The Research Work of a PhD Management Student: "An Entrepreneurial Process"

8 April 2014

A month before the viva for his finance dissertation, Boris Vallée, graduate from the HEC Paris Masters in Management program and now PhD student at the school, has won the Top Finance Graduate Award 2014. This prize is awarded by Copenhagen Business School and was won by another HEC Paris student, Jean-Noël Barrot, in 2013. It rewards the most promising work from young researchers, in terms of the impact it will have on the financial sector and academic field. Boris Vallée has landed a post as assistant professor at the Finance Department of Harvard Business School. In this interview, he talks about working on his dissertation and his experience at HEC Paris.

Le travail de recherche du doctorant en management, "une démarche entrepreneuriale", Boris Valle - HEC Paris 2014

Why study a PhD in Management Science and what does the HEC PhD offer?

When I graduated from HEC’s Masters in Management program, I chose to start my career in investment banking. This is the classic choice for Finance graduates and one made all the easier for me as I really like this sector. I worked for Deutsche Bank in London for three years, until I was promoted to Associate. However, this career path didn’t give me the intellectual stimulation or social purpose which rapidly became necessary to my personal accomplishment.  

I started thinking about a PhD after leaving Investment Banking, and decided to go back into academia. It’s important to clarify that in the Anglo-Saxon world, a PhD is the most prestigious type of degree, which isn’t necessarily the case in France. A PhD is now a standard in management teaching, as faculty members are all both researchers and professors. I spoke to Ulrich Hege, who was head of the Finance Major at the time, and following his advice I applied to do a PhD at HEC.

In terms of selectivity, breadth of curriculum and prestige, a PhD is an excellent springboard for a number of positions: large, international organizations, hedge funds, consultancies….But its main purpose is to give access to the academic world.
In my opinion, the HEC PhD is very well placed to offer the best of both worlds: the very demanding and competitive English system, and the quality and availability of coaching which French grandes écoles offer.  

Within the curriculum of an HEC PhD it is possible to do one or more university exchanges abroad. I chose to spend six months at Northwestern University in Chicago and a further two months at Duke University in North Carolina. These exchanges really rounded off my learning experience at HEC and prepared me for the codes of the Anglo-Saxon labor market.  

What does the life of an HEC doctoral student look like?

The week of a doctoral student is split between research, giving a weekly seminar (or sometimes a professor from another university comes to present their current research), and if you wish, teaching.
I taught a course on the Financial Market for the Masters in Management program for three years. This was both really rewarding, particularly because I myself had spent time as a student at HEC several years before, and excellent preparation for communicating in the world of academia. I did get some remarks on my English accent though!

On top of this there are conferences to attend to present your work, which are a really nice part of the profession as they allow you to meet professors from all over the world and to travel to many very appealing destinations. I’ve recently presented my work in Las Vegas, Tel Aviv, Copenhagen, Sydney to name but a few!

During your research you are very closely integrated with the teaching staff in order to benefit from their experiences and advice. A PhD student is typically in contact with four or five members of his department, but it can be more than that. Very early on you are offered the chance to co-write a research article either with a professor or with another doctoral student. This is very common in the profession and personally I think it’s both very effective and really enjoyable because it gives you a permanent connection and solidarity with your co-author as you deal with the difficulties you encounter during your project. Co-writing also gives you the pleasure of working in a team, which was one of the things I most enjoyed when I was working in consultancy.
What are the different stages involved in writing a dissertation? What role do your tutors and the ‘peer review’ play in the process?

Once the teaching year is over, the PhD student has to focus on his research program. The process is quite an entrepreneurial one. It is vital to come up with original research ideas. This can be done either by studying phenomena in areas of interest, meeting people who work in these sectors, or by reading specific publications for example, or by exploring academic literature in order to identify gaps, and see what is missing. In any case, it is very important to have a clear research question with good scope for investigation.

As an empiricist, the next step is to obtain the information needed to respond precisely to the research question you have come up with. As well as public data bases, it’s often interesting to go on the hunt for lesser known data which has thus been used less by other researchers.
Once these two steps are completed, the PhD student then turns to the quantitative work using statistical tools. At the same time, he works on writing the research article in English, which is essential in order to communicate his findings. This is one of the main differences between the French and English systems. An Anglo-Saxon research article will be no more than fifty pages, whereas a French one will be more like 500 pages! The emphasis is put on synthesizing and rigorous reasoning. The flipside is that those fifty pages are written, and then re-written many, many times though!

At each stage in the process your tutors advise you on the direction of your work, where it’s heading, as well as on the methodology. It’s really an exchange which takes the form of a discussion, exchanging emails and sometimes presenting your research to the whole department in internal seminars. This interaction is vital in letting you know that the research has sufficient interest, that it is good quality, and being carried out to the appropriate professional standards.
The peer review, the process of validating work for publication, generally happens after the PhD. It’s my next objective, once I’ve joined Harvard. I’ve planned to submit my three dissertation articles to some academic journals over the course of the next year. They will then be evaluated anonymously by expert professors in my field of research. Being accepted by the best academic reviews, such as the ‘Journal of Finance’ is any researcher’s goal, because quality, much more so than quantity, acts as your business card.  

Can you tell us what your dissertation is about then?

My dissertation is on financial innovation. In my three research articles, I look at the reasons for, and effects of, developing innovative financial products. My first article concentrates on the toxic loans issued by local communities, and how their use is part of a system of political incentives. The second analyses the growing complexity of the financial products offered to particular investors and suggests that this complexity is used by banks to reduce rivalry. Finally, on a more positive note, my third article explores how the adoption of an innovative type of bonds can help reduce the systemic risk of banks.


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