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August/September 2011

Diversity/Careers August/September 2011 Issue




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Great Minds in STEM
Grace Hopper
PhD Project



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Mentors at work

The PhD Project builds toward diversity in management

Its ultimate goal is to qualify more diverse professors, who in turn will encourage diverse students to prepare themselves for jobs in management

Despite his BSCS, Lucas Perin found himself attracted to finance. Apparently it liked him, too: even though he was hired to work with computers at Microsoft he found his job duties shifting toward the business side of things, he says. So, in mid-career with a wife and two children and a baby on the way, Perin began to work on a doctorate in finance at the University of Washington (Seattle, WA). He recently finished his first year of studies.

Before he returned to college, however, he wanted to learn more of what to expect from a PhD program, especially when entering it, as he did, in mid-career. "The PhD Project showed me what to expect," he says.

Qualifying diversity
The PhD Project was established in 1994 by the KPMG Foundation. Bernie Milano, president of the foundation, explains that its goal is to build toward more diverse management teams for corporations by qualifying more African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans for applicant pools for management jobs. "We found that nothing was changing that needle very much," he says. "So we thought, what if we have a more diverse faculty? Would that environment encourage minorities to study in the business areas by making them feel more that they belonged?"

The PhD Project "is a systemic effort to change the whole production process on a university campus, so minorities feel more comfortable entering business schools."

The PhD Project, Milano stresses, is only about business degrees. But he notes that many of the PhD students and faculty who come through the program began with degrees in engineering and other technical backgrounds.

"The quantitative preparation they get in engineering- and technology-related fields is terrific for the type of academic research they have to do in a doctoral program," says Milano. "People who studied business or social sciences at the undergrad level often aren't grounded in that quantitative work, and that's a hiccup in their doctoral pursuit."

That's exactly what Perin found when he began his PhD program in finance. "I do a lot of programming in my coursework," he says. "It's very handy to already have those skills."

Take statistics and algebra!
Having that background likely saved Perin some time in his studies. "Our recommendation," says Milano, "is that before starting the doctoral program students without the quantitative background take statistics, linear algebra and similar subjects. If you don't, you'll find yourself in a doctoral seminar with students who came out of engineering and other quantitative areas, and you'll be constantly trying to catch up."

Having those skills is vital because doctoral students do so much research of a quantitative nature. "The research is filled with looking at data sets, doing analyses and looking at causality or relationships between events and results," Milano explains.

The PhD Project tries to be in touch with every minority business PhD student around the country, and Milano frequently hears about their difficulties in getting through those early statistics-based courses.

"Many people, when they think about becoming professors, don't realize that it's a research degree," Milano says. "They envision themselves being better platform speakers and teaching courses. So when we run our program for people considering a mid-career change to a doctoral program and they find out for the first time that it's a research degree, at least half the people in attendance can't wait to get out of the room!"

Meet PhD student Julio Ortiz
Julio Ortiz came from a business and liberal arts background. In 2002 he received three degrees from Penn State University (State College, PA): management science and IS from the Smeal College of Business, and French and international studies from the College of Liberal Arts.

"After graduating I worked as a consultant at several firms, but decided I needed to pursue an advanced degree," Ortiz says. The PhD Project helped him return to Penn State to work for a PhD in information sciences and technology. His research interests led him to Rutgers University (New Brunswick, NJ) as a postdoc, and he's now a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University (Cambridge, MA).

"The Project taught me key skills to successfully navigate the waters of academia and beyond," he explains. "It prepared me for work in my field and gave me the opportunity to collaborate with the faculty, school staff and students. By the time I had to defend my dissertation I had already practiced for it by presenting my work at several academic conferences and publishing peer-reviewed journal articles."

Recruiting for PhDs
Milano says PhD Project recruiters attend networking events for minority engineering organizations, and the Project advertises in publications that target minorities in technology fields. "We know they view us as a possible career alternative," he says.

Any type of engineer could be a good PhD candidate, he believes. "They have the correct right brain/left brain balance to be comfortable in a quantitative environment. Not everybody has that ability."

Dr Fay Cobb Payton: "I wish I had known"
Fay Cobb Payton began with a BS in industrial and systems engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology (Atlanta, GA) and another degree in accounting from Clark Atlanta University. "I was told that acquiring some business acumen would help me move up the career ladder," she says.

Industrial and systems engineering was a good start for a business PhD, Payton found. She went to Case Western Reserve University (Cleveland, OH) for a PhD in information and decision systems. "I loved technology and computing, and my doctoral program was very technical," she says.

Payton didn't discover the PhD Project until late in her doctoral studies. "I was completing my comprehensive exams," she recalls. "The day I finished my final exam the dean called my house. I thought they were going to put me out of the program!"

Not at all. The school was well-pleased with her work and wanted her to represent Case Western at the annual PhD Project conference in Chicago. She did, and learned all about the program. "I wish I had known about it when I began my own search for a suitable doctoral program," she says. "It would have been so helpful."

Getting involved
The PhD Project contacted Payton two years after that first visit. "When they called, I told them I had already graduated and had no desire to return to school," she recalls with a laugh. Instead, she was asked to serve on the national planning committee for the organization, and she agreed.

And she eventually also agreed to return to school. Today she's an associate professor in IS at North Carolina State University (Raleigh, NC).

Bernie Milano explains that "PhD Project professors act as brokers between students and the business schools. We identify likely people, give them the information they need and point out the doctoral universities. Then we step back and let the magic get to work!"

Although his advice is often sought on what program to choose, Milano feels that's a choice the students have to make for themselves. But once that decision is made, "The PhD Project will be there to help them throughout the doctoral process," he says.

D/C


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