What the Global Executive Track Ph.D. offers industry professionals

By Peter Varma
Graduate Ambassador
Ph.D. candidate in industrial engineering, Global Executive Track (GET)

Fulbright program attendees in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.

“You’re an experienced professional, why are you pursuing a Ph.D.?”

I have heard this question dozens of times. Given my academic and professional background, it’s a reasonable enquiry: I have accrued over 25 years of engineering and management experience, including a key leadership position in developing the Jeep Renegade. I have had progressively challenging responsibilities at Volvo, Bell Helicopter and Chrysler and am currently a Product Development Director at S&P Global. I already have two graduate degrees. So why pursue a Ph.D. through the GET program in systems engineering

The short answer is that I am attracted to the learning journey with its myriad of new ideas, experiences and insights. One remarkable Ph.D. experience was a trip to Sofia, Bulgaria as a Fulbright appointee.  While in Sofia, I met with government officials (including a former U.S. Ambassador to Russia!), Fulbright scholars, political scientists, constitutional lawyers and journalists. We participated in intense discussions concerning the spread of democracy in Eastern Europe. As a mechanical engineer, it was invigorating to be given the opportunity to span boundaries, one of the most unique aspects of doctoral studies.

2022 INFORMS Annual Meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana.

I joined the program fully expecting a largely solitary experience given the independent nature of dissertation research.  I’m an individualist, so many of my passions, including motorcycling, weightlifting and collecting vinyl records, are solo activities. I was comfortable with what I envisioned to be long hours of self-contained research and introspection to complete this degree. 

On the contrary, I have been in the GET program for three years now and am not a loner, but part of an incredibly collegial and collaborative network of professors, alumni and students. While I anticipated a fantastic learning experience in which I would gain new perspectives from the GET community, I did not realize the importance of reciprocity in my role as a student. My professors constantly remind my class that we are learning partners and thus in a unique position to challenge academic perspectives given our industry experience. It is precisely this interaction which can uncover knowledge gaps in academia and lead to the discovery of novel and relevant research domains. 

Peter Varma

A retrospective case study I wrote on the development of the Jeep Renegade made me especially appreciative of this collaboration. I initially interpreted many of the Jeep development challenges as mainly technical knowledge gaps as we developed this vehicle simultaneously by two different teams, one team which had little SUV development experience.  After taking graduate-level anthropological courses on working culture, I concluded that the challenges were more cultural than technical. I never would have gained such invaluable insights without the intellectual exchanges endemic to the GET program.

So why complete a Ph.D.?  It’s a worthwhile endeavor to simultaneously enrich yourself, challenge yourself and complete a respected educational milestone. Perhaps the better question is: Why complete a Ph.D. through the GET program? For me the answer is clear: the amazing opportunity to gain life-changing experiences with a fantastic network of brilliant and collegial peers.

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