Professor Subrata K. Sen

Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Professor of Organization, Management, and Marketing

By Dylan Walsh

When Subrata Sen, the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Professor of Organization, Management, and Marketing and a foundational figure in the field of quantitative marketing, landed his first academic job 50 years ago, he seemed an unlikely fit for marketing positions. His doctorate explored formal models of electoral decision making in France’s Fifth Republic. He published his research in the American Political Science Review. 

“I did that work because it was interesting,” says Sen, who will retire in the spring of 2018. “But it was also apparent that choices between political candidates are not terribly different from choices between brands.” Political candidates, like products, comprise a bundle of attributes; voters, like buyers, narrow their choices based on messages and perceived characteristics. In 1968, giving a job talk at the University of Texas at Austin, he outlined this connection. The university hired him as an assistant professor in marketing.

This ability to envision how disparate streams of research contribute to marketing scholarship is a defining theme of Sen’s career. When he became editor in chief of Marketing Science in 1983, the journal had only been in print for one year and was still trying to find its footing. Over the six years that Sen held the appointment, he published a range of articles rooted in game theory and econometrics, disciplines that at the time were not commonly associated with the field.  (Also under Sen’s leadership, the journal published research by Richard Thaler on the concept of mental accounting that was recently cited by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in awarding Thaler the 2017 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences.)

“Very early on, and well before it was fashionable, Subrata saw the importance of these subjects to understanding marketing phenomena,” says K. Sudhir, a colleague at Yale SOM (Sen hired Sudhir in 2001) and the current editor in chief of Marketing Science. By the time Sen left in 1988, Marketing Science had become the preeminent journal of quantitative marketing, an outlet for the field’s most rigorous research.

“Many of the tools and methods advocated by Sen have now become the center of gravity of the marketing field,” says Sudhir. “Beyond his own research, catalyzing the expansion of the field’s substantive focus is one of his lasting legacies.”

After two years at UT-Austin, Sen moved to the University of Chicago, then to the University of Rochester, and finally to Yale, in 1983, where he’s remained ever since. The School of Management’s philosophy proved a fitting complement to his own sprawling intellectual interests. “It’s always been a place that trains students to work in any area—for-profit, nonprofit, public sector,” he says. “When I was teaching at other schools, we didn’t have to think across areas. Coming to SOM forced me to make a special effort to find cases from each sector so that students could see general principles applied in a variety of areas.”

Sen started out designing and teaching core MBA classes. For the past decade, he has offered more advanced courses on pricing strategy and the design and marketing of new products. But regardless of content, the format of his instruction follows a few guidelines: Sen lectures part of the time, he invites outside speakers to match his academic perspective with practitioner insights, and, most important, he tries to get students involved. At the outset of each course, his students fill out basic biographical information, which he draws on to enrich his teaching.

“I remember presenting a case on electric cars with a student in the class who had worked for Tesla,” Sen says. “He hadn’t said a word throughout the semester, but I knew about his experience so I got him to talk about it. He was outstanding.”

In 1992, Sen volunteered to direct Yale SOM’s PhD program. At the time, only a handful of students were pursuing PhDs, and the curriculum focused on a somewhat narrow range of traditional disciplines. Over the course of his directorship—more than 20 years—he expanded the available disciplines from three to five, adding operations management and organizational behavior; he recruited more students, getting personally involved in the admissions process; and he pushed for, and succeeded in getting, larger stipends for doctoral students, making SOM more competitive with its peer schools.

“The doctoral program is in a nice, strong position now,” Sen says. “When I think back on what I’ve done here that I’m happiest about, developing the PhD program would definitely be one of the things.”

Amid the program’s growth, he made it a point to stay connected with the students, meeting personally with each one twice a year, checking on their progress and opening himself to questions and concerns. He also taught doctoral seminars in marketing in which he pushed students to not only understand the relevant literature, but also to search assiduously for the limits and weaknesses in the research that they read.

“He’s a very thoughtful teacher,” says Chakravarthi Narasimhan, one of Sen’s doctoral students at Rochester and now a professor at Olin Business School at Washington University in St Louis. “He doesn’t tell you what to do, but he instead encourages you to think on your own. When you talk to him about an idea you have or a framework you’ve developed, he’ll listen and then push back, challenge you, ask if you’ve looked into this or that work, ask how it takes a step beyond what we currently know—he’ll help you to make it a unique contribution that stands on its own legs.”

Sridhar Balasubramanian, who was the first doctoral student in marketing at Yale SOM, is now a prominent scholar, serving as professor of marketing and senior associate dean at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. “A lot of advisers will encourage you to find a gap in the literature and turn that into a dissertation, but Subrata was the opposite,” he says. “He wanted me to be bold, to go where academics hadn’t gone before, to look at new areas of interest and new research paradigms. He was dramatically open to new ideas.” 

Sen, he adds, is a genuinely nice person who always placed students’ interests before his own: “He is demanding and tough, but also enormously supportive.” 

With the same spirit of revitalization that he brought to the PhD program, Sen threw himself into building Yale SOM’s marketing department. His hiring in 1983 doubled the number of marketing faculty from one to two—and his lone colleague left soon after Sen arrived. Today, the department includes 16 faculty in both quantitative and behavioral marketing. Both academic and business communities recognize it as one of the country’s premier marketing research groups, an achievement that required both canny recruitment and active mentorship.

“Subrata has always been a very encouraging and supportive person,” says Sudhir. “He was critical to my success, and to the success of this department.”

More than anything, Sen seems to relish the role of advocating on behalf of junior faculty—a trait that exemplifies his interest in developing not simply a personal research agenda but the marketing field as a whole. Faculty within and beyond Yale have been greatly influenced by his eagerness to lend a hand.

Pinar Yildirim, an assistant professor at Wharton, met Sen after a 2013 talk she gave at Yale SOM. “Ever since, he’s been a very strong supporter,” she says. He attends her talks, meets with her at conferences, and provides thoughtful feedback on her work. “There are not many senior professors who provide so much help,” she says, especially since she was never one of his students and doesn’t work at Yale.

Anne Coughlan, now a professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School, benefitted from this same generosity. Rochester hired Coughlan straight from graduate school to be an assistant professor of economics. Soon after starting her job, she approached Sen, who was also there at the time. She mentioned that she’d like to switch to the marketing department. “He was the head of the group, and he mentored me—he helped me teach marketing classes, he showed me the literature, introduced me to people in the field, and even made me a member of the editorial board at Marketing Science,” Coughlan recalls. “Having someone who is willing to champion you like that is a big thing.”

This deep commitment to the field and its people “is a very big part of his fame,” she says. “This is the reason why so many people think of him as a colleague.”

In light of this commitment, Coughlan, Narasimhan, and a handful of other marketing professors recently nominated Sen to be a Fellow in the INFORMS Society for Marketing Science, which recognized him in 2016 for his lifetime achievements. “This is a major honor, and it was nice to get together and revisit Subrata’s contribution over the years,” Coughlan says. “He created a lot of glue for the field.”

Reflecting on his career recently, Sen thought back to one of his first days at Yale SOM. The movers had not yet delivered his books. He sat at an empty desk with nothing to do. “I was twiddling my thumbs when [financial economist] Stephen Ross came in and told me to go out and take a tour.” With a small group, he traversed the campus, learning its stories and marveling at the architecture.

This short reverie led Sen to a simple recommendation for new faculty, whatever their discipline: work hard, of course, and get published, but take a walk, enjoy the campus. Let your mind drift beyond the walls of your office.

Interviewed on July 26, 2017