PRIMO at HBS: Fostering a New Generation of Researchers
Up Close: People have long been curious about what it’s like to be a student at Harvard Business School, and increasingly they are also interested in how the best-known school of management manages itself. This is the fifth installment of a new series called Up Close, featuring the day-to-day work of the School and the people who do it.
26 Sep 2017   Zeenat Potia

What do an aspiring MPhil candidate in development studies at Oxford, a new assistant professor of marketing at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, and a rising senior at Harvard College have in common? They have all been PRIMO Fellows at Harvard Business School. The Program for Research in Markets and Organizations (PRIMO) is a 10-week summer program, primarily for selected Harvard undergraduates who wish to work closely with Harvard Business School faculty on scholarly research programs.

Summer 2017 marked the seventh year for this research experience program, which has been designed to develop scholarly skills, creativity, and a sense of scholarly community among a small group of motivated undergraduates. PRIMO’s most recent iteration was expanded beyond Harvard College as a pilot program to include three Wellesley College students and one from Mount Holyoke to help achieve the program’s mission to create a diverse group of Fellows (including but not limited to women and underrepresented minorities) who are inspired by and committed to pursuing excellence in business research. To date, a total of 119 students have participated in the program.

Alan Castro, a rising Harvard senior, took part in PRIMO this summer. Born in Dallas and raised in Central Mexico, he is studying psychology and likes to read Harvard Business Review to relax, he said with a smile in a recent interview. Paired with Assistant Professor Susanna Gallani of the School’s Accounting and Management Unit, Castro worked with her on a study on risk and compensation design for executive pay. “I felt very valued by the research team, which took my input seriously,” he said. “Although I come from an experimental psychology background, which is poles apart from accounting and finance, they saw this as an asset.” Castro speaks highly about Professor’s Gallani as a mentor, “I love doing research and Professor Gallani saw the potential in me to continue down this road. I have been invited back to work for her as a Research Assistant this semester. I feel like I am having real impact, and the work doesn’t tire me out. I don’t drag out of bed. In fact I’m excited to go to HBS to work.” For Castro, PRIMO has the potential to be life changing, since he would eventually like to go into academia and pursue a PhD program in business.

Tami Kim, who was one of Castro’s mentors at HBS, followed a similar path, and her success is also a tribute to PRIMO’s impact. Now a member of the Darden marketing faculty after earning her doctorate in business administration from Harvard Business School last May, she was a rising Harvard senior concentrating in government, with a secondary interest in psychology, when she participated in PRIMO in 2011. She worked with Professors Francesca Gino and Mike Norton on their Decision Making and Behavioral Economics project, participating in their lab group throughout her PRIMO summer and in the year afterwards. Kim speaks fervently about how the program introduces undergraduates to business academia and fosters close relationships with faculty. “Professor Norton was the chair of my dissertation committee,” she noted. “He has been like a father-figure in both my professional and personal life, and if I had to choose one person that I aspire to be as an academic, mentor, and colleague, it would be him.”

According to Kim, PRIMO is integral to the mission of HBS, because “in order to fulfill the School’s mission of educating leaders who can make a difference in the world, we need to produce educators who can disseminate relevant, rigorous, and state-of-the-art research. Even those PRIMO students who decide that business research isn’t suited to them have gone on to industry with the lessons they learned from the program. They often talk about how exposure to business research and the faculty they worked with influenced the ways they approached challenges at their work.”

Marais Young, Associate Director in the Doctoral Programs at HBS, who is the administrator in charge of PRIMO, describes what she thinks makes it distinct. When the program was first envisioned by Professor Mihir Desai she explained, it was modelled on the Harvard College Program for Research in Science and Engineering (PRISE). However, Professor Desai wanted to ensure that PRIMO also had what he referred to as HBS’s “special sauce,” which includes giving Fellows an opportunity to hear from researchers at various stages in their careers – from first-year doctoral students to junior faculty to the Dean. These speakers talk not only about their research agenda but about their pathways to academia and what they most enjoy about doing research at a business school. Since PRIMO is often the Fellows’ first exposure to HBS, Young added, they also participate in a few in-class case discussions to give them a sense of what discussion-based teaching is like and show them how research leads to preparing cases and other course materials for the MBA classroom.

Young is also passionate about PRIMO, because “One of the things that PRIMO Fellows walk away with at the end of the summer is a sense of how vibrant and supportive the HBS community is--from the Baker Research Services team, the Behavioral Research Group, Research Computing Services, and the IT Help Desk to faculty mentors and a long list of guest speakers to all the people in Spangler who tend to the Fellows’ needs and wants at meal times and in between. Another vital part of the program is Operations, which supports the more than 35 events that are planned for the Fellows throughout the course of the program.”

Dhruva Bhat, who is off to Oxford for graduate work, could not agree more. “PRIMO could not happen anywhere else but HBS. The combination of dazzling professors and captivating case study sessions gave us a uniquely HBS experience.” Bhat was drawn to PRIMO, he said, because it offered him an opportunity for research in the social sciences in a well-structured program that had a great reputation among his friends. After PRIMO, he worked as a research assistant for Professor Tarun Khanna, and his senior thesis ended up being about education in India, a topic not far from his PRIMO research project, which was about the use of mobile phones in developing countries and how they can provide better access to services in the areas of education, banking, and mobile healthcare. “Professor Khanna has been a terrific mentor to me, encouraging me to think about questions that fundamentally affect people in countries across the world. PRIMO alumni are all young leaders who aspire to do that.”


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