In this episode of Business Casual, John, Maria and Caroline talk about what most MBA applicants rarely talk about – the faculty.
Poets and Quants just released their Best 40-Under-40 Business School Professors Of 2022 and of course the Business Casual crew is going to weigh in with their thoughts on it.
Join the team as they discuss the list, the role faculty play in a school’s brand, and the impact they have on one’s education. Also – how much should applicants cite specific faculty members as a part of their rationale for wanting to attend a specific school and should applicants reach out to professors while applying? Listen in to hear what the team has to say.
[00:00:07.450] – John
Hello, everyone. This is John Byrne with Poets and Quants. You’re listening to Business Casual, our weekly podcast with my cohost Maria Wich Vila and Caroline Diarte Edwards. Today think we’re going to talk about faculty. It’s something that MBA applicants rarely speak about. You talk about admission standards. You talk about the jobs you get. You talk about the quality of the networking or the brand of the school. But really, do you get to the heart of the academic experience, which is directly correlated to the quality of the faculty and the dedication, commitment professors have to the MBA program, to the students. This is a timely topic because this week we are publishing our annual look at the world’s 40 best under 40 business school professors. There is a very good representation of schools that are outside the United States and, in fact, are not well known, schools that are highly ranked but have professors that are just stellar in every possible way. And I want to talk to both Maria and Caroline about their experiences in their MBA programs and what value the faculty actually added to not only the learning, but the student experience. And I know in my own life, professors who I have had have been incredibly instrumental.
[00:01:32.420] – John
I came from a working class background with no real role models, professional role models in my family. And so faculty that I have been lucky to have and have taken interest in me, I found invaluable to my early thinking and my career. So, Caroline, I want you to take us back to your days at INSEAD and recall a professor or two who really you think made a difference in how they made a difference.
[00:02:02.870] – Caroline
Sure, there’s a lot of great professors at the top business schools, right. Like INSEAD. So I’m a bit spoilt for choice, but I think something that stands out to me is when you get a professor who can turn a subject that could otherwise be quite dull into something that’s absolutely fascinating. So one professor that stands out in my mind for that I didn’t see it is David Young. So he’s an accounting professor. He’s won several awards for being an outstanding teacher on the MBA program. And I don’t know how he does it. He’s just got amazing delivery. He’s funny, he engages people, and he’s got tremendous depth and breadth of knowledge. So he can pretty much handle any question. And he’s very good at just bringing in stories and anecdotes that bring it to life. So I really loved his classes, which I didn’t expect to be thrilled about doing. Right. I mean, I had done some accounting courses before I went to INSEAD, so it wasn’t something that I was excited or thought I particularly desperately needed. And sometimes in those core courses, if you feel that you’ve got a background in that topic, then it’s easy to sort of switch off a bit and feel unengaged.
[00:03:21.720] – Caroline
But I remember his classes very well. And it helps you to absorb the knowledge when someone is able to bring a subject to life in that way. So he’s someone who stands out to me as really talented. And I think the sense of humor definitely helps in sort of connecting with an audience in a business school environment. So he was very good at making it fun and interesting, which is not an easy task with accounting, not at all.
[00:03:53.110] – John
And one of the interesting aspects of choosing the best. We look at their research impact, but we do heavily weigh student opinion on their ability to communicate ideas effectively and to inspire students. And most of the professors have done exactly what you encountered at NCR. They’ve taken a subject that they thought would be either a grind or a grueling class. And suddenly these subjects come to life and they find themselves in some of the most inspiring classes they’ve ever been in. And it’s in topics like not only accounting, as you mentioned, but the statistics in particular, or finance or business analytics. And an increasing number of people on this year’s list are teaching new subjects like artificial intelligence, machine learning, sustainability, diversity, and inclusion, and have been acclaimed for both their research and their ability in the class to translate those subjects into very actionable takeaways in engaging in compelling ways. Now, Maria, you were at Harvard. Harvard is known to have fantastic professors who orchestrate really dynamic case discussions. Do you recall one or two professors who had an impact on you?
[00:05:17.600] – Maria
Well, I was also going to mention my accounting professor.
