Linda Nasr interviewed for our series “Going abroad” Willy Barnett, a young US researcher who pursues an PhD in the United Kingdom. 

Linda: Tell us about yourself

Willy: I am a 4th year PhD student in Marketing at Alliance Manchester Business School (Alliance MBS), University of Manchester, UK. I am from Atlanta, Georgia, USA and hold a BSc in Electrical Engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology and an MBA from Georgia State University.  In my professional career, I have most of my working experience in higher education, working as a student diversity staff member at Georgia Tech.  I have also worked in several customer service related positions in the industries of telecommunications, healthcare, and airline transportation.

My research interests lie at the intersections service marketing, technology, and design. I am particularly interested in studying the transformative outcomes that result from service delivery, as well as, the design and use of technology interfaces within service contexts.  My proposed research involves examining how older adults create value through interactions with socially assistive robots.  My favorite hobbies are traveling, photography, and running.

The long and winding journey to Manchester started in 2009 with a trip that would ultimately change my life.  Toward the end of my MBA program at Georgia State, I had the opportunity to participate in a 2-week study abroad course in South America.  As with so many of my friends, and even more Americans in general, I was a ‘late bloomer’ when it came to international travel.  I obtained my first passport only 3 years earlier after my 30th birthday, and even then I had only used it once two years prior.  The purpose of the trip was to study Argentinean and Brazilian business practices and culture.  It was the most amazing trip I had ever taken!  However, because of the duration, I felt I only received a tiny glimpse of life outside of the US.  This led my curiosity to become an obsession overnight, and upon returning home, I made it my mission to see more of the world, but this time for much longer than two weeks.

Upon completing the MBA program, my strategy was to target job opportunities that had some form of international travel.  After several attempts, I finally received an offer from an international pharmaceutical marketing research firm in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  The job was a major sacrifice in terms of pay and weather, but it allowed me to visit many parts of Europe and even China.  However, there was no passion for pharmaceutical research, and although I was able to travel, I spent most of my trips working.  So once again, I went on a mission for a better opportunity.  After realizing that I really liked the research aspect of my job, along with the fun I had working in higher education, I made the decision to pursue a PhD with the goal of one day becoming a professor.  I applied to programs both in the US and abroad, with, of course, the hopes of being accepted to the latter.  Ultimately, I ended up being accepted to three universities in the UK with funding offers from two of them.  I accepted the offer from the University of Manchester because I was familiar with the city through my job (it was the location of the corporate HQ) and the business school had a great reputation.

Linda: Was it difficult to apply to a UK university?

Willy: From the very beginning of considering Alliance MBS, I noticed a huge difference in application process.  Whereas all of the American schools I considered required an application consisting of a GMAT score, Recommendations, Statement of Purpose, and CV, Alliance MBS (and many UK universities) required a 3500 word research proposal, CV, and recommendations.  The GMAT was optional.  The research proposal presented an obstacle for me as I had no idea what it was!  I had to enlist help from a good friend who attended a UK University to guide me.  The proposal was so difficult and time consuming that I ultimately quit my job in order to complete it.  Of course this did not make my dad and friends happy, all of whom thought that I was an idiot (at times I did as well), but I wanted to give myself the best shot at getting accepted.

Once the application was submitted, I ran into another major obstacle that was different from American PhD programs: the requirement of a master’s degree.  Unlike the American schools I considered, Alliance MBS required that all applicants not only possess a master’s degree, but also one that was thesis based.  Needless to say my MBA was not thesis based so my application was immediately rejected.  When I received the news, I was at a loss.  I felt this was the end of the journey.  Luckily, I was able to appeal my case and argue that most US MBA programs are not thesis based and therefore should not be the reason that an applicant with a GREAT proposal is denied.  Ultimately, the rejection was overturned and I was able to proceed with application process.

The takeaway here is that the research proposal and thesis based requirement are in place because unlike American PhD programs where the first two years are spent training and exploring potential topics, Alliance MBS and other UK universities expect you to ‘hit the ground running’ with research.  You come in with an approved topic and a plan for action.  Granted, many of my colleagues’ research approaches have changed since year 1, however, their topics have not wavered too far from the original.  This pre-selected topic requirement allows students to have a focused idea about research and typically allows them to graduate sooner than their American counterparts…often in 3 years!

Linda: What do the people you’ve met abroad want to know the most about you?

Once I finally started the program a recurring question was constantly asked of me:  “Why did you chose to study in here…?”.  The compelling part of this question was that most people were really interested in the typical follow up question: “…instead of America?”  This was even more perplexing because when it came to other international students studying in the UK, I never heard the same question asked in comparison to their home countries.  I quickly understood that this specific question came from the perception of superiority of American PhD programs.  In fact, during my application process, a good friend and professor in Marketing at an American university advised me against going abroad if I ever wanted to return to the US and get a job at a US university.  So I completely understood why I was being asked this question (over and over again).  Fortunately for me, my choice to attend a UK university was based on my desire for an international experience rather than where I would end up working.  As of yet I am not sure if this perception/advice will hold true as I still have several months before graduation.  However, I can say that the experience has been worth the potential sacrifice!

