From Hesitant PhD Student to Acclaimed Researcher

Kennesaw State PhD Candidate Jen Riley
Jen Riley

KENNESAW, Ga. (Aug 7, 2020) — Less than 20 years ago, Jen Riley was convinced that her professional goals did not include graduate school. Today, however, as Riley earns her PhD in marketing and professional sales and embraces a second career as an academic and researcher, she cannot imagine leading a different life.

Since enrolling in the Michael J. Coles College of Business’s PhD in Business Administration program in 2018, Riley has seen her research on social media published at academic conferences and in peer-reviewed journals. She has also earned multiple fellowships and grants and presented two papers at the American Marketing Association Summer Educator’s conference, the flagship conference for marketing professors.

Riley recently accepted a full-time position teaching marketing and professional sales at Kansas State University’s National Strategic Sales Institute. While teaching was not her original career goal, she has discovered a passion for it.

PhD Candidate Jen Riley with Michael J. Coles
Jen Riley (center) attending event with Michael J. Coles on October 2018

“I love teaching marketing,” she said. “You’d think it would get boring teaching the same subject every year, but it feels like a different class every time. The interactions with students are always different and their personal backgrounds make it a dynamic challenge. Learning what they are interested in and their long-term goals is a major part of what I get out of the experience.”

Riley has completed the two-year, in-class portion of the PhD program and is now preparing to defend her dissertation proposal on co-creating value in the professional sales process. The research examines how salespeople can use social media to create engagement and value among customers.

“We have all this research out there about how companies are using social media as a platform,” she said, “but we haven’t asked consumers how they feel about using social media to sell to them or what the salesperson gets out of using the method to reach consumers.”

Her work has already attracted considerable attention. In September, Riley’s first solo-authored research manuscript will be published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Global Scholars of Marketing Science, and she has multiple papers in progress and under review. She will also present in October at New York’s Baruch College research symposium, an event recognizing exceptional work from minority PhD candidates. The symposium is conducted in-part by the PhD Project, a nationwide partnership of sponsors and universities encouraging minorities to pursue doctoral business degrees.

Other honors include receiving the American Marketing Association’s Valuing Diversity PhD Scholarship, earning the Direct Selling Education Foundation 2019 research grant, and being named a Grace Hopper Celebration Fellow by the Anita B. Foundation, which supports women working in technology.

“It’s been incredibly overwhelming,” Riley said of her recognitions. “A lot of psychologists will speak about the imposter syndrome especially from a female, African-American perspective. Even with all these accolades, I still experience it on a daily basis.”

Before joining the Coles College PhD program, Riley had never conducted academic research. She described the process of submitting her manuscripts to review boards and reacting to their feedback as “vulnerable” and “very draining.”

“But, I absolutely love it,” she added. “I can’t imagine ever doing anything else again.”

This was not always true. After earning her Master of Science in Marketing from Georgia State University in 2011, she spent several years working professional marketing jobs, starting a consulting business, publishing a book about social media marketing, and teaching undergraduate marketing classes at LaGrange College and Gwinnett Technical College.

“I asked myself ‘do I really want five more years of school?’’ she said. “Not really.”

However, leading classrooms convinced her that teaching was her future. She chose Kennesaw State’s PhD business program because the classes meet once per month for two years, with students spending the remaining one-to-three years completing their dissertations independently. This allowed her to continue working while gaining more academic experience, including serving as visiting professor at Alabama A&M University during her second year and spending a semester teaching an undergraduate marketing class at Kennesaw State.

Jen Riley with undergraduate students
Riley with her undergraduate students at National Collegiate Sales Competition

As a PhD candidate, working with talented faculty like marketing and professional sales professors Leila Borders and Mona Sinha has helped Riley grow as a student, educator, and a researcher.

“It’s been a pleasure seeing her flourish in the program,” Sinha said. “She is always willing to accept a challenge and throw her hat in the ring for any opportunities that come her way. Her boundless energy, grit, ability to seize opportunities, and to multitask are skills which will serve her well in life.”

Jen Riley and Adriane Randolph
Riley with Adriane Randolph in the BrainLab

Adrian Randolph, director of the Kennesaw State BrainLab, has been mentoring Riley since the beginning and has become her research partner. They are using eye-tracking and electroencephalogram readings to better understand how users interact with social media posts.

“Jen has shown great potential for a career in research,” Randolph said. “Her inquisitive nature and openness to a variety of methods guided by her research question shows her determination to find quality answers. Further, she is able to bring her industry experience into the world of academia and more strongly connect the dots for managerial implications.”

As Riley prepares to move across the country to begin teaching at Kansas State, she is grateful for the opportunity the Coles College PhD program has given her to build her new career.

“When I got accepted into the program, I walked away from corporate America and went all-in on academia,” she said. “The support I’ve received here is unmatched.”

-Patrick Harbin