Asia School of Business

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From an MBA to a PH.D.: The Road Less Travelled

Conventionally, an MBA is the pinnacle of business education achievement. In recent years, however, a segment of MBA holders – particularly those with a passion for research – have opted to pursue a Ph.D. in related fields as well.

One such determined individual is Andrew Foley, Asia School of Business MBA Class of 2018 alumni. Recipient of the MIT Sloan Dean’s award for academic excellence during his time at ASB, Andrew is currently a Ph.D. student at the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, pursuing a doctorate in Management.

Before that, however, Andrew obtained an MBA from Asia School of Business and was a research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology while completing his MBA. Recently, Andrew was named a “Leader of Tomorrow” for life at the St. Gallen Symposium in Switzerland.

We spoke to Andrew about his unique trajectory of pursuing a Ph.D. after acquiring an MBA, how ASB supported him in making it a reality, and what he thinks others should know before following in his footsteps.

ASB: At what point did you decide to take both an MBA and a Ph.D.?

Andrew: It was a little bit unique for me because I knew I wanted to do a Ph.D. even before I applied to the MBA. Generally, the MBA isn’t the “typical” route to a Ph.D.

In my case, I had several conversations with Charlie (Charles H. Fine, Founding CEO, President & Dean of ASB), and I told him that I wanted to do a Ph.D. in Economics, and I was also applying to other research-based Master’s programs. Charlie said, “Look, if you come to ASB, not only will you get an MBA and be part of the founding class – but we’ll put you on some research projects.” This was a key factor in getting me on board at ASB.

What convinced you to join this (then) unknown B-school instead of a more established institute?

I think for most people wanting to do a Ph.D., there are a few things to consider. Your academic performance needs to be very good, of course, but even more important than that is having a good relationship with faculty members. With ASB, it became obvious that I would have opportunities for a lot of face-time with MIT and ASB faculty. The relationship-building factor became an important one for me.

Another crucial point is that usually, an MBA would prepare you for everything – except research. So when the founding Deans, Charlie and Loredana (Padurean, Associate Dean and Action Learning Faculty Director at ASB; MIT International Faculty Fellow), told me I would be working on research projects with them, it was a huge advantage for me. I was able to gain research experience before even starting my Ph.D.

Even though an MBA doesn’t give you in-depth research skills, you DO spend two years thinking about things from an executive’s perspective and learning how an organization fits together. So even if you don’t have technical or research skills, you can walk into a company and notice why things are done in a certain way.

The MBA teaches you a lot about how to understand the people you’re going to be studying. These points – getting a business perspective, research exposure, and access to MIT faculty – were, to me, worth their weight in gold.

Would it be safe to say that someone following a similar path should prioritize developing research skills?

Yes, definitely. I think if you want to do a Ph.D. right after an MBA, as soon as you figure out you want to do that, you need to get research experience – something that shows a deep commitment to it, like doing a full-time research fellowship. In all of my Ph.D. interviews, the majority of the conversations centered on my research experience.

Around the time that I graduated from ASB and was (fortunately) getting a few Ph.D. offers, many of my friends who were doing MBAs at schools like Stanford, Wharton, and Columbia did not get any, likely because they didn’t have research experience. What might be a good tip for anyone looking to follow this path is that you must be able to articulate what your research interests are.

So, saying that you’re interested in entrepreneurship is one thing. But, being able to articulate that you’re interested in a particular aspect of how industries form when major corporations enter developing markets shows that you’ve already been thinking deeply about the problem.

When I initially started talking to Charlie and Loredana about conducting research at MIT or Harvard in my first semester, for example, they’d ask me “What are your interests, and what do you want to learn?” I knew they were willing to help me, but I often struggled to be clear about what kind of work would be most beneficial to me.

So I tried to dig into my interests – mainly by reading management journals – and started to think more carefully about the questions I wanted to pursue. After doing this, I was able to share with them a sharper research statement; then they – and other mentors – started making comments like “Ok, great. Here’s this person to talk to, and here’s that person”. Very soon, I got a research job at MIT through one of these introductions.

How did the MBA help in your Ph.D. work? What advantages did this bring?

One of the good things about the MBA was the intense Monday to Friday class schedule; you get used to working very hard and managing your time really well. In some ways, this intense MBA training may even give graduates an edge over other, more “typical” Ph.D. candidates. In my case, I’ve tried to bring this rigor to my research: most Ph.D. students present their papers at conferences at the end of their 3rd or 4th year; but, I’ve been fortunate enough to present every year so far.

I think the stamina you get from an MBA (especially one like ASB’s) really helps me to propel projects forward. The other advantage is the executive perspective. If you complete an MBA before becoming a business academic, you really get an “executive perspective” that will help you pursue meaningful research in organizations. 

In my current projects, whenever we get a data set with some paradoxical results, I tend to be quick in identifying why disconnects might be happening between executive decisions and organizational outcomes. Maybe there are warring coalitions within the organization, for example, and that’s having an impact on performance.

Or, maybe we have a case where the executives act less as “managers” and more as “figureheads”. We could then test empirically – like, is there a bigger impact of rhetoric on the organization than there is of decision making? From there, we can find out what decisions to focus on, which is huge.

Any last bits of advice for anyone driven enough to do both an MBA and a Ph.D.?

Well, what you learn in an MBA is so different from what you have to do as a Ph.D. student. With an MBA, it’s all very practical and you’re meant to implement it right away, and so the keywords are speed and implementation. You learn a set of theories and frameworks, and then you’re evaluated on how well you apply it.

The idea is that you will become a leader who can make quick, effective decisions and drive organizational performance. Research, on the other hand, is a long process; it’s also theoretical and not necessarily practical (at least in the near term). And, of course, the outcome is that you’ll publish in a journal – you’ll spend perhaps five years just trying to say something that will be published. So, it does involve a different set of skills.

What I would tell anyone who intends to pursue this route is to do research early on and then when you finally get into the Ph.D., be very open-minded and listen to other people who have more research background. Listen to how they ask questions, how they engage with literature, and how they approach the material.