From Corvinus to Stanford and Yale: „There were examples to be followed”

Kovács Balázs

Balázs Kovács sociologist, network researcher, lecturer at the Yale School of Management. He earned his PhD at Stanford University, his articles are published in top international scholarly journals. He had graduated from Corvinus University and used to be member of the Rajk College of Advanced Studies. We interviewed him on his exceptional professional career and current research themes.

You had received your diploma in Economics and Sociology from Corvinus, then pursued doctoral studies at Stanford. How did the opportunity come?
It meant a lot that when I was a third and fourth year student, I saw at the Rajk College of Advanced Studies that others went abroad to do a PhD. If this had not been the case, it might not have occurred to me that a doctorate and a research career were realistic options. This way, however, I realized that I would be interested, too. Later when I spent a semester in Groningen owing to an Erasmus and discussed the issue with others there, I was intrigued to do something similar.

The first idea was to apply to the Netherlands, like many others did. That is how it all began. When I looked into the application procedure, it turned out that whereas in Europe applications were received in the spring, in the US this was in the autumn. I said to myself: what if I applied to the US first and if I get rejected there, I will try Europe in the Spring. It so happened that I was admitted. I applied to 13-14 places in the US, everywhere for Sociology, except to Stanford. In fact, Professor László Pólos, whose Organization Theories course I attended at the Eötvös University, suggested that I should rather go for a PhD in Organizational Theory at a Business School. He knew a number of persons at Stanford and recommended me to them, that is why I applied at all. Although I was admitted elsewhere as well, I chose this and as far as I see now, it was a sound decision.

Could you make use of your background in Sociology during the program?
Yes, two out of my three supervisors were sociologists. It had also been suggested that the choice between the two disciplines would not really matter as there were many overlaps. As a matter of fact, I also attended the Organization Theory classes held by Miklós Dobák and Károly Balaton at Corvinus and when I was already at Stanford I received a letter from them saying that they would be visiting. It transpired that they paid a visit to Stanford every three years to talk with the people there, to check out the library and to find out what was going on in the world. So I met them there, too.

How did the topic of your doctoral thesis take shape?
What is good about a business school is that you can compile your dissertation by uniting three articles. This is not possible in Sociology, where you are expected to write a book. I could have managed that as well, but I guess it was better the other way. The underlying question of my topic was to what extent organizations are alike, who emulates who, how do strategic innovations spread. How far do you wish to resemble others and to be different. If an organization differs too much, it will not be taken seriously. If on the other hand it is very similar, it does the same thing as others and loses its competitive edge. The question therefore is: what is the optimal distance from the others? I analysed and wrote about how this could be measured and what the implications were.

Later on, you started to work at the University of Italian Switzerland: How did this ensue from the doctorate at Stanford?
The practical consideration was that when I went to the university job fair in the autumn of 2008, the economic crisis was at its height and jobs were not to be found anywhere. As a rule, PhD programs last for five years and job applications should be submitted in the summer between the fourth and the fifth year. I applied to 40-50 places and received a number of invitations for job interviews that were to take place in November-December. Half of them were cancelled due to the hiring freeze implemented at the universities, there were no open positions. This coincided in time with the collapse of Lehman Brothers. In the US there is a rule in place at universities, especially the private ones, that a maximum of 3% of the founders’ assets may be spent on operating costs. If the stock exchange falls, the value of their assets depreciate and as a consequence, the budget also decreases. Actually the rule is not too sensible as while Stanford for instance had 20 billion dollars in the bank, it introduced a total freeze on hiring, it could have instead gained a competitive advantage from recruiting people.

I received an offer from Switzerland and went there. Had I insisted on staying in the US, I could surely have remained there, I could have done a postdoctorate or something like that. Lugano however attracted me. Although the university itself is not that famous, the department I was engaged by was excellent, among the top three in Europe in organizational theory. And they paid better than elsewhere. I worked there for six years altogether, at first I would not have thought to stay for such a long time. Life there was good, the place combined the advantages of Switzerland and Italy: food was delicious, I was surrounded by palm trees. The only downside was that I felt the city too small which disturbed me. But there was money for research, the teaching load was manageable and the colleagues were nice.

How did you after all get to Yale?
I was searching for opportunities along the way. The more you publish, the more there are. This model works well, additionally who you know is also important. But if one has no publications, everything is futile.

How could your past at Corvinus and Rajk support your career path?
When I went to Corvinus, the program had still lasted for five years. It took me six years to graduate as while I was in the Netherlands, I took a year off from Corvinus. It was great that the program did not end after three years like for instance the Bachelor studies in England. In my view that is too short. At 18 you start to party and by the time you wake up, the whole thing is over. Joking aside, one needs time to find out what one is interested in, what one would like to deal with. It was nice that I had the opportunity to try out everything during the five years. I went to various classes, I could select from a much broader offer than I could have in the US and or Western Europe where you have to specialize to a greater degree. The fact that I have a wider ranging vision than many of my colleagues can be attributed to this, which is more of a Central-East European trait than a specific Corvinus or Rajk feature. In this region, university staff are less focused on specific areas, which has both its advantages and disadvantages. Anyway, it is an essential difference.

