Remarkable Journey: Satisfying Research, Career Opportunities

December 11, 2012

Matt Sopha and Yen-Chun Chou are nearing the end of a remarkable five-year journey. The two senior doctoral students in the W. P. Carey School's Department of Information Systems are putting the finishing touches on their dissertations and are on track to receive their PhDs in the spring of 2013.

"When I started this program, it meant making a major change in my life," Sopha said. "Now I know I made the right choice. I am incredibly happy doing what I'm doing."

Chou said her teachers in the department of information systems and her fellow graduate students did much to help her reach this point. "The environment in the department is very friendly. We share what we know and brainstorm together. The professors are very supportive. They help you through the process, and they help you to reach your ultimate goal—to get the degree."

The PhD program in the department of information systems is small and selective. Only two or three students are admitted each year. Almost all incoming doctoral students have master's degrees in IS or a related field and years of experience working in different areas of information technology. Sopha and Chou are among the PhD students in the program on track to finish this academic year.

To earn their degrees, the two senior PhD students have been conducting original research on topics that are at the leading edge of information technology and business.

Chou explored the emerging and growing field of mobile retailing, examining how both electronic retailers and traditional brick and mortar retailers can compete in this new frontier of commerce. Sopha analyzed the impacts of social media on the digital music industry, examining ways that independent musicians can survive and thrive in the new digital music industry landscape.

Next step: finding the job you want

In addition to defending their proposals and finishing their dissertations, an important activity for PhD students in their final year is job hunting. The career goal of most students in the department of information systems doctoral program is to join the faculty of a college or university to teach and do research, and both Sopha and Chou are following that path.

Sopha said he spends time almost every day sending out his resume or otherwise communicating with prospective employers. He said he already has had interviews at universities around the country and is very optimistic that he will find the position he sees fit.

"There are many job postings now compared even to last year," Sopha said. "It is reassuring to think that I'll be able to find something that's a good fit for my research interests and my teaching style in a place where I'd honestly want to live

Chou, who is a native of Taiwan, wants to return to her homeland. She has been in talks with officials of National Chengchi University, one of the best universities in Taiwan, about a position there. Chou received her bachelor's degree from National Chengchi University, and she is hopeful she will receive a job offer as an assistant professor of information systems from the school after she receives her degree early next year.

 "I've talked to the department, and they see me as a good candidate, but they want me to defend the dissertation as early as possible," Chou said. "In the United States, you can apply for jobs before you defend your dissertation. In Taiwan, they want to see the diploma." This requirement provides her with another motivation to produce strong research and finish her dissertation on time.

Michael Goul, chairman of the W. P. Carey School's Department Of Information Systems, said the outlook is very bright for the graduates of the department's doctoral program.

"The number of postings and job opportunities has really gone up for faculty positions in information systems," Goul said. "That tells us that enrollment in information systems is up at universities across the nation, and that bodes well for people who want to teach and conduct research in the field."

Associate Professor Benjamin Shao, who is the faculty advisor to the PhD students, said, "The IT field is definitely growing. The widespread use of emerging technologies like cloud computing and mobile phones are transforming business practices and creating a strong demand for IT professionals. These IT professionals need to be educated and keep updating their skill portfolios. PhD programs like ours are preparing and producing capable scholars and educators who can train these future IT professionals."

Graduates of the W. P. Carey School's Department Of Information Systems Doctoral Program are especially well positioned to take advantage of the surge in demand for PhD's. Shao explained that from the day they arrive on campus, IS doctoral students start doing original research with faculty geared toward publication in prominent academic journals.

"Doing research, especially in a fast-advancing field like IS, is intellectually stimulating but also time consuming. It takes a long time for a paper to be published," said Shao. "Data collection and analysis and writing can take a year and a-half, and then it is another year and a-half for review. With our ‘hit the ground running’ approach, many of our students have already had papers published or forthcoming before they enter the job market."

On stage in the classroom

When Matt Sopha first came to Arizona State as an undergraduate, his focus was music and theater. After receiving his bachelor's degree in music, he became a full-time performer. He was a member of theater groups that performed in the Phoenix area and also toured the country.

After a few years he became weary of life on the stage. "I wanted to have a more sustainable life," he recalled. "I wanted to do something where I could have a future and put away some money for retirement. I wanted to do more with education. I wanted to do something that would stimulate my intellectual curiosity."

As an undergraduate, Sopha had also studied computer science, and he was able to land a job in Best Buy Corporation’s business-to-business program. He later was hired by Sprint-Nextel, working locally on the transition following their merger. While working for the company by day, he earned his W. P. Carey Evening MBA.

"The PhD really wasn't on my radar when I started in graduate school," Sopha said. "It came about through my discussions with my professors when I was in the MBA program. They encouraged me that it would be a good fit for me. I explored it and found they were right."

Given his experience performing onstage, Sopha discovered he was natural in front of a class. As an undergrad, he had taught as a fill-in for music classes. In his first year in the PhD program, he taught an undergraduate computer programming course, and he has taught a variety of courses nearly every semester since.

"I love to teach, I love the research, and I love working with the students," he said. "I like spreading knowledge and being part of that process. And I've always felt that teaching is a type of performance art."

Sopha's research has focused on the relationships of producers, intermediaries, and consumers in the digital goods market, which includes the music industry. He notes that digital technologies have disrupted the market structure in music, and his research analyzes how players dislocated by technology can become viable again. His explorations led him to the phenomenon of social media.

"My research has evolved into looking at how independent digital musicians, who don't have the power of record labels behind them, can leverage social media to better interact with their consumer base," he said.

For independent musicians, the technological revolution has brought a mixed bag, according to Sopha. "You have the freedom to explore your own creativity, but you also have the handicap of having to market yourself," he said.

His dissertation is appropriately titled: "It's not all about the music."

How to succeed in mobile commerce

After earning her bachelor's degree in information systems from National Chengchi University, Yen-Chun Chou went to work for Inventec Corporation, a leading Taiwan computer manufacturer, where she helped to introduce a workflow system that managed the company's product development. A year later, she joined a research project, led by Taiwan's Ministry of Economic Affairs and the Taiwan Advanced e-Commerce Institute. On that project, she worked with one of her professors in her undergraduate program.

"She advised me that the United States would be a better place to go to do graduate study," she said.

Chou first went to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where she earned a master's degree in information systems. From there, she came to the W. P. Carey School.

Chou's research is on firms’ adoption and value appropriation of mobile retailing and on the relative advantages of different kinds of retailers in adopting this new technology. Companies that succeed in the e-retailing business should have an edge in this new mobile domain, according to Chou.

"If we think about the nature of the mobile retailing, it is actually a type of online retailing," Chou said. "So, if a company is successful in e-retailing, it should have an incentive to adopt mobile retailing and also have the capability to be successful in mobile retailing."

Chou's research will be featured at the Doctoral Consortium of the annual International Conference on Information Systems (ICIS), a top conference in the field, being held this month in Orlando, Florida. The conference consortium highlights the research of doctoral candidates, and Chou is one of only 40 from around the world selected for the honor.

"Being chosen for the conference consortium is a great achievement," said Associate Professor Shao, who is Chou's faculty advisor. "Her research is considered to be very high quality by the panel. The topic is important, timely, interesting. The implications to be drawn from her dissertation work for the business world, especially the retail sector, will be profound and significant."