Why I Chose to Stay in Academia: What it means to leave industry behind after your MBA

Interview with Daniel Ringel, Duke-Goethe Executive MBA class of 2011 and Assistant Professor of Marketing at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School (Chapel Hill, North Carolina)

Did you already know when you joined the program that you wanted to eventually move into academia or was that a decision you made during or after the Executive MBA?

It happened towards the end of the EMBA, I didn’t expect it going in. I initially just wanted to learn more, so I applied to the EMBA program to learn some new skills – hard skills also. I thought that was a good start, but as my EMBA progressed, I discovered that there was a lot more to learn and do.

That led me to apply for a PhD, with a professor (Prof. Dr. Bernd Skiera) who had taught a very interesting and valuable course during my EMBA. I asked him about the options of doing a PhD; I went through the process of application and interviews at Goethe University and fortunately, I was accepted by him and his team!


What did you do before the EMBA, and what led you to take the EMBA in the first place?

I was doing two things: management consulting around digital transformation, and running a start-up that retailed, distributed and produces products for electric remote-controlled (RC) hobby aircraft.  Especially the  were RC stuff was great fun for a couple of years because I was specializing and moving in a niche – electric flight, which was not common back then. Everyone was focused on gasoline powered aircraft – and against all odds, my business  really took off! But once you get into the daily operations, you start to just grind away… Eventually, that felt like intellectual winter with insufficient food for thought.  I reached a point where I thought: Okay, things are easier now, I have more time and the business is running, so how could I use this time well? I could have spent time travelling or more time with friends, but instead decided to look for an intellectual challenge—and found the EMBA.


What were the most important things you learned during the program?

I think one thing was that it was very valuable to see how people with managerial experience from different industries brought very different skillsets, perceptions and ways of doing things to the table. It was also interesting to see how well (sometimes not so well) teams of very different people and personalities can do. Interpersonal issues can sometimes get in the way. I also think the cultural exchange going to the international modules was really great and allowed us to discover still more ways of achieving our goals.

So I think the 3 big things would be: (1) Business knowledge and the way things are done have changed a lot in the 10 years since my undergrad degree; (2) diversity in skills, experience, industry, and culture, can produce friction—that can be turned to energy to produce better results; and (3) to me personally, the EMBA was a good start… and a kind of launchpad to academia.


This led you to pursue the PhD. How was it, transitioning from a part-time, professionally focused program to a PhD program?

Well, this was one specific PhD, at one specific university with one specific advisor. So I can’t generalize this to anyone else’s experience. For me personally it was certainly a rewarding and interesting experience. I was 10 years older than the average student, which did have advantages because I maybe had a different scope and experience in what I was doing, but it made other things more difficult. It’s also weird to go from having a company, assistants, interns, all those things and you just say what needs to be done, to finding your name on a piece of paper on the cupboard telling you which week you have to clean the staff kitchen J Essentially, I moved from the top to the bottom of the food chain. This was not difficult per se, but it certainly put a new perspective on things.

Even though I would have considered myself a pretty well-seasoned consultant and entrepreneur at the time, it was interesting to gain insights into the rigor and the way you work in academia (especially at the level the Faculty of Economics and Business at Goethe University works because it is one of the best in Germany and even Europe). In academia, we work a lot more thoughtfully, precise and well-rounded than what you would typically see in the industry. Not only in creating theories and building models, but also in how to tell a story, how to present… I think many consultants could learn a lot from my advisor in how to tell and sell a story without all the technical stuff going on, because nobody really wants to hear that. It has to be there and has to be true – correct, robust, generalizable – which is very important in the review process of a journal, but not so important for the reader in the first moment.

What was also very different is that you have a lot of freedom of choice of what you want to research, when you do it, and how you do it. No one’s going to hold your hand… if you’re not going to do anything for 5 weeks, then nothing’s going to happen for 5 weeks. That’s your loss. On top of that you have a lot of tasks in terms of teaching students, which is very different from moderating a meeting as a consultant. So I think faculty and professors are actually entrepreneurs in their own way. At the end of the day, we keep on re-inventing ourselves with every paper, with everything we do, and we choose freely WHAT we want to do. No one tells us what to do, the measure or currency at the end of the day is the publication and the citations you get for it (i.e., measures of impact of your thinking and work). That’s very different to a firm – as a consultant for example you have a very focused, clear scope. Academia is very self-directed.

Overall: the academic expectation goes up; the handholding goes down!


What tips would you give current part-time MBA students of GBS who are considering pursuing a PhD afterwards? What are the most important considerations for someone looking to change their career path from industry to academia?