[00:05:27.990] – Maria
For the exact same reason, right? I had taken an accounting class in undergraduate. I thought it was just the most horrific waste. It was just like memorizing this and debits and credits. And I was like, oh, this is terrible. When I saw that accounting was required, I thought, oh, no, I’m just going to have to grit my teeth and get through it. But we have this professor named Asis Martinez Harris, who I think is now he was at Notre Dame for a while. Maybe now he’s at Cornell. He was, first of all, super funny, but he was able to make me care about a chemistry and made me realize like, oh, wait, this isn’t just an exercise in memorization that I’m never going to use in the real world. I think one of the things that he did and this is something that I think the best professors always do is they keep in mind the fact that they are teaching a room of very different people, people who are coming in from all kinds of different backgrounds and people who are going out into the world into all kinds of different professions. And so they are able to explain things in a way so that anyone, even someone who’s never seen a balance sheet before, can at least understand and follow along, but also not provide lessons or takeaways that are so specific that you think, well, what am I ever going to use this?
[00:06:40.780] – Maria
Right. So he was able to give us lessons in here’s how accounting can actually be useful for any of you. And so I thought that was really great.
[00:06:54.130] – John
Yeah, totally. And the professors on the list are nominated. They’re quite a few nominations. And then we look at their contributions in the world of research and their topic, what value they’ve added to the topic that under discussion. And we heavily weigh a student opinion on the ability of a person to really communicate those ideas clearly in an inspiring way in the classroom. So it’s not just one or the other. Both and both are really important, of course, in the world of education. Now I wonder from the two of you, how important is it for an applicant to think about the quality of the faculty and determining what school to apply to? And how do you do that, Caroline?
[00:07:45.660] – Caroline
Yeah, I think the quality of the faculty is important. I think candidates shouldn’t focus too much on the star professors. Often schools are famous for a handful of professors. Right. And you shouldn’t set your heart on getting into a class with those professors because they may or may not be teaching when you are taking that course. Right. So you need to look at the quality overall rather than the ones who are the best known professors and have the best known reputation. But I think it’s great if you can go to campus sitting on some classes, look at which faculty are teaching in the subject areas that are particularly relevant for you. And if you know that you’re going to be focusing on a specific subject area, then if you’re focusing on particular electives, look at who will be teaching that, look at their research and look at whether that’s going to be something that’s particularly relevant for you. So, yeah, the quality of faculty is important. I think that a mistake that candidates sometimes make is that I mentioned that sometimes they focus too much. People get caught up on they want to study with this particular style professor.
[00:09:10.800] – Caroline
And it’s very common to read the same names again and again in admissions essays.
[00:09:16.690] – Caroline
So they’ll often be saying, I want to come to this school because I want to come toINSEAD, for example, because I want to study with Reddy Moburn and Chan Kim, because they’re so famous for blue ocean strategy. And you read that hundreds of times when you’re an admissions file reader in INSEAD, it can look like a rather superficial knowledge of the school if you’re sort of regurgitating the same star names that other candidates are focusing on. So if you’re going to talk in your application about the faculty, then show that you’ve really done some genuine research and it links specifically to your interests and your career focus and try to get beyond the most obvious names.
[00:10:03.970] – John
Caroline, you make a good point there, because obviously people who go to Wharton may never even see Adam Grant except on his Twitter feed. And people to go to Harvard will hardly go to class with Michael Porter. They’ll see his building with his entire staff located, and he has a whole building dedicated to him and his work at the Harvard Business School. But they may never glimpse Michael Porter. And it’s often the unheralded professor who, in fact, have the most impact, particularly on students. And those are the ones that tend to be on this list, in fact. Now, Maria, what’s your take on how an applicant should evaluate faculty? It’s often said that if you have a particular interest, for example, it’s not a bad idea to contact the faculty in advance and talk to them about their coursework, their research, to see if, in fact, you’re going to have some exposure to some faculty members in an area that you’re deeply interested in.
