After having worked as an associate and analyst for a leading management consultancy in the US for nearly five years, Boudhayan Sen says he decided to pursue a PhD in quantitative marketing from Yale in order to equip himself with a deeper understanding of advanced methodologies to address marketing problems.
Lucky to have been choosing between two universities when considering grad school, Sen says he fell for Yale because of its friendly and accessible faculty apart from its lively international community and global recognition.
Braingain’s Rajyasri Rao spoke to Sen and asked him what it takes to get a lucky place at Yale and what students from South Asia can look forward to if they should enrol there.
You are a doctoral student in quantitative marketing at Yale’s School of Management. Can you describe what the field is broadly about and what your research focuses on?
“...Yale offers a sense of community as well as a potential richness of experience that would be hard to replicate in many other places.”
Marketing academia at Yale is divided into two groups – quantitative and behavioural. The former draws theoretically and methodologically from economics and econometrics/statistics, while the latter draws more on psychology in terms of how each side of the discipline conceives of marketing problems.
Quantitative marketing seeks to illuminate firm-consumer interactions through econometric models using data or through theoretical models that draw heavily on economic theory. My own research uses customer-level data from retailers and looks at how best to measure the benefits to an existing business of adding new features to the store.
Why did you choose to pursue a PhD rather than an MBA at the school?
I was very interested in marketing-specific issues to begin with, and I wanted to learn about the more advanced methodologies that are out there. While it’s certainly possible to study similar things in the course of an MBA, the PhD offers much deeper exposure to methodologies, and ultimately you are expected to use and ideally develop these methodologies in addressing marketing problems.
What especially from an international student’s perspective are the school’s chief strengths?
“...I sat in on a speech by Nandan Nilekani where there were only a hundred or so people in the room. The Q&A session that followed allowed for much greater interaction than would have been possible at a larger university.”
I think there are the obvious ones: Yale’s name recognition as well as a large international community, both at the undergrad and graduate schools. However, there are also less obvious ones. Within the School of Management, Yale supports its PhD students through internal grants, and while obtaining outside support is certainly encouraged, issues of funding and financial support are not a source of mental distraction once you’re in the program. Also, faculty research is also often internally supported, which means that their doors are more open to speak with and mentor their graduate students, because they are not spending large amounts of time seeking funding for their research from outside grants. I’m not sure to what extent other schools have this luxury. These sorts of things make a great deal of difference when you are an international student, because many grants are not open to international applicants, and for those that are, the competition is much greater.
What made you choose Yale over other universities?
I was lucky enough to be choosing between two very good universities when I started graduate school. The faculty at Yale stood out in terms of being very friendly and accessible. Within the top ten schools in marketing, I’m not sure you could go wrong, so I think it should come down to where you sense the best fit – in terms of research, potential mentors, etc.
What does it take, officially to make it through to Yale’s SOM and what in your view helped you stand out and clinch a place as a doctoral student?
“I have served as a TA to several MBA students from South Asia, and their experience at Yale has generally been positive. The name recognition of the Yale MBA has also increased significantly in recent years, especially internationally.”
I’m still not sure (as in, I’m working on finishing)! That said, it probably helped that I had some prior work experience, so I knew more generally about the kinds of marketing problems in which I was interested. That way, I could rely on my own intuitions when my understanding of specific economic models was thoroughly lacking. In any doctoral program, it takes a certain amount of endurance and ability to recover after research setbacks.
Generally, you do need to have good standardized test scores as well as strong letters of recommendation. It also helps if you’ve read some marketing papers. There are many journals one could look at, such as the Journal of Marketing Research (quantitative work) or Journal of Consumer Research (behavioural). Being able to express the underlying rationale for your research interests I’m sure can also be very helpful. Finally, if you know you want to work on a particular kind of research, it can’t hurt to find the faculty members who do that kind of work and get in touch with them. Usually, faculty are quite open, so their responses can be a good indicator of where you might want to apply. In my opinion, having some work experience might be helpful, but is certainly not necessary.
In what ways do you see your doctoral research helping you gain suitable employment?
If you are interested in a career in marketing academia (i.e. at a business school), a doctoral program is really the only way to go. On the other hand, a facility with econometrics and being able to construct economic arguments and build insights out of data is a skill that’s also highly valued outside academia, so there are lots of options. In my own case, I’m going to be moving back into consulting, but in roles that make use of some of the training that I’ve received in the graduate program.
What would prospective employers be looking at most when they assess you – your grades, your subject area, or something entirely else?
Both within and outside academia, grades in graduate school are not really the focus – although you should avoid getting lots of low grades, of course. Depending on the employer, the area of research (i.e. your research question), and the thoroughness with which you answer can matter much more. Outside academia, there is also much more of a focus on personality and your ability to communicate your methodology and findings, often to a more general audience.
You have been a teaching assistant in a course on experimental economics during your doctoral studies. What is it about?
I really enjoyed Experimental Economics – both as a student and as a TA. Experimental economics is the use of experiments to test economic theories or better understand economic phenomena. For instance, using a quick paper and pen auction exercise with students acting as buyers and sellers, the professor was able to demonstrate how the price at which transactions ultimately occur tend towards the “theoretical” market equilibrium price. Of course, that’s just a start. You can look at a host of phenomena in this way: from how people find their marital partners to how small businesses find banks to lend them money.
What would you say to students from South Asia about the opportunities available at Yale’s SOM?
“I really enjoyed Experimental Economics – both as a student and as a teaching assistant. Experimental economics is the use of experiments to test economic theories or better understand economic phenomena. For instance, using a quick paper and pen auction exercise with students acting as buyers and sellers, the professor was able to demonstrate how the price at which transactions ultimately occur tend towards the “theoretical” market equilibrium price.”
I think Yale offers a sense of community as well as a potential richness of experience that would be hard to replicate in many other places. It’s large enough for a large social circle, even within the South Asian community here, but it’s small enough (in a small enough location) that when you need to get down to serious work, there aren’t many distractions. And it helps that it’s quite a bit cheaper to live in than either Boston or New York – the more attractive nearby cities.
I have served as a TA to several MBA students from South Asia, and their experience at Yale has generally been positive. The name recognition of the Yale MBA has also increased significantly in recent years, especially internationally. However, the finance and accounting (in addition to marketing, of course), PhD programs are also very well regarded.
Over the last few years, I’ve also noticed an increase in the number of visiting South Asian business leaders, intellectuals and politicians visiting the campus. For instance, I sat in on a speech by Nandan Nilekani where there were only a hundred or so people in the room. The Q&A session that followed allowed for much greater interaction than would have been possible at a larger university. The advantage of a place like Yale is that such things are taking place all the time – I usually find myself unable to attend everything I would like to. For South Asian students who want to increase their exposure in these ways, Yale is a great place to be.