Given that an MBA is a professional degree, it’s reasonable that most folks who’ve earned one do not necessarily go on to get a PhD. And given the opportunities for PhDs to pursue successful alt-ac and non-academic careers (as well as due to structural and systemic issues with the academy), it’s reasonable that many folks who’ve earned one do not necessarily go into academia. To boot, my undergraduate degree was in political science with a minor in French language and literature. Especially because of the latter point, I periodically get asked (especially by students) how I ended up becoming a marketing professor.
The answer is pretty simple: I lost my job.
I finished my MBA in 2008 with a concentration in international business and a minor focus in marketing. During my degree, I had at least two professors at different points suggest that the way I approached business problems, case studies, and my evaluated work would translate well to academia and that I should, perhaps, pursue a PhD. In particular, I was citing a lot of academic articles in my work and wrote a thesis (which isn’t traditional for an MBA).
At that point, I had limited idea of what “pursue a PhD” would entail and what one would even do with a PhD. Becoming/being a professor even seemed like some absurd abstraction to me, despite having a couple friends in other fields who were continuing along that route. Further, I assumed that, just as an MBA required some years of practical experience before admission, a PhD would require even more experience. At 26 years old, it seemed like the type of thing where, even if I did entertain the idea seriously, I’d probably be better off waiting until my late 30s, early 40s, when I’d have more experience under my belt, and then I’d be able to maybe work on the PhD as a stay-at-home dad (n.b.– in hindsight, I’m glad I did not wait).
After I finished my MBA, I was hired as a full time Marketing Operations associate at AllianceBernstein– a global mutual fund company headquartered in midtown Manhattan– where I’d been interning full time during the final year of my MBA program. In March 2008, AB’s assets under management (AUM) were $735 billion. In June 2008, AUM was $717 billion. But as Bear Stearns collapsed in March, Lehman Brothers crumbled in September, and the mortgage crisis started to spread through the financial system, by the end of September, AUM dropped to $590 billion. Fewer AUM (22% over six months) meant fewer fees and fewer fees meant a series of layoffs was bound to happen.
The mood in Manhattan was tense during Fall 2008. Everyday, the subway ride from central Queens into midtown felt like it might be any day that some folks were likely to lose their jobs. Indeed, many already were. And on October 22, that day came for me.
I got into the office around 8:45am and a voicemail message at my cubicle asked me to come to a conference room a couple of floors down. Other folks who were in the office even earlier had already started coming back upset from their meetings. It was pretty clear that I was about to be let go.
The meeting with the HR representative and the lawyer was cordial. I was told the decision was unfortunate, but not personal. I was given some severance paperwork to sign. I was told that I needed to be gone by noon. I was told I would be given a box to pack up my space. And I was also informed that, unlike many other offices around the area that had also started their layoffs, I would not be escorted out of the building (unless necessary).
Returning to my desk, I picked up the phone, called my father, and cried. Everything rational about being “last in, first out,” the company needing to rightsize operations because the fees were no longer coming in, the decision not being “personal,” etc.– all got tossed out the window in that moment. I can’t remember what my father said to me because the rest of that day became a blur. I called my fiancée next to let her know I was unemployed. I said goodbye to people in my department, packed my things up, and took a long, somber subway ride back home. Before I lost access to my institutional email at the end of the day, I sent one last email to colleagues who were retained, asking for leads for new jobs and wishing them well.
By the end of the day on October 22, 2008, more than a third of my floor had been let go in what was only the first round of layoffs at AllianceBernstein.
Within a couple of days of unemployment, I was already restless and starting to apply for jobs. Amid the job applications and reaching out to my networks (knowing that finding a marketing job at the start of a recession would be extremely difficult), one of the professors from my MBA tipped me off on November 3 that NYU Stern had a PhD open house for prospective students on November 7. Given my unemployment, I decided to register for the open house; if I weren’t working anyway, maybe it would be an opportune time to get a PhD. And since NYU was close enough, the least I could do was get some information on what a PhD would be like and what one might do with it.
That evening, I rode the E train from Queens to W. 4th Street. I got off the subway, walked to Stern, and got really anxious as I saw other people headed into the building. I knew the attendees at an NYU open house were probably more self-assured and purposeful for getting a PhD. I barely knew what one entailed or what I would even consider researching. And so, I anxiously paced back and forth in front of the building, watching other people chatting with each other as though they already ran in similar social circles, before walking back 10 steps from the subway station to hop a train back to Queens.
An overriding impulse to head inside the open house changed my life. As I sat down in the lecture hall, grouped with other prospects by prospective discipline, I felt clueless as to where the impulse came from. I had no idea what any of the prospects’ questions actually meant or implied. I felt as though I was swimming in unintelligible information that was devoid of meaningful context.
Following the main info session, we broke out into conference rooms by disciplines. There, we were paired with both a professor (Peter Golder) and a current PhD student (Jeff Galak) for a Q&A session. The other prospects had all kinds of questions which, again, I didn’t really understand. But as the breakout session came to a close and we started to file out the conference room, one prospect asked Dr. Golder a question that, again, changed my life.
“What is your favorite part of being a professor?”
“I get paid to go ask the questions and then find the answers,” Dr. Golder replied.
What may have been a throwaway answer to some folks was, as someone who is always asking “why,” a call to me. It wasn’t that you needed decades of industry experience to get a PhD in business; rather, it was the desire to go ask questions of business and then go find the answers. Ever curious, ever critical, ever reflexive, I was struck by the opportunity to look at businesses, markets, and consumers in ways that careers in industry would probably never allow me. The objectives of academic inquiry (and dissemination) were probably more aligned with who I am as a person than any job I would continue applying for.
So I returned back home to Queens, took the weekend off, and started the following week to put materials together for PhD applications, as deadlines would approach shortly after the new year. I applied to 12 programs (most of them “reach” programs, as there are only around 150 marketing PhD programs in the US, let alone considering geography) and then resumed applying for jobs (in case I did not get accepted to a program, New York state wanted to continue to see that I was making efforts at gainful employment– I had to go to the unemployment office twice to provide this evidence). I got into the marketing PhD program at UMass Amherst in April 2009, moved in July, got married on September 6 (several AllianceBernstein colleagues came to the wedding), and started PhD classes on September 9.
Last week, I was invited by Andres Barrios, my research colleague, to introduce myself to my host department at Universidad de Los Andes, where I’ll be “headquartered” during Spring 2024 as a Fulbright Scholar in Colombia, doing research on equity in coffee value systems.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been 15 years since losing my job precipitated my entry into academia. Ever since then, there have been several twists and turns to tell another day. But If you had told me on October 22, 2008 when I was called into the AllianceBernstein conference room that this was how my life would turn out– a tenured, associate professor of marketing, getting paid to ask the questions and then go find the answers, traveling to other countries to do so, focusing my questions on the industry I’m most concerned about, and meeting colleagues who are also asking interesting questions of their own– I would have laughed away the tears.
It’s a magical world, indeed… and exploring the unknown can be anxiety-provoking in its uncertainty. But, sometimes, it leads to paths that are awe-some.