[00:11:15.200] – Maria
Yeah. So first of all, just to sort of build on what Caroline was saying, I would look at groups of professors and I tell people to look at course offerings, like how many courses are offered as a thing that interests you, what is the name of the course like if you can even see the syllabus online, which you often can? So an example I like to give a lot is healthcare. Right? At some schools, they have a huge health care focus, but it’s mostly on the payer and insurance system in the US. And Navigating, if you’re running a hospital, if you’re running an insurance company, versus at other schools that also have a health care concentration, it might be more about how do you launch a new biotech product. So those nuances, both of those schools will say, well, we have a great healthcare program. But once you start digging into the classes, you start to see the differences. And so I would also not pin my hopes on one specific professor. Right. Because as Caroline said, they might be on Sabbatical, they might be on loan to another school for the year. And also in terms of courses, you don’t get to take every course you want to take.
[00:12:17.010] – Maria
So you have to sort of put in, you get a certain number of points or something that you allocate. So you rank your classes that you want to take. And most people would either get into their first or second choice class, but you wouldn’t get both. So even if both professors are at the school and they are both teaching, that doesn’t mean that you’re going to get to take those classes. So I also think another point I’d make is that I think sometimes some of the celebrity professors, just because someone is really good at giving presentations at business conferences or has done some amazing research paper, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they know how to teach very well. And so I would also avoid putting too much stock into their celebrity status in terms of they might know a lot, but they might not really know how to communicate it in terms of mentioning it in your applications. I agree with everything Caroline said. How long does it take to say, oh, look, Adam Grant teaches at Wharton. Young Maimon is at HBS, which, by the way, Young Maimon was one of the best professors I had.
[00:13:20.260] – Maria
She’s a marketing professor. She’s incredible. But anyway, it’s so easy to sort of quickly skim. And so it doesn’t seem like what did you really do your research? So if you are going to mention a professor, go a little bit deeper into maybe the ones that aren’t so famous and really tie in their research interest to their very specific research interest into your very specific career interest. Now in terms of contacting them, it’s interesting. I think some admissions officers at some schools are okay with it. I think it shows initiative and go getter attitude. My personal take on it is that I just sort of feel like it’s kind of a rude. It’s not very respectful of their time, in my opinion. I think once you get into multiple schools, if you’re already in the school, then sure, here’s my career interest. I really want to do sustainability, I don’t know, water purification, entrepreneurship. Let’s talk. But I just feel like bothering a professor because, let’s be honest, some people are never getting into business school. Some of these schools that they’re targeting. So if I call famous professor at Stanford, but there’s no way I’m getting into Stanford.
[00:14:37.130] – Maria
And I try to ask her, like, can I have a 15 minutes conversation so that I can mention you in my essay? I don’t know. I just feel like you’ve kind of wasted the professor’s time and I really feel that way. But I do think that can always say get lost. Yeah. I mean, they can always just say get lost or not respond. So, yeah, maybe that’s it. Maybe if you try it and a professor writes back, you should assume that they are okay with potentially wasting half an hour of their lives talking to you. But then, I don’t know, I would say, if you’re going to do that, then you really need to bring the good. Right. If you say, oh, I’m just interested in water purification, entrepreneurship, and I really want to talk to you because you’ve done research on that. And then I get on the phone with you as a professor and I’m like, So what have you done in this field? And you’re like, Nothing. I read an article about it in Fast Company that seemed cool. Oh, God, I think that would be especially frustrating for them. So I really don’t advise.
[00:15:34.960] – Maria
But this is all very, you know, everyone’s got their own different opinions on this sort of a thing.
[00:15:44.830] – Maria
[00:15:45.230] – Caroline
I don’t think you’ll get very far if you try just cold calling a professor because they do get several inquiries and they’re not going to have time to deal with you, you’re probably just not going to get a response, quite frankly. But there are ways of learning more about the faculty, and often schools will use the faculty in marketing events so they may run master classes online in person. So those give you great opportunities to hear the faculty and potentially engage with them. So I think it’s better to look for events or look for opportunities when you’re visiting a campus to interact with faculty rather than just reaching out to them in a sort of completely random fashion. I just don’t think you’d get very far with that. When I was applying to INSEAD back in the prehistoric times, I was lucky to be asked by a friend to come with me to a conference at the school, which was about strategy and the blue ocean strategy professors mentioned Renee Mobon and Chan Kim were there, and that was super interesting. And I got the chance to sort of meet them and interact with them a bit.
