2017 Best 40 Under 40 Professors: Ken Kelley, Notre Dame (Mendoza)

Ken Kelley

Professor, Department of Information Technology, Analytics, and Operations and Associate Dean for Faculty and Research

Notre Dame, Mendoza College of Business

As the saying goes, you never know where life will take you. That has certainly been the case for 39-year-old Ken Kelly. The Associate Dean for Faculty and Research at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business is an Accredited Professional Statistician (PStat®) by the American Statistical Association, associate editor of Psychological Methods, and recipient of the Anne Anastasi early career award by the American Psychological Association’s Division of Evaluation, Measurement, & Statistics. Yet his memory of his first statistics course is one of fear and uncertainty. “I didn’t even know what statistics was,” he admits.

Today, Professor Kelley researches and teaches quantitative methodology, with a focus on the development, improvement, and evaluation of statistical methods and measurement issues. This 2017 Outstanding Faculty Award winner says his favorite part of teaching is the enthusiasm from students when they realize that a method discussed has an application to a problem that they have had or can imagine having.

Age: 39

At current institution since: 2008

Education: PhD, Quantitative Psychology, University of Notre Dame, 2005.

List of courses you currently teach:

  • Statistical Inference in Business (Undergraduate)
  • Statistical Methods for Managers, 1 and 2 (MSBA)
  • Advanced Statistical Inference, MBA (also includes MSA)

What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it? My work is two dimensional: methodological and applied. For my methodological work, I develop, evaluate, and improve statistical methods so that those methods can be used by others in a variety of contexts. For my applied work I collaborate with others and implement a variety of statistical methods in different contexts to address interesting and important questions.

My core methodological work is on research design, where I consider how best to design studies so as to address the questions of interest in a methodologically appropriate way. My biggest contribution is on quantifying effect sizes and magnitude estimation of effects. Much of the research design literature considers how to plan a study in order to show that an effect exists, but the estimate of the magnitude can be poor. Much of my work involves ways of estimating and improving the accuracy of the magnitude of effects.  

The area of principle application of my work on research design is in the behavioral sciences, such as management and organizational behavior. Because a large swath of what is of interest in the context of business analytics involves behavioral outcomes, whether interest is in perceptions of quality, purchases of services or products, engagement with content, behavioral research methods and statistical methods appropriate for behavioral outcomes are highly applicable.

Professor you most admire: Many professors have influenced me over the years, for which I am extraordinarily grateful.

“I knew I wanted to be a B-school professor when…I knew I wanted to be a business professor when I realized the extraordinary influence that business has on people and places. Initially, I thought of myself as a purist, where my work was focused on issues in statistics and measurement in the behavioral sciences, but without a grounding in any particular applied area. I first applied those methods to psychology and then education. In collaborations with faculty in business schools, it because clear that one can have a bigger influence – one that supersedes research in psychology or education – in a business school environment. We are all influenced by organizations. Studying a variety of behavioral constructs in an organizational context rather than in the laboratory became much more interesting to me. So three years post graduate school, I shifted my focus to statistical methods appropriate in business contexts.”

“If I weren’t a B-school professor…if the turning point were to have come after graduate school, I would be teaching statistics, but I would be in a psychology or sociology department or a school of education or medicine. If the turning point came before graduate school, I think a field biologist would be a real possibility. Though at one time, I wanted to be in some aspect of law enforcement. Perhaps a conservation officer would be a possible path, as such a job would complement some of the benefits of being a field biologist in the context of law enforcement.

One word that describes my first time teaching an MBA class: My first offering of a graduate class in a business school was Advanced Statistical Inference, which was purely elective. Only a small number of highly technical students took the course, and the students wanted to go deeper and deeper on each topic. The students wanted the “whys,” which I was pleased to discuss (that is my research is all about). The genuine interest and appreciation of statistical methods was not what I expected from the students, who I thought might view statistics only as a means to an end. “Rewarding” is thus the word that describes my first MBA teaching experience. There were, however, some day one jitters, where “anxious” might be more of an appropriate descriptor!   

Most memorable moment in the classroom, or in general, as a professor: This wasn’t necessarily one of my prouder moments, but I did accidently show up at the wrong classroom once. It was in a building where the second and third floors are nearly identical, and I went to the wrong floor. The semester was in its second week, and I was chatting with students before class when I started getting the feeling that something was amiss. It turned out that I ended up going a classroom of a friend of mine from the Philosophy Department! The students were so polite or simply confused that they didn’t even ask, “Why are you here?”  

What professional achievement are you most proud of? Earning tenure at Notre Dame.

What do you enjoy most about being a business school professor? I enjoy bringing a deep way of thinking about data that goes beyond what most students have previously considered, as well as issues of how data can and cannot be used for making evidence-based decisions. Because so many things can be related to business or organizations, there are an infinite number of examples that can be used to illustrate various statistical methods and serve as motivational examples. Deep thinking about what can and cannot be gleaned from different types of data in different contexts is challenging, but something that I am passionate about. Learning from data has been the basis for everything that I have done in my career and I enjoy passing on some of these ideas to interested students (and some of whom that are not initially interested!).

What do you enjoy least about being a business school professor? Assigning grades. I just want to teach to those who want to learn. I do not enjoy the segmentation necessary when assigning grades. I would rather use feedback on assignments as a tool exclusively for learning rather than classifying students.

What is your favorite company and why? I admire companies’ actions that contribute to society in positive ways and who use data to help them become better.  Companies focused on quality and reliability, continuous improvement, and using data to make better decisions are my favorite types.

Fun fact about yourself: When I had to take my first statistics course, I was terrified. I didn’t even know what statistics was. (To me at the time, statistics equated to the numbers on the back of a baseball card). I think because I was so concerned, I studied extra hard. At some point, it occurred to me that I loved what I was doing, that I seemed to “get it.” And then, at some later point, I realized that I might even want to teach statistics one day. Thus, the class I dreaded the most become my livelihood. Perhaps more interesting note — the woman who would one day become my wife was a classmate in my first three statistics courses! We had a core set of experiences to talk about once we were reconnected years later. We have, however, moved beyond only talking about statistics!

Bucket list item #1: A long vacation to Ireland and Scotland.

Favorite book: Robinson Crusoe and Moneyball.

Favorite movie: Stand by Me and It’s a Wonderful Life

Favorite type of music: Do podcasts count? If so, the Tim Ferriss Show is my current favorite. If not, ‘60–‘90s hard rock.

Favorite television show: Frazier, The Walking Dead, and How I Met Your Mother.

Favorite vacation spot: Being in the woods and around the water.

What are your hobbies? Casual hikes and being in nature. I like to program in R as well; it is a great way to essentially solve puzzles but also be productive.  

Twitter handle: I prefer to speak to smaller audiences, either in person, email, or in the classroom.

“If I had my way, the business school of the future would have…analytics embedded into all or almost all of the courses, rather than relegating analytics to a few stand-alone courses early in the program.”

Students say:

Ken Kelley is not only incredibly good at statistics, he is also incredibly good at TEACHING Statistics. His teaching transformed an intimidating and difficult subject into one of my favorite classes. His class was both rigorous and engaging … even fun!”


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