“It’s the best way to gain real-world insights” | Pre-Doctoral Research Assistants at the Wheeler Institute

Two Pre-Doctoral Researchers at the Wheeler Institute for Business and Development reveal how the experience has profoundly shaped their academic ambitions – and yielded some surprising insights along the way

Whatever preconceptions Pre-Doctoral students have before they join the Wheeler Institute, they are always surprised to find that the experience is much broader than they could have imagined – and that it will take them on a journey of intellectual exploration that extends far beyond the classroom.

Take Mithilesh Shah, for example. An engineer by training, Mithilesh – whose interests lie in the use of data to improve public health and development outcomes – was able to develop the research skills needed to tell rich and compelling stories using data. That, of course, is not to be wondered at, given that the purpose of the Wheeler Institute is to apply business insights to help solve real-world challenges.

I believe the most crucial part of the pre-doctoral experience was the opportunity to interact and learn from a wide range of mentors”

Mithilesh Shah, Pre-Doctoral Research Assistant at the Wheeler Institute for Business and Development.

What did surprise him was the question he was most often asked by the micro-entrepreneurs he met on a field trip to India: “Mithilesh, how do we sell our products?” He describes the opportunity to visit the rural regions of India and experience how female micro-entrepreneurs run their businesses as “the most important part of my pre-doctoral experience.”

Mithilesh Shah's India Field Visit 2022

For Mithilesh, the pre-doc programme was not merely about developing technical skills, but also key in helping him hone vital soft skills. In fact, the experience changed his understanding of what research is. He had never used qualitative interview techniques before but, as a result of speaking with the women entrepreneurs in India, he now believes “It’s the best way to gain real-world insights”. The field work, when he found himself leading collaboration with a micro-finance firm, has helped cement his decision to work on business and development-related issues.

Another factor that led him to making that decision was the opportunity to interact with and learn from a wide range of mentors at the Wheeler Institute; mentors who have already helped open multiple doors for him to explore his areas of academic interest.

Creative freedom to make a real impact

Julian Marenz, whose interests lie in political economy, development economics and environmental economics and who is also currently on a two-year pre-doc programme, agrees that academia can have a positive real-world impact, but notes that it differs from working in industry because of “the creative freedom afforded to researchers”.

It is a freedom that, Julian says, enables researchers to decide what they want to focus on and how they want to approach the subject, then delve deeply into it.

Like Mithilesh, Julian has also been surprised by the readiness of faculty to help junior researchers. He says, “What stands out about the LBS faculty I interacted with during my time at the Wheeler Institute is how seriously they took me. It was not about delegating work to someone; instead, it was a case of integrating me into the research and listening to my opinion.”

That deep level of interaction extended to him co-authoring a paper with Professor of Economics and Wheeler Institute Academic Co-Director Elias Papaioannou. As Julian says, “I know of many other people pursuing a pre-doc and [being given this opportunity] is not the norm.”

“What stands out about the LBS faculty I interacted with during my time at the Wheeler Institute is how seriously they took me”

Julian Marenz, Pre-Doctoral Research Assistant at the Wheeler Institute for Business and Development.

While doing the programme, Julian also became a teaching assistant for a course on African economic history that had a staggering 27,000 registrations. The course not only provided him with a deeper understanding of African economic history and gave him exposure to world-leading researchers, but also enabled him to interact with a student body drawn mainly from Africa, thereby providing another key life skill: “Having these interactions is invaluable. Going forward, I will always remember how important it is to listen as a first step.”

His pre-doc has also helped him develop his technical skills. He had some experience in research techniques but realised that, because quantitative research involves processing large amounts of data and using coding to clean and analyse it, he needed to augment his skillset. He says: “I had some experience in R and Stata, but had never used Python before. Now, I am comfortable with all three languages. More and more research in economics uses granular geospatial data to test hypotheses. This was a big part of what I had to do during my work as a research assistant and will be essential during my PhD.”

Another key insight he has gained is that, while working hard on something only to make minimal progress can be frustrating, “realising that this happens to everyone helps you to develop resilience to such setbacks” and that, “once you acquire that resilience, research is as exciting as it is interesting.”

Different paths to the same goal

While they come from very different academic backgrounds and have differing research interests, what unites Mithilesh and Julian is the desire to work at the intersection of business and development, and use scientific enquiry to change the world for the better.

Mithilesh says, “After working with Rajesh Chandy [LBS Professor of Marketing and Academic Co-Director of the Wheeler Institute] on multiple projects that use marketing principles for a better world, I now plan to develop a new stream of scholarship to understand how marketing can help tackle global challenges such as climate change and poverty, and chronic diseases such as diabetes.”

For Julian, addressing “the most pressing problems of our time, such as climate change, poverty and inequality … requires policy that is based on a deep understanding of the issues.”

The pre-doctoral research assistant programme at the Wheeler Institute offers just such an opportunity for recent graduates to conduct the research that will inform that policy.

About Julian Marenz

Julian Marenz is currently a Pre-Doctoral Research Assistant at the Wheeler Institute for Business and Development. Prior to that, he completed a BSc in Economics and Business Economics at Maastricht University and a MSc in Economics at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Julian has a strong interest in topics that relate to political economy, development economics, and environmental economics.  

In September 2022, Julian will commence his PhD in Economics at London Business School.

About Mithilesh Shah

Mithilesh Shah is currently a Pre-Doctoral Research Assistant at the Wheeler Institute for Business and Development. Prior to joining the Wheeler Institute, Mithilesh completed his Master’s degree in International Development at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Previously, he worked as a UNICEF fellow in Chhattisgarh, India, to train frontline health workers using digital technologies. Mithilesh’s research interests revolve around the use of data and technology to improve public health and development outcomes. He has spent a significant amount of time in the field, seeking to better understand the causes and implications of child malnutrition in rural India.

In September 2022, Mithilesh will commence his PhD in Marketing at London Business School.

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