Kate Bundorf

BundorfPlacement: Stanford School of Medicine

M. Kate Bundorf, like many students, entered graduate school unsure of her path. Fortunately, as a PhD student at Wharton, Bundorf benefited from the program’s flexibility, and more importantly, could draw from the faculty’s vast breadth and depth of knowledge. Anything she was interested in studying, she recalls, she knew there’d be someone at Wharton with whom she could work. In the end, she collaborated with Mark Pauly, a world-renowned scholar, researching employee-sponsored health insurance. Today, she’s a professor at Stanford University School of Medicine, and she credits her experience at Wharton with getting her there.

We talked to Bundorf about the value of Wharton’s student-driven PhD program, the tremendous breadth and depth of faculty knowledge and the myriad opportunities open to its PhD students.

Choosing Wharton

After undergrad, I knew that I was interested in healthcare but I wasn’t set on a specific career path within the field. I worked for a couple of years for a pharmaceutical consulting firm before pursuing graduate school. Because I was still unsure about whether I wanted to be a researcher or do something more applied, I decided to go to Berkeley to get an MBA and an MPH. At Berkeley, I had the opportunity to sit in on a couple of PhD classes and realized that I found research very exciting. At that point, I applied to a number of PhD programs focusing on health economics.

I chose the Wharton program because the faculty had broad areas of expertise and great reputations in their field. At Wharton, there is a lot of flexibility. The healthcare community is enormous—I was undecided on exactly what I wanted to research—and I felt that, for anything I was interested in, there would be someone at Wharton with whom I could work.

Lots of opportunity

I ultimately worked on issues related to insurance, employee-sponsored health insurance in particular. I looked at how employers choose plans for workers and the implications of their choices.

In my experience, Wharton was not incredibly directive. I think of Wharton as offering lots of opportunity; it’s up to the student to decide what path to choose. I ended up working with Mark Pauly, one of the world’s leading experts in this topic. But Mark, as well as other Wharton faculty, is one of the world’s leading experts on many topics, so I could have chosen other areas and still had access to excellent mentoring.

Interactive learning

The healthcare program is very flexible. There are requirements, as with any program, but there is also a lot of freedom integrated into the curriculum so students can pursue their own interests. The style of learning is generally interactive, particularly in the upper level courses. It’s not professors lecturing to students; it’s more like professors and students meeting and discovering new things together, coming up with new problems and thinking about answers to those problems. It’s collaborative.

Presenting research

There were lots of opportunities to conduct research with faculty, to present your own research, and to discuss research ideas with faculty. One course which was particularly memorable to me was offered through the then Department of Business and Public Policy. Students were responsible for choosing and presenting a published paper and then we would critique the paper as a group. It was a great learning process to get up and present someone else’s paper—you had to understand it nearly as well as the person who wrote it because you knew you would have lots of questions from your classmates and the professor. That motivated you to think on a deeper level.

Connections with faculty

Mark Pauly was my thesis advisor, and after I moved to Stanford, I continued working with him. It is impossible to overstate the impact he’s had on the way I think about things, my career and what I’ve done. Patricia Danzon was also very influential in helping me sort through different research ideas. While I was at Penn, I also worked with folks in the School of Medicine—Henry Glick and Dan Polsky—and that was really helpful, seeing things from the clinical side and strengthening those skills.

Discovering a thesis topic

Coming up with the perfect thesis topic is the most challenging part of getting your PhD. I was interested in empirical work so it was like “colliding of the stars” in terms of finding an interesting question and then finding a data source that would support it. That transition from taking classes to focusing on research was challenging for me and is challenging for students in general, I think.

The faculty at Wharton helped by talking with me about different potential research ideas, especially in healthcare. Some other universities are more directive—faculty members will say, “Here is a project that I think would be great. Why don’t you work on that?” When I was at Wharton, it was different. I went to the faculty and said, “I’m thinking about working on this and these are the data sets that I think would support it.” The faculty would talk me through whether it was an interesting question, what more I could do with it, what the barriers were. No one tells you exactly what to do; instead, they help you think through your idea.

Job market

I felt like I had a lot of support when I went in the market. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be an academic health economist or pursue a career in a different setting and the folks at Wharton were supportive of different paths.

A fantastic place to train

I think Wharton is a fantastic place to get your PhD. It’s a place with lots of opportunity, though it’s up to the student to take advantage of that opportunity. On the flip side, almost anything you are interested in, you can pursue.

My perspective is somewhat unique to healthcare. When you pursue a healthcare management PhD, it’s not just Wharton that you have access to. You have LDI, the School of Medicine, the School of Nursing. The resources at Penn are phenomenal. I think it’s a fantastic place to train.