[00:17:03.650] – Caroline
So if you do have opportunities to attend some events or have somewhere like that to interact with faculty, then that’s great. But otherwise there’s just so many candidates out there and these people are incredibly busy, so don’t be surprised if you try and reach out to them and you don’t hear anything back. What do you want to ask them as well? I think a lot of the questions that you may have there are other people in the school whose job it is to answer your questions. Right. So the schools have armies of admissions and marketing staff whose job it is to respond to candidate inquiries and answer any questions that you may have about the program. So that should be your first point of call unless you’ve got a really good reason and something relevant to share with a particular faculty member.
[00:17:57.750] – John
Yes, good point. I’m going to ask a question that may seem a little dumb, but I’m going to ask it anyway. How come in all the discussions that we have had about the MBA and business school, we focus so little attention on the academic experience? And I’m thinking most applicants probably focus far too little attention on the actual academic experience. It’s going to be at the heart of their two year or one year time in an MBA program. Shouldn’t we be thinking a little bit more about that?
[00:18:33.060] – Caroline
Yeah, I’ve definitely seen applications from candidates who are very focused on the networking. They’re very focused on their career, and they almost seem to forget that they’re actually applying to an academic institution. And sometimes that can manifest itself as sort of being very dismissive of the academic requirements. And okay, my GPA wasn’t great and I flunk the GMAT. But hey, look at my fantastic career accomplishments and look what I’m going to do after my MBA, and they get very short shrift right from the admissions committee because you do need to thoroughly understand that these are very demanding academic programs and you’re going to have to study hard and you need to show that you have the ability to do that and the motivation to do that. So I think when people talk about the motivation for applying to school, often they’re focused on aspects that are related to their career. And that’s absolutely understandable because why are you paying so much money and investing so much in your education when it’s so that you can advance in your career and get some return on investment at the end of the day? But I definitely do see candidates who aren’t fully aware of the fact that they are being evaluated not just on the professional accomplishments and professional goals, but also they are applying to academic institutions which are to a large extent faculty play a very significant role in management and sometimes even in admissions decisions.
[00:20:07.290] – Caroline
And they want smart, intellectual, academically engaged candidates joining the program. Right. They want smart people in their classrooms who are going to study hard and really get involved in the projects and the debates and so on, and not just come for the networking opportunities and the recruitment opportunities.
[00:20:31.900] – John
Maria, what’s your take on this?
[00:20:34.090] – Maria
I completely agree. I often find myself telling especially people who perhaps didn’t have a stellar academic background. And also, like, I’ve taken the GMAT five times and I can’t seem to get above a certain score. And it’s so unfair that this means that I can’t get into a top program. And I tell people the schools are not simply going after things like a high GMAT score out of a sense of vanity, although I do think that there’s a little bit of that going on. But it’s because they want to make sure that you’re going to be able to keep up and contribute to their classroom environment. And I like to tell people they’re not being mean about it. It is not a good outcome for you to get into a program that moves at a faster pace than what you’re comfortable with or that covers topics at a level of depth that maybe you’re not interested in. So they’re actually, in some cases, maybe doing a favor. If you’re not really looking for a highly academic experience and maybe certain schools aren’t best for you, you can get an amazing education, but one that is perhaps less quantitative or less work intensive at a different school.
[00:21:49.150] – Maria
So yeah, it’s still school, folks.
[00:21:54.910] – John
There you go. Well, I will ask readers to have a look at our top 40 under 40 professors of the year. If anything, whether you’re going to a school that they’re teaching at or not, I think you’ll be inspired by their stories. What turns them on, their research interests, what makes them exceptional professors of business education? And I think it will just make your appetite even greater for entry in an MBA program and enjoying these incredibly brilliant people who have a lot to teach. This is John Byrne with Poets and Quants you’re listening to Business Casual our weekly podcast.