Well, you have to ask yourself why you want to do it in the first place! There has to be a certain intrinsic motivation. In Germany there’s still this thing about being ‚Herr Doktor‘ or ‚Frau Doktor‘, which doesn’t matter as much in other places in the world. To me, that’s the wrong motivation—at  least for the area of Marketing, which I can speak for. If that’s your goal then don’t come. It’s not going to be rewarding for anyone. You really have to think about it: You’re going to spend 3-5 years of your life doing this. With a very safe income yes, but nowhere near the lifestyle of going to work after an MBA. So you have to have a very strong intrinsic curiosity. If you find yourself ever saying ‚this is good enough‘ when you submit something in your MBA, then don’t do a PhD. You have to be dead honest to yourself. I see MBA students in a somewhat different light now. They  they optimize, they prioritize – which is important for business leaders – and they will say “80% is good enough for what we’re doing“. In academia, good enough is never good enough and if you’re not going to do more than 100%, you shouldn’t even try. You have to be a perfectionist, you have to be flexible and curious, be able to pivot and massively learn new things; you have multiple projects at the same time all different, and the next set will again be very different, completely new things. It’s a long path and you can do well, but not necessarily with a lot of money. If you stay in the academic circuit and try to land a good job at a good university, if you manage to get a good paper published in a top journal, and get one of these positions, the returns can be huge (in the US exponentially more than in Germany). Yet, at the end of the day you will make less money as a junior prof. or tenure track professor than if you would have just saved yourself the 5 years and used your MBA. You HAVE to want to do this – it’s a bit late to consider this as a career option after an MBA, most would have decided this earlier – it is a complete switch of career.

In my case I really enjoyed the self-directed work, caring for a million details,  sinking your teeth into something for years. I also genuinely enjoy teaching. I discover things with students – about them, about society, about myself… they challenge me all the time. I enjoy the 4 months per year that I teach – it’s intense, it’s non-stop, but I love it and after 4 months I’m ready for the 8 months of research. It’s a great cycle for me.


Tell us about your transition to and experiences in the USA. You were living in Germany, had a business here, studied your EMBA and PhD here, so what took you to the USA and how does academia differ in the States from Germany?

I lived as a teenager in Texas for a number of years. I came back to Germany for University, but I always thought I liked the USA, the multicultural experience, the lively, friendly attitude. I have children and it was important for me that they also experience a different culture, and learn that there are many different ways of life. I love the region of North Carolina – I was there as a small child with my family. And I was of course there for my EMBA residency at Duke. It was therefore natural to consider the USA in general, and specifically North Carolina.


So it became a consideration when you were looking for a faculty position?

When I went onto the job market, I was being coached by my supervisors and it is a very intense process. There are very specific ‚rules of engagement‘ you could say, and it took a lot of energy. It involved 35 applications, flying to Atlanta and for two days doing extensive interviews in hotel rooms each hour and presenting your research. This is followed by so-called ‚fly outs‘ where you are invited to the campus and do a 1,5 hour talk, meet with all kinds of faculty and the Dean of said school, then fly back the next day and go to the next thing. I got eight or nine fly outs to all over the world; Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the US… I went on the first two (both in the States) and both were a great experience. University of North Carolina was quick to extend me an offer, and I was very happy to receive an offer where I had been unanimously endorsed. There are so many amazing people, both at UNC and in the area - famous faculty, a high-ranking institution and a fast-paced environment. They are all champions, they are all crazy productive, they’re incredibly sharp. There is a lot of pressure to perform and to publish, and on top of that you have to create your own classes, deal with students, judge case competitions… there’s so much on top which is really rewarding. But I am in this because I genuinely enjoy researching the topics and problems I am passionate about. I love teaching young, brilliant minds. For me, it’s a very different teaching format than in Germany, and I really enjoy the personal and engaging format I’m able to pursue at UNC.


Do you have a favorite memory from your time at GBS?

There are a lot of good memories! They kind of blur into a general positive sentiment now, but I could name a few situations which stick out in my mind. I thought the kick-off was already such a great start, with the team building and climbing walls and all those things. It was fun to rapidly interact with a new group of people.

Also Prof. Dr. Andreas Hackethal, who was teaching Corporate Finance in our program, being such an entertaining and brilliant professor. I’m not a finance person, I don’t like it at all, but I really enjoyed his course. I can still see him standing at the front of the room explaining something, it was a privilege to be in his class. Both Prof. Dr. Hackethal and Prof. Dr. Uwe Walz also ended up being on my Examination Board for my PhD—a great honor for me!

I also remember the time in Shanghai, going to these bars at the top of skyscrapers, and the experience of spending time and partying with American students from Duke… even in India, we were there when this volcano in Iceland erupted and these were all such unique experiences.

So, in every place we were, there were great memories. Starting in Frankfurt, to Shanghai, the USA, India. GBS had people paving our road, and I never regretted joining the EMBA program.


Thanks for sharing your story Daniel!


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