At the university though not every class had been useful, I learned various things from various people. Most importantly, there was time and opportunity to take varied elective classes. And as I have mentioned, there were examples to be followed at Rajk, people I could actually ask how this or that could be done, what were the difficulties, what you needed to keep in mind.

How close is your relationship with the Rajk community, how active are the alumni?
As far as I can see, they are very active and I am also in touch. Especially with members from my own year and one or two years before and after me. If I enter the College, I don’t know anyone save two or three persons. We however receive the newsletters and are in touch. When alumni working abroad come home, they are invited to hold a two-three day mini-seminar involving intensive work on a specific topic. I myself held such a seminar a few years ago.

How do you see the situation of Hungarian higher education and that of Corvinus on the basis of your international experience? What are our strengths that can be built upon, what needs to be developed?
This question involves many layers. What is outstanding, or rather used to be outstanding in Hungary is secondary school education. Having met the students of Stanford and Yale, I would say that one third of the Corvinus students could go there without a problem. Simply because of their secondary school education, their knowledge. The human element is excellent at Corvinus.

Having said this, I see secondary level education deteriorating in Hungary, moreover an increasing number of students continue their studies abroad after the baccalaureate. This might result in difficulties for the universities, accessing the best students will become harder. The phenomenon can also be witnessed at Yale: some of the bachelor-level students cannot write and formulate their ideas properly, as they are not used to doing so. They think in terms of Facebook posts.

Tuition fees are obviously no good, as while paying hundreds of thousand forints each term might be an issue for many, the amounts involved do not constitute such a great burden for the state budget. The university could try to attract corporate scholarships to ease the burden on students with social needs, say by approaching alumni. I think that the number of places with state scholarship is low, in certain specialities only very few students receive it. This may weaken the university’s competitive position: if a student realizes that he or she can study in the Netherlands for free or in Austria for about the same amount, he or she will weigh the options. I see this as a problem which the university could be active in solving.

What is the situation with respect to research and teaching?
The problem is that things are interrelated. I witness among my acquaintances who teach at Corvinus that their lecturing burden is huge, sometimes they are required to teach 12-14 hours a week. I know that this can be put down to a lack of resources. It is clear, however, that lecturers are overburdened, they have less time for each student and less time to do research. This is difficult to change, but is a key difference compared to US universities: in Hungary lecturers have much less energy for individual students and individual subjects.

Your professional interests are diverse, you publish in numerous subjects. Which are the most important among them, what topics are you working on currently?
I am interested in many things, perhaps my interests should be more focused, but I tend to get bored if I always deal with the same topic. Broadly speaking I am engaged in Economic Sociology, in its various areas, mostly in phenomena observable in the online world. I use for instance online reviews to understand how companies position themselves, what they say about themselves to customers. Today a vast amount of data is available that was not accessible before. The article I am currently working on focuses on this. When people provide online reviews, for instance on hotels or restaurants, they give a score, a number of stars and write a text. I am trying to find out how the text relates to the score. In fact, it is not uncommon that someone describes a place as the best Italian restaurant of his or her life and gives it four or three stars. In such cases I wonder when he or she would give five. I am attempting to examine what the reasons might be, whether there is something systematic in the background. This is important since everything that establishes a rank does so by averaging the scores. If, however, the scores do not reflect what people really think, we have a problem, our tool does not measure correctly. Can we forecast quality on the basis of the text better than on the basis of scores? One can mine data, identify the key words that suggest the underlying meaning. That is what I have been working on recently.

In this respect it is also exciting to find out on what basis people find others’ opinions reliable. It seems, for instance, that fake profiles are given less credit. Views that are pronounced in one’s own name have more influence on us even if we don’t agree otherwise. This is interesting because it is believed that we tend to listen to people who think like us. This being true, it seems however that even if you are aware that the other is different but he or she is a real person that you can associate with something, you will listen more. It follows that it is more useful to require adding your name on forums and review platforms.

What would your message be to a young researcher, to a fresh PhD student?
First, you should read extensively and talk to various people. As you get older, you narrow down and if you miss the opportunity early on, you will miss it altogether. You won’t feel good and your articles won’t be good either. Second, you should not rush things. Many people say at the beginning of their twenties: I am focusing, I am focusing, I am not doing anything else, I have to study. Later on, however, it will be increasingly hard to do something else. At twenty you can take a gap year, go abroad. If you already teach, do research and have children, it will become much more complicated. Also, you should try your hand at many things, which however I guess they already know.

Máté Baksa