Vantage point

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Advice for International Masters Students Cold-Call Emailing Business School Professors

It is that time of the year again for me as an assistant professor in an American business school. August-September, the start of the academic year. When I get at least a handful of emails everyday from just-arrived international Masters students, typically from India and China, asking about Research Assistant (RA) or Teaching Assistant (TA) positions. I usually send a prompt reply telling them I have no positions available and wish them luck. Most other people in my place in business schools just ignore the mails and/or delete them.

This post is meant to explain why I almost always send summary rejections and why most others ignore or delete the emails.

The key to this explanation is the almost unique nature of the microcosm that are business schools. Specifically, research-oriented business schools that co-exist with prestigious engineering schools in the same university such as mine.

Research in business schools is very different from research in engineering schools. In engineering schools, research has a lot to do with winning 6-7 figure grants and patents. That is the nature of the engineering world. In business schools, the incentives for tenure-track research professors are different. The nature of our field is such that there are few, if any, opportunities for patents and big grants. In our field, research productivity is measured by publications in top level journals.  

The other aspect of business research is the cost element. The reason we don't care as much about grants is that our research is nowhere as expensive to conduct as engineering research. We don't need expensive equipment, months long experiments, and suchlike. Most business research is conducted using secondary data or individual behavioral experiments. The most expensive equipment we need is limited to powerful computers to do our analysis. 

We don't have as many conferences to go to. In each of the sub-fields of business (such as Finance, Marketing, Management etc), there are two, maybe three MUST-ATTEND conferences each year. Our conferences aren't as selective as engineering conferences in terms of who gets to present. Obviously, "conference proceedings" are a non-factor in tenuring decisions when it comes to business school faculty. What matter are publications.

Basically, our research doesn't cost that much. That's the cost side.

Now on to the revenue side. Most business schools have MBA programs that charge tuition way higher than the average program. Most MBA programs don't offer any funding. MBA programs earn business schools a lot of money. Then there are undergraduate programs. Undergrad business programs are very popular in most schools in the US. So business schools get a decent chunk of change from the universities for that. Then there are endowments, consulting fees, and other revenue opportunities.

So to summarize what I have said so far, business schools in the US have a higher revenue than other schools, and have lower research costs than other schools. And, to reiterate, faculty research is measured in terms of publications in top journals, not patents, conference proceedings, or grants. Not that there are that many business-centric grants anyway.

As a result, here is how the typical contract for a typical tenure-track faculty member in a research-oriented business school works. We get a salary. And we get a research budget from our business school that is roughly $10,000-50,000 per year. 

These amounts might be relatively paltry for engineering professors who need to buy expensive equipment and need to hire several grad students to take care of the equipment and run experiments. But in business schools, that amount is plenty. 

Then there's the unique nature of business school PhD programs. They are geared exclusively towards academia. Which means the program is designed only to send graduates into academic positions, NOT industry positions. 99.9% of marketing PhDs will become marketing professors, not work in marketing jobs in the industry. 99.9% of management PhDs will become management professors, not work in management jobs in the industry. And so on.

PhD programs in business schools will also have a tiny intake compared to engineering schools. In a typical top-50 or even top-100 research business school in the US, the total incoming PhD class size every year will be about 15, with 2-3 students dedicated to sub-fields such as finance, marketing, management, etc.

In business schools, these PhD students are fully funded and paid a stipend by the business school. In return, they have to work 20 hours a week each for tenure track professors.

(Sidebar: the most "privileged" international grad students in any school are business school PhDs. They are assured of tuition waivers and stipends for at least 4 years from the school itself, and not tied to any Professor like in engineering schools. They also get academic positions relatively easily without having to do postdocs.)

Now, each department will have a roughly 1:1 ratio between tenure track professors and PhD students. Part of each tenure track professor's contract is 10 hours or "free" RA work from an assigned PhD student. Free as in, the professor doesn't pay the student. The business school does. And the business school pays for the tuition.

So now we come to the main point. Most of us business school professors have a PhD student assigned to work with us without us paying anything. Our research budgets, given by the school not from grants, are in the 10-50K range to buy computers, buy data, go to conferences, etc....generous but not enough to fund a grad student, which including tuition and stipend, will use up the entire budget.

When a Masters student from engineering or quasi-engineering (Information Systems, Technology Management etc) fields sends a cold-call email to a typical business school professor, he is making a pitch to someone who has neither the requirement nor the budget to hire him.

That's maybe 99% of business school professor. The 1% who might have RA/TA positions for you are the rare minority of business school professors who got a grant or got an extra endowment for a research lab or something. They might just have positions that Masters students can fill. They tend to advertise their positions well in advance. But even if cold-calling works for them, it needs to be very specific.

Many international students make the mistake of composing one utterly general boilerplate email and sending it to all professors. See this for instance.

In this case, even if I was a professor with an opportunity for this student, I wouldn't contact him. Because the email is so general. If I want to hire a Masters student, I would like that student to be genuinely interested in what I am doing.

So even if you do send cold-call emails to business school professors, make sure they are individually customized and reflect their particular research interests. 

And of course, make sure you really are interested in the research of the professor you are pitching your services to. We professors do talk to each other, you know? If during a coffee chat, we discover that Masters Student XYZ sent an email to me saying "I am really passionate about Marketing and hope to make a career in it", and also to my Finance colleague saying, "I am really passionate about Finance and hope to make a career in it", it not only gives us something to chuckle about, but also destroys your credibility in our eyes forever.

I'll end by saying that in general, the strike rate for an engineering or quasi-engineering MS student getting RA/TA positions from individual professors in business schools are low. And I hope this post informs incoming Masters students about this and saves them some wasted effort.