The Rotman Review: How Academic Research Makes MBAs More Valuable

Reach Alliance Researchers Azana Hyder and Peter Zhang (Right) meets with the CORE Group, a non-for-profit organization critical to the success of polio elimination in India.

Spending time in the laboratory was one highlight from my life sciences and clinical training. It was a chance to train under experts in the field. And it was also an opportunity to learn techniques, like how to extract mRNA from cells, at the lab bench. Equally important, research offered a meaningful way for me to generate and disseminate new knowledge within the scientific community.

As a researcher, I have studied signaling pathways for Crohn’s disease, and had the privilege to travel to the United Kingdom to investigate a parasite called leishmaniasis. More recently, I explored characteristics of corticosteroid medications performing experiments at the benchside.

BENEFITS OF RESEARCH

In my first year of my MBA studies, I found that my peers’ appetite to conduct research was somewhat subdued. This may be due to opportunity costs. Indeed, the pressures of recruiting for internships and the excitement of case competitions can put research on the back burner. However, research can provide unique and valuable experiences difficult to obtain once MBAs enter into the workforce.

One valuable aspect of research is the opportunity to lead the process of knowledge discovery. The depth of the work goes beyond textbooks and classroom material. And the ambiguity experienced when faced with data that uncovers a new idea provides a challenging yet rewarding experience. For researchers who have undergone this process, they grow their ability to act on curiosity, navigate uncertainty, and spearhead innovation. This makes them more versatile leaders in the future.

For aspiring researchers, it is important to build strong relationships with your professors. Many professors are supportive towards mentoring students who have a genuine curiosity in their areas of interest. By taking you under their wing, they help bridge the transition from student to researcher. Ultimately, MBAs can gain access to important networks, along with enjoying mentorship on the rigours of research methodology. Ultimately, it is their insights and leadership that help transform you into an expert.

Rotman MBAs at graduation

HOW INDIA ELIMINATED POLIO

As an MBA student, I’ve had the opportunity to work under Dr. Anita M. McGahan, who is a faculty member at the Rotman School of Management and the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy at the University of Toronto. She is also a faculty mentor for the Reach Alliance based out of the Munk School. The Reach Alliance is a student-driven, faculty-mentored multidisciplinary research and leadership initiative examining how critical interventions and innovations reach those who are the hardest to reach.

Under Dr. McGahan’s leadership, I joined the Reach Alliance research team of medical, economics, and political science students to study how India eliminated polio. Unlike my previous research, which involved experimentation with cells and biological reagents, this project was focused on policies and strategies. The work took me and my team to India, where the international aspect of the project enabled me to meet incredible people, one being the Canadian High Commissioner to India who led the diplomatic mission there.

Our team’s visit with the High Commissioner opened our eyes to the world of foreign service. Aside from duties in India, the High Commissioner also represents Canada in Bhutan and Nepal. At dinner, we exchanged stories on the research we were conducting here with their insights on working as diplomats. Hearing about the Kingdom of Bhutan was especially enlightening, as many areas of the country are inaccessible to foreigners.

MBA MAKES A MEDICAL JOURNAL

Working as a researcher also involved rapid learning. The work requires a level of expertise to ask the right questions, and an understanding of what remains unknown in the field. Through my experience with Reach, I learned how to analyze research papers, conduct semi-structured interviews, and write academic papers. With that, I gained expertise on vaccine strategy, stakeholder engagement, and government partnership.

Becoming familiar with conducting semi-structured interviews was important to finding answers to our research questions. One strategy was to update interview questions each day in the field to reflect what we have learned and what we need to know next. This allows us to make the time we had with our interviewees as efficient as possible. And even beyond this project, it helped me become better at asking the right questions.

My team submitted a research paper on our work for peer review, which was accepted by the British Medical Journal of Global Health. This gave the team an opportunity to undergo the rigorous peer review process. Our research showed that the elimination of polio in India was not simply a scientific problem where the solution was to discover a vaccine. It was also a social one. Vaccine hesitancy was observed to have roots in neglected communities where there was a deep mistrust of the government. To overcome this, India had to use strategies to demonstrate that their intentions were focused on health rather than government gain. Upon publication, there was a great sense of pride as the knowledge we had discovered was disseminated to the wider community as vaccine strategy remains an important topic during COVID-19.

Dr. Peter Zhang

FINANCE AND PHARMA LOVE RESEARCH EXPERIENCE

Research has been a personal passion on mine. It is one that has developed through my successes and failures in various experiences, Still, research can be an area unfamiliar to many. This is especially true in MBA programs, where the emphasis on student research is reduced. Understandably, club activities or case preparations can be more easily linked to business interests. Interestingly enough, certain industries heavily value research experience.

In the pharmaceutical industry, the ability to read and understand academic literature on clinical trials is a necessity when it comes to developing a versatile commercial strategy. Additionally, researchers often need to conduct statistical tests to validate results, which can be useful in jobs that require quantitative skills. One example is in the biotech equity research space, where statistical analysis is important to support analyst conclusions.

Research is also not isolated to the sciences. There are labs that study organizational psychology, finance, and supply chains that may more easily pique the interest of MBA students. For example, one Reach Alliance project investigated supply chains in Tanzania that tackled medication distribution to the hard-to-reach. This endeavour allowed researchers to apply and build on their business operations knowledge.

As students, there are a number of ways to expand the learning experience beyond the classroom setting. Research is an often overlooked opportunity in business school, and offers rich opportunities for skill development. The next time you find a class particularly interesting, muster up the courage to speak to your professor about research. You never know where that conversation may lead.

Dr. Peter Zhang, PharmD is an MBA candidate at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and a Clinical Pharmacist at Southlake Regional Health Centre. Through the unique combined Doctor of Pharmacy/MBA degree program, he has explored the intersection between life sciences and commercial strategy. Additionally, he has published research works in peer-reviewed academic journals and opinions in national media outlets in Canada.

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