The Information Systems Ph.D.: Exploring the leading edge of change

December 06, 2013

There was a time not so long ago that Blockbuster stores were everywhere, then along came Netflix, fundamentally changing the video rental business. So, in January 2014 the once ubiquitous Blockbuster will shutter its company-owned stores and end its by-mail DVD distribution. Professor Benjamin Shao, head of the Information Systems doctoral program at the W. P. Carey School of Business, tells this story as an example of disruptive innovation: technology that changes the landscape and the rules. That turbulent territory is home turf for information systems researchers, like those who train in the IS department’s Ph.D. program.

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Narrator: There was a time not so long ago that Blockbuster stores were everywhere, then along came Netflix, fundamentally changing the video rental business. So, in January 2014 the once ubiquitous Blockbuster will shutter its company-owned stores and end its by-mail DVD distribution. Professor Benjamin Shao, head of the Information Systems doctoral program at the W. P. Carey School of Business, tells this story as an example of disruptive innovation: technology that changes the landscape and the rules. That turbulent territory is home turf for information systems researchers, like those who train in the IS department’s Ph.D. program. Here’s Dr. Shao:

Dr. Benjamin Shao: IS Ph.D. students can see what is coming, analyze it and then help the company to be in a better position to either weather this kind of a transformation or revolution, or help the small new players outperform the big players.

Narrator: Researchers in this field pioneer the big ideas that make major waves in the industry — trends like mobile technologies, the cloud, big data and business analytics that impact every aspect of the firm. So, far from siloed “techies,” IS researchers engage with just about every business discipline.

Shao: This discipline is very unique. People in IS do research across a wide spectrum. On the one end, you have the people who do behavioral research, all the way to the other end of the spectrum where the people design systems to solve real world problems.

Narrator: The program is a big commitment, Shao says, because on average, students will devote four to six years of their lives to attaining the degree. The goal is for students to acquire the core skills and knowledge sets that can be used to study any technology trend. In the first two years, students tackle coursework where they master method and theory, and doctoral seminars where topics are explored in depth. Following the comprehensive doctoral exam at the end of the second year, students work on their thesis dissertations and begin teaching. The rigorous program is designed to prepare students to work at premier research institutions, so research experience is built-in, starting on day one.

Shao: It’s very intellectually rewarding. You solve the problem: if you’re the very first one in the world that proved this theorem, that designed this system or a new model to explain the phenomenon. It’s just very, very rewarding.

Narrator: The W. P. Carey IS department is one of the biggest, and that size is an advantage for students looking for a place where they can dig deep into the topic that drives their interest. Here is Professor Bin Gu:

Dr. Bin Gu:There is a huge diversity in terms of faculty expertise and resources, so any doctoral student who comes in interested in something — we can almost always find someone that, some faculty member, who is willing and able to supervise them.

Narrator: Research is what attracted Irfan Kanat, a third year doctoral student, to the academic life. Kanat was in a master’s program in his native Turkey, working on research projects with his advisor, when he attended his first academic conference.

Irfan Kanat: I never saw anything like that before — people coming together exchanging ideas. In that conference I felt like I belonged to this tradition of producing and disseminating knowledge, and that got to me.

Narrator: Kanat chose ASU’s Information Systems program because, unlike other programs where doctoral students work on faculty projects, at W. P. Carey he could pursue his own research agenda. Kanat’s interest is open source software, and his advisors, associate dean Ajay Vinze and professor Raghu Santanam, are familiar with the field. Kanat said that his relationship with these two scholars is essential to the experience.

Kanat: The goal is to discover new knowledge. That means finding out about the existing knowledge, then finding something that might exist but we don’t know of yet. So many things can go wrong. You might spend months and you might not find what you’re looking for. So, being a Ph.D. student without an advisor? I can’t imagine that situation.

Narrator: Once part of a doctoral program, students will find that the teacher/student relationship is very different from their experiences as masters or undergraduate students. Dr. Gu said he learns a lot from students, and when a student expresses an interest in a topic, they set out on a mutual journey. At the core is trust, he said.

Gu: We trust them that they will try their best — not just to follow our guidance, but also try to go ahead and explore all unexplored territories. And our job is to try to help them when they have questions. And they have to also trust us!

Narrator: Professor Pei-yu Chen said that when she was a student at Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, professors treated doctoral students as colleagues — a practice that she found in place at W. P. Carey as well. Chen said the program is designed to train students as independent researchers, making her role akin to coaching. When her students are choosing classes, she advises them to pick up as many tools as possible.

Dr. Pei-yu Chen: It would be really good to have some unique tool that only you have. Try not to just copy a particular person’s path, and also find something that you are really passionate about.

Narrator: When working at consistently high intensity for several years, the quality of your fellow students is especially important because it impacts the quality of the whole experience. Dr. Gu said, the culture at W. P. Carey is very entrepreneurial.

Gu: They go out and find an interesting topic, find the company, find the data and they do things they want to do. And that’s quite surprising. They are very creative. They probably need some guidance on methodology, some guidance on publication, but they definitely have the passion and they have the perseverance to pursue something they’re really interested in. I think that really sets our program apart.

Narrator: The colleagues students meet in the program are the start of a professional network of friends that will help them shape their ideas throughout their careers.

Chen: You rely on this network for feedback, and that feedback is very important, and sometimes it actually results in co-authorship, research partners … there are interesting opportunities.

Narrator: Speaking of opportunity, Dr. Shao said that this is a good time to enter the field, because the job market for IS Ph.D.’s is the best it’s been in a decade.

Shao: Pursuing a Ph.D. is one of the few self-fulfilling experiences that you can have in your one lifetime — and there will be many hurdles to cross — but at the same time if you can make it through, you can start an academic career and be successful. This is really, really a very good career choice.