Michael Sinkinson, an assistant professor of business economics and public policy, has his work cut out for him. The 31-year-old teaches the two-quarter core curriculum course Microeconomics for Managers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. It’s a subject fraught with esoteric terms, and tethering the concepts to the real world can be tricky. But Sinkinson has managed to navigate students through the material so successfully and engagingly that nominations for the under-40 professor flooded Poets&Quants’ inbox.
Before joining Wharton, Sinkinson worked in consulting at McKinsey & Company and Cornerstone Research. He boasts a PhD in business economics from Harvard University and Harvard Business School and an undergraduate degree in commerce from Queen’s University. Despite the Ivy League accolades and starched-collar-setting of his former career, students praise his down-to-earth demeanor and approachable personality. He’s also been known to memorize students’ backgrounds before the first day of class and to take them to lunch.
For Michael Sinkinson, the transition from consulting to academia was a no brainer. The research side appealed to his affinity for analysis and entrepreneurship, he says, while the teaching component tapped into a lifelong interest: “I’ve always enjoyed teaching,” he adds. “I was the kid who tutored friends in high school for free.”
So what’s the secret sauce to his pedagogical success? Sinkinson says his approach is guided by two things: applying lessons to “ultra-current events” and pulling students’ work and life experiences into classroom discussions. For instance, to illustrate adverse selection, economist lingo for a situation where sellers have information that buyers don’t, he had students analyze the business model of music streaming service Spotify. “That was an unusual setting to think of adverse selection, but it really resonated with the students because they were familiar with Spotify and the music industry, in general, so it was a new, current way to think about using that kind of analysis,” Sinkinson explains.
When the class tackled Cournot’s model of competition, he asked MBAs with backgrounds in hotel chain strategy to share their experiences. “Students always complain that it’s very textbook, very unrealistic … having a student in the class be able to describe how decisions were made at their firm in that specific industry and to then show that yeah, the model we just learned is great for describing all of this really helps students see that this wasn’t just an academic exercise, that these models are actually useful,” Sinkinson says.
In one particularly memorable class, he simulated the game show “Deal or No Deal” to explain a lesson on risk and insurance. Selected students had to decide whether or not they’d accept the banker’s offer while the TV series’ suspenseful “thinking music” played in the background. “It made what probably would have been a really dry class, talking about risk from an insurance perspective, fun and humorous, and it still got the point across really effectively,” says Michael Engan, a Wharton MBA who completed Sinkinson’s course in 2013.
Students also cite Sinkinson’s genuine interest in his students. Engan would visit the professor’s office regularly to go over problem sets. On one occasion, they discussed how course concepts related to a particular problem. Engan arrived home to find an email from Sinkinson waiting for him; the message said they’d discussed the wrong problem and laid out the concepts for the correct one. “Just the fact that he took the time to care and send us that email to make sure we understood the proper thing struck me as someone who really takes the time outside of the classroom when they don’t have to,” Engan says.
For Sinkinson, the rewards of teaching extend beyond stimulating students’ interest in microeconomics–it also informs his research, which focuses on firms and market structure in the areas of technology, media, and telecom. “I have students in my class who have worked at companies in industries where I’m doing research, and I can ask them, ‘Well, how did you guys think about making decision X or decision Y, and that to me is just incredibly valuable,'” he says.
Sinkinson’s study of newspapers’ effects on electoral politics has been published in the American Economic Review; his current research looks at mobile developer competition as well as pharmaceutical advertising.
As for professors he admires, Sinkinson points to the late astronomer Carl Sagan. “He was able to explain insanely complicated phenomena to anyone, and he was able to really broaden the appeal of his field. If I could do that for economics, that would be a dream come true,” Sinkinson says. If his students reviews are any indication, he’s on the right track.