How the Bocconi PhD Village Brought Paula to Harvard

, by Fabio Todesco
Paula Rettl, with some help from Bocconi faculty, gained a position as an Assistant Professor at the Harvard Business School straight out of her PhD

It took a village, but it was worthwhile: the "child" has now signed a contract as an Assistant Professor at the Harvard Business School (HBS) Business, Government & the International Economy academic unit, effective from July, 2023.

When Paula Rettl,, as a PhD candidate at Bocconi, entered the academic job market for political sciences in mid-September 2021, she sent out letters to "all the places I would really have enjoyed working at." She was pleased that HBS was among the institutions that eventually expressed interest, but she was cautious about raising her own expectations. "I was still four months away from my dissertation discussion, and I knew the selection process would be tough," Rettl says.

The first stage, in October, was a 30-minute online interview. Each candidate enters the job market with a paper, but the interviews are also used to see if there is a match between the candidates' research and teaching agenda and that of the school. In Rettl's case, evidently, the match was there, because in November she was called for the "flyout".

The flyout is the key moment in the academic job market: candidates are invited to visit the university that might hire them. They go through a series of individual interviews and present the job market paper to the faculty. "On that occasion," Rettl recalls, "in the morning, I went through half a dozen individual interviews, and in the afternoon I presented my paper. The presentation lasted about 90 minutes, half of which was spent responding to faculty comments and objections."

Rettl's job market paper summarizes her research interests, which revolve around the impact of globalization on voter preferences and on governments. "Individuals most adversely affected by globalization," she summarizes, "are expected to support parties that propose to expand the welfare state. In my paper, however, I develop an argument that this is true only when the state is the most credible actor in welfare provision. In the Global South, this is often not the case. Non-state organizations, for example churches and gangs, are sometimes able to appear as more effective and credible providers of welfare services than the state. These organizations thus use their power over the distribution of such services to influence the outcome of elections. I analyze the case of the Evangelical Church in Brazil, which has been able to shift the preferences of its congregants toward the far right."

It was precisely to find a research environment attentive to the consequences of globalization that Rettl enrolled, in 2017, in what has now become the PhD in Social and Political Sciences. "I wrote to Piero Stanig, who had been publishing extensively on the topic, and I remember that he advised me to enroll in order to get methodological training that is unmatched by any political science PhD in Europe. Today I can say that he was right and that it is one of the reasons for the success of my job market search. Another is the Bocconi PhD School's focus on recruiting PhD students from diverse academic backgrounds so that they can enrich each other."

Rettl, who had taken a Bachelor degree in geography in her native Brazil, discovered political science during an exchange period at Copenhagen University and fell in love with it, eventually enrolling in a Master program in European Affairs at Sciences Po.

Paraphrasing the African saying that "it takes a village to raise a child," Catherine De Vries, Rettl's supervisor and mentor, says that "it takes a village to turn a PhD student into a professor," and Paula felt the presence of the village throughout her years at the PhD School and, significantly, in the weeks leading up to the flyout.

"Catherine, among a thousand other things, arranged for me two stints as a Visiting Researcher at Yale and Oxford and recruited me into the research group of her LOSS project, funded by the European Research Council (pictured, the LOSS team, with Paula second from left and Catherine second from right). With her and Piero I have discussed tons of literature. Paolo Graziano, Lanny Martin and Anthony Bertelli gave me teaching experience, while with Massimo Anelli I started to work as a research assistant."

During these years Paula was also able to overcome a certain reticence to public exposure , which penalized her whenever she had to appear as a speakerr. "On the one hand, Catherine taught me how to make a presentation, and on the other hand I also took advantage of the professional counseling services provided by the school."

One of the most rewarding experiences, however, was the support of so many faculty members in flyout preparation. "I was able to rehearse my presentation many, many times, taking everyone's comments and suggestions. On my own, it would have been different."