admissions,” said Joel Steckel, Vice Dean for Doctoral Education at Stern. “By the time many people figure out what a Ph.D. program in business is and how to meet its requirements, it’s too late to make the shift; they haven’t taken the right courses in undergrad, or they haven’t been involved in any research as an undergrad, for example.”

Unless students understand these programs’ requirements from a very young age, they can find it very difficult to properly prepare their resumes and transcripts to be competitive in a Ph.D. program’s applicant pool.

“If you want to have no hardship, you need to major in one of the core subjects: econ, psych, math, statistics. Even if you’re an engineer, for example, you’ll still have some hardship. You need to get a little bit of relief somewhere,” said Steckel. “The idea is really to give people the opportunity to essentially catch up.”

This is where Stern’s pre-doc program plays a vital role: it helps talented students who have had disadvantages or gaps in the process and who have gaps in their resume, to better prepare for a transition into a world with very different requirements and expectations than those of most other fields.

The pre-doc program at Stern accepted its first students, Maritza Salazar and Aronte Bennett, in 2004. In 2016, Salazar became an Assistant Professor of Organization and Management at the University of California – Irvine, in the Paul Merage School of Business. Bennett, who worked in B-2-B marketing and marketing research before joining the program, is currently the Associate Chair of Marketing & Business Law at Villanova University. Both Salazar and Bennett began their path to academia through participation in the Ph.D. Project Conference; it was there that they began to foster relationships within the Stern community that facilitated their involvement in Stern’s pre-doc program.

Clearly, the benefits of pre-doc programs are abundant. For one, it helps to battle the stigma that is often associated with a career in academia. The parents of many first-generation college students reject the notion of their children pursuing careers as professors; those with limited information about the academic world may not consider it to offer a safe or viable career. Academic professions are often pushed aside to make way for more socially and culturally accepted professions, like law and medicine.

The pre-doc program addresses this stigma, at least in part: it provides a full-tuition scholarship and stipend similar to what is provided to full-time Ph.D. students in their first year at Stern. This funding, as well as other resources dedicated to pre-doc students—faculty time, research funding, and the use of the Stern platform to increase visibility for the candidates as well as their research—help to legitimize the career path for those previously hesitant about it.

“The pre-doc program will be critical to my success, because it’s already taught me so much about research and organizational behavior,” said Michelle Cronin, current pre-doctoral student. “If I weren’t in this program, I wouldn’t have this level of access. I’ve met people from students, to faculty, to staff who have been eager to act as my guides along my journey.”

Pre-doc programs can educate more than just the public about the value of a Ph.D.: they can also educate academics about the merits of pursuing students with non-traditional backgrounds. As faculty members are challenged to consider those students—particularly those of underrepresented minorities—in the application process, the demographics of the people leading the classroom may start to more accurately reflect the demographics of the populations filling the seats.

“We [Stern] have roughly 300 full-time faculty. When I came to Stern, the number of African-American faculty members doubled,” said Peter Henry, William R. Berkley Professor of Economics and Business, and Dean of NYU Stern. “Two out of 300 is obviously a much smaller number than the percentage of African Americans in the U.S. society as a whole.”

He went on explain the implications of such a discouraging statistic.

“Underrepresentation is problematic in part because individuals at the highest level of a profession help shape policies,” he said. “Policymaking that is bereft of diverse perspectives leads to an incomplete understanding of the impact of those policies—not only on minority communicates but also on the U.S. economy as a whole, due to the increasing importanceof minority groups in the general population.

“While my voice, as Dean, is in a very real sense ‘overrepresented,’ I am nonetheless one person with one perspective that I bring to my academic expertise,” Henry continued. “I am concerned that our students, because of our dearth of African Americans and other minorities in faculty representation, may end up seeing the world of business and their roles as leaders in it through a narrower lens than they would if our faculty were more diverse.”

Henry is working to address this issue through a highly targeted pre-doctoral program of his own. The Ph.D. Excellence Initiative, funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, focuses specifically on graduating or recently-graduated college students of color with an interest in pursuing an academic career in economics. Through a structure that emphasizes economic research, writing and publication, advanced coursework, and the support of peers and mentors, the Initiative helps its students overcome the obstacles impeding their journey to success at top-tier research institutions.

“First of all, I’ve been extremely fortunate that, thanks to my parents’ struggles and perseverance, there really were no obstacles in my path. When both your parents have PhDs and your family lives in an excellent public school district, you have a pretty good head start in life,” Henry said. “The reality is that there are many students out there who look like me and who have much greater native talent, but they may not get the chance to pursue a similar path. In economics, sometimes it’s a lack of sufficiently advanced and rigorous mathematics coursework in college that disqualifies them from candidacy for doctoral programs, but it’s also a question of expectations. Many high-potential young scholars may turn away from further years of study due to lack of role models.”

The Initiative accepted its first participants in 2014. These participants certainly recognize its benefits; in particular, many note the value of the relationships cultivated through it.

“The Excellence Initiative has been a source of support for me,” said Olufemi Olaleye, a current student in the Initiative. “Through the program, I’ve been fortunate to gain many mentors, inspiring friends, and a wealth of information and skills that are sure to inform how I go about choosing a graduate program and how prepared I feel upon entering graduate school.”

In the experience of every pre-doc student is the potential of how they will contribute to academia after they complete their program here at Stern.

“Over time, it’s my hope that the program will have a multiplier effect and reset expectations as these talented young scholars advance in their careers and go on to mentor others,” said Henry.

This is where Stern’s efforts excel: they create touchpoints that can change a student’s narrative. And when that student sees new possibilities, so do all those who follow in their footsteps.

The annual NYU Stern Ph.D. Open House will be held at 40 West 4th Street during the evening of Wednesday, November 15. Attendees are encouraged to RSVP at  www.stern.nyu.edu/programs-admissions/phd/admissions/open-house

EDITOR’S NOTE: this article is published as part of Volume 53, Issue 3 of The Opportunity, which was sponsored in full by the NYU Stern Doctoral Office.

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