Linda: What would you say is the main difference between US and UK PhD programs or students?

Willy: As you can see the differences in the US and UK systems become prevalent from the very start of the application process.  But what about during the PhD?  Referring back to the advice I received from my good friend: “If you leave you will never be able to come back”.  Now I don’t want you to think that I have terrible friends, but an explanation did accompany that advice derived from her experience with interviewing international candidates.  She explained to me that the problem lies in understanding how other international PhD programs relate to the US system.  Her thoughts were that many of the US applicants are better equipped for job interviews (both in the US and globally) because they have top-level publications (from US journals), references from well-known academics (who publish in said journals), and of course, degrees from familiar US institutions with similar academic program structures.  Often this isn’t the case for students applying from universities outside of the US.  If the international university isn’t similar to the US system (e.g. London Business School), or is not high on the rankings and reputation list (e.g. Oxford and Cambridge University), it may be difficult for graduates from other universities to compete in the US job market.

So what are some of the differences?  I believe the main difference involves the length of the respective PhD programs and its relationship to publications during the PhD, which profoundly impacts career options.  With regards to Alliance MBS, and some other UK universities, the programs are designed to last 3 years from start to finish.  I have witnessed people graduate in in as little as 2.5 years and as late as 5.  But I would say the average is between 3 and 4 years, with considerable pressure on not going over 4.  Clearly this is not the case in the US system which probably is closer to 5 years.  The gap in graduation times are likely a result of the extensive research training required in the first two years of a US program, coupled with UK students entering their program with research topic in hand.  Since many UK PhD students have thesis based master degrees, it is expected that they already have a strong research foundation.  Unfortunately, starting early on your own dissertation and graduating sooner, leaves fewer publishing opportunities during the PhD, especially with similar academic duties such as teaching.  Thus, it may be true that US students have more (and better) publications when they go into the job market, but it does not mean that UK students could not have reached those same levels given an additional year or two.  This is a ‘publish or perish’ industry, and it’s easy to justify hiring someone who has published vs. someone who hasn’t, but I feel that a closer look at the overall PhD experience and career potential of job candidates, should be the main concern when interviewing.

Linda: What would you say is the main similarity between US and UK PhD programs or students?

willy3Willy: I recently attended a doctoral consortium at a major US conference and had the opportunity to meet several of my US peers in marketing.  Although I was from an international university and the only person doing a qualitative PhD (somehow no one was surprised by this :-), I found that there weren’t many differences in our research-based experiences, as well as in life in general.  I’m sure that being an American had a lot to do with my perceptions, however the one thing that is for certain, is that during a PhD, no matter where its done, LIFE HAPPENS!  From my experience of working with engineering doctoral students to the brief time knowing my new marketing peers, I realize that at some point during our 3, 4, or 5 years, we will all experience a major life event.  Whether it is a heartbreak, wedding proposal, first child, family death, or buying a new home, something very important will happen.  And it is how we manage these life-changing events, and what type of support we receive from our respective universities, that will determine the outcome of our remaining PhD experience.

10447622_736314226415745_5733739129712113011_n copy_1My particular life event came during my 2nd year in the program.  It was then that I reunited with my mother after over 30 years.  Until then, I didn’t know her; I only knew of her and had several pictures of the two of us.  When we finally met in person, we met in her home country and my birthplace, South Korea.  It was the most surreal and heartfelt experience I ever had in my life, and I really owe a lot to my supervisor and department for empathizing with me and allowing me to address this life event.  When I approached my supervisor with taking some time off to meet my mother and my family, she was extremely supportive and didn’t hesitate to help me make arrangements with the business school.  I have met several doctoral students from universities around the world, and I truly believe that they would have received similar support from their faculty and administration as I have.  Outside of career and research goals, I feel this type of support is one similarity that is overlooked when comparing some US and UK universities.

Linda: What has been the best part about studying at a UK University?

Willy: Travel…My passion, My Motivation! One of the major benefits of pursuing a PhD abroad is not only to experience a new country, but also a new region of the world.  Perhaps one of the best things about studying in England is its proximity to the rest of Europe.  During my time here, the Manchester Airport has served as my personal “launch pad” to explore parts of the world I had only experienced in history books.  What was once a 2-3 hour flight to New York, Houston, or Miami has now become a flight to Paris, Barcelona, and Amsterdam!  All of a sudden family visits to Chicago have become weekend trips to Rome.  The drive to my dad’s from Atlanta to Augusta has now become a drive to London or Edinburgh!

