People of color continue to be under-represented not just in the upper echelons of business, but in senior business education roles. This forms a vicious cycle where potential business school students are turned off by the lack of role models in the profession, and in turn do not pursue the credentials that would allow them to become professors or business leaders themselves. The PhD Project, a nonprofit organization based in Montvale, N.J., has since 1994 been working to encourage Black/African Americans, Latinx/Hispanic Americans and Native Americans in business to return to graduate school and earn their PhDs, so they can serve as vital role models for students from these under-represented groups. As the COVID-19 crisis leads to a worsening economic situation of the type that inevitably impacts minorities in a disproportionate way, I spoke with Blane Ruschak, the PhD Project’s president, and Marie Zara, Director of Advancement, about their ongoing mission in the midst of the COVID crisis, and more broadly about the challenges and solutions of minorities being under-represented in business academia.

Amid this massive disruption and forthcoming economic downturn, how is the PhD Project moving forward in advancing their mission? In what ways can the PhD project help minority doctoral candidates/aspiring professors in their job search at a time when the economy and job market are expected to massively contract?

These are indeed challenging times. One of the key benefits of an academic career is that there is always a need for business school professors. In fact, there is a severe shortage of business school professors here in the U.S., and typically, almost every PhD Project professor has accepted a position by the time they have defended their dissertation. Historically, in times of recession and higher unemployment, we tend to see a surge in applications for our annual PhD Project conference and this career path.

Fortunately, we can continue to stay connected with our doctoral students and faculty electronically and through virtual events. We have a PhD Project job board on our website where participating universities share positions with our network of more than 1,600 minority faculty and doctoral students, so this will continued to be used to assist in their job search. This is also used by our corporate sponsors to connect with minority professionals who have attended one of our annual conferences, but have not yet entered a doctoral program.

One of the PhD Project’s objectives is “to reach the goal of a better prepared and more diversified workforce to service a diversified customer base.” This is an overarching goal for the business world these days as well. How are you working with businesses to ensure this objective is embedded into corporate cultures?

We have such a great group of corporate sponsors, who are true partners in furthering our mission. These organizations are all committed to taking a systemic approach to increasing workplace diversity – beyond just increasing the number of diverse hires at their own organization. While they are able to utilize our network to recruit for both entry-level and experienced positions, their support also sends a strong message to their employees and clients about their commitment to diversity. We encourage them to bring our professors in as speakers for their ERG and diversity-related events, to also help embed this into their culture.

Blane, you previously served as the executive director for Campus Recruiting and University Relations at KPMG LLP. How is that experience translated into your role at The PhD Project?

While serving in my talent acquisition leadership role for more than 20 years, I was in the position of being on the demand-driven side of the recruiting equation; KPMG and others in our industry consistently asked for more and more talent that was of great quality, embraced our culture, understood the value proposition of the profession and brought diversity to the workplace in every way imaginable. And while diversity was one of the most critical components of our “ask,” we inevitably left it up to the academic world to try and solve the supply/demand imbalance when it came to diversity. As I became more involved in the PhD Project via my role as talent acquisition leader, I quickly learned that the supply side had numerous challenges as they competed painstakingly to bring diverse talent to their institutions and business schools yet found there was an apparent extreme lack of diverse talent that was considering a career in business. The cause? A lack of role models in the classroom, on their campuses, in their administration and in their student peer groups. So now years later, I understand that to solve this imbalance, we need to first solve the supply side of the equation and that starts with getting more Black, Latinx and Native American scholars into the classroom and on our campuses as the first major step in showing diverse students that there is a place for them in the classroom, in the business community and in the boardrooms. And I am very proud and honored to know we are part of the solution side to the supply/demand imbalance as I help lead the PhD Project in continuing to create a more diverse workforce in the business community.

Most people, in general, are not familiar with doctoral studies. Professors rarely talk to students about becoming professors! This is especially true with minority populations since there are so few professors of color, and so there are fewer people in these communities to serve as role models.

More than 100 of the 130 business doctoral programs in the U.S. currently participate in The PhD Project. They attend the University Fair at our PhD Project Annual Conference to recruit more minority doctoral students into their programs, so we are working together to change this.

What ways can we best increase awareness to this audience of the opportunities a PhD program provides?

PhD Project professors are our greatest ambassadors. They speak with their own students, and often conduct presentations on our behalf on their campuses about doctoral studies. They are helping us “plant the seed” with their students.

We also attend many diversity-focused conferences and events to market a career as a professor, utilizing social media to help share our story. We ask our corporate and academic partners to help us spread the word whenever they can and welcome the opportunity to coordinate information sessions at universities, corporations and professional association events, with anyone who might be interested in learning more about this wonderful career path.