CFO didn't need Ph.D., but this one gets the job done

This weekend, Jackie Fouse will pick up her doctorate in finance, almost a decade after starting the program. Congrats aside, why did she bother?

Unlike most college grads, Fouse already had a great job, plus a bachelor's and master's degree in economics. She has been the chief financial officer for four big companies in the past 11 years, and is currently CFO of Celgene Corp., a Fortune 500 drugmaker in Summit, N.J.

Her salary, bonuses and stock awards topped $7 million in the past two years alone.

When your time is that valuable and corporate responsibilities so great, why devote so many years to a school project at the University of Texas at Arlington?

"It's the same reason that I run marathons," Fouse said in a telephone interview. "It's there to be done, so I'm doing it."

Indeed, last Sunday, Fouse ran the Pittsburgh marathon in just over five hours. She was slowed by the hills and humidity but finished all 26 miles.

"Twenty-six point two," she corrected me, lest there be any question of her stopping short.

And therein lies the lesson that Fouse can offer everyone, whether their careers are taking off or stalling out: Finish what you start.

It may take longer than planned, be harder than imagined and the payoff may be unclear. But the pursuit of a lofty goal, and the all-important follow-through, are marks of a winner.

On Saturday, Fouse turns 51, and on Sunday, she'll be in Arlington for the graduation ceremony for UTA's College of Business. It's a homecoming, and not just because her parents are visiting from Athens, Texas, and her sister and family from Alabama.

Fouse grew up in North Texas, and earned her earlier degrees from UTA. She's an adviser and donor to the business college, taught a case-study class there and was even commencement speaker nine years ago.

Her story should inspire students at UTA and elsewhere, because so many never get one degree, much less three. Just 1 in 5 UTA freshmen in 2007 graduated by the end of 2011, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. UTA's six-year graduation rate was closer to half, and after 10 years, 62 percent had a bachelor's degree.

Students get sidetracked for many reasons, including family, finances, health and military obligations. Fouse didn't have to rack up student loans for school, and she's single. But she had to carve out time from a demanding career and make the goal a priority.

Last month, Fouse finished her 91-page dissertation, which examined the embedded value in companies not reflected in their financial statements. She pulled 2 million data points to compare returns from 1964 to 2007, and found that investors are often better at projecting valuations.

While she had some help gathering the data, she didn't have a professional staff to assist on the analysis, as she does at her corporate job. Her supervising professor at UTA, Salil Sarkar, said she worked weekends and vacations to make a final push in the past six months.

"We have a handful of people juggling a Ph.D. and a job," Sarkar said, "but it's quite unusual to have someone with her profile."

Fouse started the UTA program in 2003, while CFO at Alcon Labs in Fort Worth. Before leaving Alcon in 2007, she had completed most of the coursework and exams, but the dissertation remained.

Most candidates complete their doctorate in four to five years, although some take up to twice as long if other commitments arise. What's not unusual about Fouse is her motivation.

"People get a bachelor's degree for Mom and Dad and an MBA for a better job, but they get a Ph.D. for themselves," said Phil Gardner, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University. "At that level, it's about self-fulfillment."Gardner said that Fouse would be a shoo-in for a professor's post and might be recruited to lead a university, if she tires of the corporate grind. (Fouse isn't interested in such a move today.) Her executive experience sets her apart, and her finance specialty is also coveted.

Research companies, such as Alcon and Celgene, often employ scientists with doctorates. But many doctoral candidates are angling to become professors, and that field can be jammed.

This week, the most popular story on The Chronicle of Higher Education website was titled: "The Ph.D. now comes with food stamps." It reported on the scarcity of high-paying teaching jobs and profiled four academics receiving federal aid.

Fouse still believes that education pays off eventually, and it's a family value. Her mother is a mathematician; her father, a mechanical engineer; and her sister, a pianist with a doctorate in music, teaches at Samford University.

"Education opens you up as a person," Fouse said. "It provokes reflection and makes you more thoughtful."

Gardner said that employers are targeting lifelong learners. In a knowledge-based economy, they value intellectual curiosity.

"In this economy, people learn on the fly all the time, so they have to be able to stretch," Gardner said.

At Celgene, Fouse will be judged on the usual performance criteria, not her college credentials. But this year's proxy report has been updated to read: Jacqualyn Fouse, Ph.D.

The last three letters won't lift the stock price, but they say a lot about the executive.

Mitchell Schnurman's column appears Sundays and Thursdays, 817-390-7821

Twitter: @mitchschnurman