10447622_736314226415745_5733739129712113011_n_1A major contributor to my travels is without a doubt the flexibility and independence of the PhD program, as well as the UK government and university public holidays.  Without a doubt there are considerably more public holidays in the UK as compared to the US, as well as more time during university breaks.  As UK PhD students already come in with a research plan, and there are fewer formal training courses as in the US, students are essentially PhD entrepreneurs.  They can set work hours and plan what work gets done and when.  The only requirement is that they continuously make progress towards their PhD as guided by their research proposal.  This includes satisfactory reviews from supervisors and internal examiners (twice a year).  Now this doesn’t mean students can go on 6-month holidays, twice a year, but it does mean that they can enhance their overall experience and be creative with their workspaces and locations.  One of the hottest employment topics today is “Digital Nomads”.  These are people who use technology (laptops and high speed wifi) to work remotely and independent of geographic boundaries.  From meeting US PhD students, I feel that another thing we all have in common is that there is ALWAYS work to be done, regardless of weekends or holidays.  In many ways, I think that the research independence of the UK system allows me to be an ‘academic digital nomad’.  Many of my supervisor meetings are conducted on Skype and of course, my laptop never leaves my side.  So things like reading and writing up can literally be done anywhere.  During my time here, I have written parts of my PhD in over 15 countries on 4 different continents.  This is by far something I never thought I’d experience during my PhD.

Linda: What has been your biggest challenge during your PhD?

Willy: The PhD process is a tough journey, which challenges you both mentally and physically.  I believe this applies to most PhD’s around the world.  However, when you include the additional component of studying outside of your home country then this journey can quickly become a lonely one, challenging you socially as well.  By choosing to study in another country, I unknowingly subjected myself to a “dual culture shock”: the shock of the new country and of the new academic system.  My initial thought was that adjusting to both would be relatively easy since (1) it was my dream to live in another country, and (2) I felt I had a strong comfort of higher education having completed my MBA and worked at Georgia Tech for 7+ years.  Well to say that I was wrong would be an understatement!  Even now, in my 4th year, I am still adjusting.  Culturally, I have been able to adjust to the easy things like the word differences (e.g. ‘the boot’ vs. ‘the trunk’), the flow of traffic, and counting money.  However, socially is where I still struggle.  I come from Atlanta, Georgia, a home of ‘Southern Hospitality’.  I am used to saying hello to random strangers as they walk by, and even more importantly, I am used to them saying hello back!  Unfortunately, that was a social norm that I immediately had to let go of here.

Academically, as previously mentioned, everyone starts the PhD program with a research proposal.  This can be great because you can quickly progress to data collection and before you know you are writing up and defending your thesis in less than 4 years.  However, the downside is that by coming in with a research path, many students dive into their research silos and barely come up for air.  Unlike the American system, there aren’t two years of semester long courses which allow peers to develop social bonds.  Nor are there PhD labs where all the PhD students work, sometimes collaboratively, in the same place.  For myself, this type of independent environment made it difficult to find social footing.  However, as mentioned, an independent environment does have its advantages.  Plus, growing up an only child and attending a ‘sink or swim’ university like Georgia Tech has provided me with some support for many of these social challenges.

Linda: What will you remember most about your PhD experience?

Willy: I believe that the emphasis on critical thinking has impacted my life tremendously.  From the very beginning of my PhD program I was taught to be critical about everything! After all, this is one of the characteristics of true academic.  Critical thought is not new to me, however.  It was the driving factor of wanting to experience global cultures.  Trying to understand social issues and behaviors from various perspectives is something that not only interests me, but also makes me a better person.  My experience at Alliance MBS has basically refined my critical thinking and given me more defined and structured ways of using it.  It has transcended to all facets of my life.  In my social life, it has enhanced communications with my friends and colleagues.  Through my research it has helped me better understand the issues and plight of marginalized or stigmatized populations.  But perhaps, most importantly, critical thinking has transformed my curiosity of studying and living abroad from something that was just novel and fun to something that is much more purposeful and fulfilling.

Linda: What are your future plans?

Willy: I think the obvious answer here is to find a faculty position at the University of XYZ.  But looking beyond the position, I would like to continue working in the area of transformative service research and technology.  I believe that robotics and artificial intelligence are the future of service technology and I would like to be a pioneer in researching the consumer and societal implications that will follow. The design of services is another interest of mine.  If robots and AI are the future service technologies, then the design of these technologies will be of utmost importance.  Service design is a major interest among service researchers and I feel that there is a need for more work on how to translate service research into service design, particularly with transformational outcomes.  Finally, one of my biggest passions within the realm of higher education involves diversity issues.  I have spent many years mentoring underrepresented students and helping them deal with social and academic issues related to diversity.  I would like to continue this work at whatever university I end up at.

willy4_1Willy Barnett
PhD student in Marketing
Alliance Manchester Business School
University of Manchester, UK