The year is 2012 and Fangzhou Lu is an undergraduate student at New York University’s Stern School of Business researching China’s stock market.
That research led Lu to MIT as a Ph.D. student, and — eventually — to the Hong Kong University Business School as an assistant professor. Like many Stern graduates, Lu’s first taste of research started in two unique programs at Stern: The Stern Program for Undergraduate Research (SPUR) and the Stern Undergraduate College’s Honors Program.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Stern Undergraduate College’s Honors Program and the 10-year anniversary of SPUR. Both are programs that have helped undergraduate Stern students, like Lu, build the foundation for a future in research.
PIONEERING RESEARCH PROGRAMS
Stern’s Honors Program offers undergraduate business students the opportunity to conduct student-driven research. The SPUR program, by contrast, gives students the opportunity to assist in faculty-led research. Both programs teach students valuable research, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. While Stern isn’t the only undergraduate B-school to offer students research opportunities, it certainly was one of the first to pioneer the model of learning through research in an undergraduate B-school setting.
“You’ve seen this type of research done at the undergraduate level traditionally more in the arts and sciences setting, but the innovation we’ve had is bringing it to the undergraduate business school setting,” Robert Whitelaw, vice dean of the Undergraduate College at Stern, says.
HONORS PROGRAM FOCUSES ON STUDENT-INITIATED RESEARCH
In Stern’s Undergraduate Honors Program, students complete a senior year thesis under the supervision of a faculty member. Interested students apply for the program in the spring of their junior year, which includes a proposal of their research and interview with faculty members. Admitted students are matched with a faculty supervisor and begin their research senior year.
The research process in the Honors Program is very much student-driven. That means students decide what topic they want to research, what thesis they want to write, and how they want to go about researching it. Research topics range from the sustainability of the Maine lobster industry to the role of blockchain in aviation to the unintended consequences of NFL rule changes.
“The research topics are all over the map. They are unbelievably varied because the interests of our students are unbelievably varied,” Whitelaw says. “The idea is that if the student is passionate about a topic and that there is a faculty member who is happy to advise, then we say, ‘go for it.’”
SPUR: ‘A WIN-WIN’ FOR STUDENTS AND FACULTY
For students looking to shadow a researcher, Stern offers SPUR, which gives students the opportunity to become research assistants on faculty-led projects.
At the start of each semester, faculty post new research opportunities, and students apply to one or more listings.
“It’s a win-win,” Whitelaw says. “The students get exposure to faculty-led, graduate-level research. They master analytical skills, problem-solving, and critical thinking. At the same time, faculty get to put their research forward because they’re getting help from great smart undergrads.”
BUILDING SOFT SKILLS ATTRACTIVE TO EMPLOYERS
The two research programs provide the unique opportunity to research in the safe undergraduate business school setting. The hope is that students build research experience and critical thinking skills that serve them well in their future endeavors — whether it’s pursuing graduate school or a research-focused career.
Employers today value soft skills such as problem solving and communication. According to a study by the Seattle Jobs Initiative, more than 75% of employers view soft skills as just as important as — or more important than — technical skills in securing entry-level employment.
Whitelaw says the self-driven aspect of Stern’s Undergraduate Honors Program signals to employers that students have valuable skills to bring to the table — from problem-solving to self-direction.
“[Employers are] not just looking for a student that can build a spreadsheet or an excel model,” Whitelaw says. “They’re looking for something that will signal to them that this student is going to develop into something more.”
AN ‘UNUSUAL’ EXPERIENCE TO GET BUSINESS-FOCUSED UNDERGRADUATE RESEARCH
Growth and development are evident in Stern’s undergraduate research programs. For Lu, the Stern undergraduate turned HKU assistant professor, both the Honors Program and SPUR helped set a strong foundation for what would become an impressive career in research.
His research paper, “The real value of China’s stock market” (completed in collaboration with Whitelaw and NYU Stern Professor Jennifer Carpenter), landed as the lead article in the March 2021 issue of the Journal of Financial Economics, one of the top finance journals in the world.
Whitelaw says that Lu’s growth is “incredible.” And while he doesn’t expect every student in Stern’s research programs to follow in the footsteps of Lu, he does hope that undergraduate business students get a glimpse into what the world of research has to offer.
“It’s unusual at undergraduate business schools to get that exposure to undergraduate research. If you were a biology major, you might work at a lab at some university and that would give you that exposure. But I think it’s a little unique and rarer to get that experience in an undergraduate business school setting,” Whitelaw says. “People don’t necessarily think of an undergraduate business school as a place for undergraduate research.”
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