Alumni spotlight: SPA PhD grad named full professor, heads public and nonprofit management program

By

Mark J. Scarp

Meghna Sabharwal, who received her PhD in public administration from ASU’s School of Public Affairs (SPA) in 2008, was recently promoted from associate professor to full professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, where she has headed the public and nonprofit management program since fall 2018.

Her areas of research interest are public human resources management, specifically, diversity, equity and inclusion, comparative HR and high-skilled immigration.

Read on to learn more about Sabharwal, her work and how her time at SPA, within the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, benefited her successful career.

Q.       Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from?

A.       I was born and raised in Hyderabad, India. My family hails from North India. I received my undergraduate degree in agricultural science from Acharya N. G Ranga Agricultural University in Hyderabad. My failed attempt to get into medical school landed me into agriculture based on my rank in a statewide test. I had no knowledge, interest or acumen to study agriculture, but since my test score placed me in that track, I pursued my undergraduate studies in agricultural science. I must admit I can easily kill a plant –that was surely not my calling.

Q.       How did your time in the PhD program at SPA and Watts College prepare you for life afterward? Was there anything you gained from the experience you weren’t expecting?

A.       When I started my PhD at ASU in 2003, it was the School of Public Administration. The school had transitioned the degree from a DPA to a PhD a couple of years prior to my start in the program.

I was in a cohort of about 10 students, of which I am still connected with 50% of my classmates. It was an excellent cohort experience; we were like family, always supporting and encouraging each other. Four of us graduated and went on to academic jobs, three of us are tenured faculty members at research universities and one is a teaching professor in a leading public administration program in the country.

Our faculty were top notch – I had the privilege to learn from the best, both Bob and Janet Denhardt left a lasting impression and inspired me to learn and grow, Professor Chapman and his excellent knowledge in policy and institutions was very useful when I later took up a postdoctoral position at the City University of New York. I had the distinct honor to have Drs. N. Joseph Cayer and Elizabeth Corley as my mentors. Both Joe and Elizabeth shaped my desire to be an educator and researcher at a R1 institution. Working with Elizabeth on an NSF-funded grant made me realize how much I love research and the possibilities that come with it. I learned the art and craft of being an academic from these excellent faculty members. I would be remiss if I did not mention Dr. Heather Campbell, a fierce supporter and mentor to graduate students.

Q.       What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

A.       I received my MS in agribusiness management from ASU. I had one course in Organizational Behavior from Professor Mark Edwards, who invented the concept of 360-degree evaluation. I was completely in love with organizational behavior/theory after taking his course and wanted to pursue a PhD in a related field. A colleague and friend of mine (Dr. Viola Fuentes) who worked as a graduate assistant in the same office as me, The Office of University Evaluation, mentioned the PhD in Public Administration. Viola was at the time a doctoral student in the program. She asked me to look into public management. I was particularly intrigued with courses on organizational theory, leadership, human resources and management. I would say that was the turning point – I had found my path!

Q.       Why did you choose ASU?

A.       I chose ASU since most of my former friends and peers from Agricultural University in Hyderabad were pursuing a MS in agribusiness management at ASU. When you are an immigrant in this country, you want to come to a place where you have networks and forms of social and cultural capital. ASU had a large Indian student population, which was very attractive. I came to the U.S. in fall 2000, with several other students from Hyderabad to pursue a Master of Science degree that aligned with my Bachelor of Science degree in agriculture. I thoroughly enjoyed my experience in the master’s program.

Q.       Which professor(s) taught you the most important lesson while at ASU? Are you still in touch with him/her/them?

A.       I have always been interested in issues that impact marginalized groups. I was fortunate to work with my PhD mentor, Professor Elizabeth Corley, at ASU on issues of women in STEM disciplines. For my doctoral dissertation, I worked on job satisfaction and productivity of foreign-born scientists – an area that continues to excite and fascinate me. I was also very fortunate to work with N. Joseph Cayer, professor emeritus of public administration at Arizona State University. I credit my research interest in human resources management to Joe – a great mentor, role model and a fantastic human being. He is always available to guide and encourage me. We have a co-authored a book titled Public Personnel Administration. I am still in touch with both Elizabeth and Joe.

Q.       What’s your proudest academic or professional accomplishment to date?

A.       There are a few: 1.) my very first publication with Elizabeth on foreign-born academic scientists in the journal Research in Higher Education, 2.) the day I defended my final dissertation, 3.) being hired at The University of Texas at Dallas, a R1 institution on tenure track and 4.) when my graduate student, whose dissertation I chaired, was hired as an assistant professor, and was recently awarded the best dissertation from the Section of Women in Public Administration. There are several other student successes of which I am proud to be a part.

Q.       If you could clone yourself, what other career would you pursue?

A.       This is an interesting question. I attended a Catholic school in India and was among the lead singers in my school choir. I also performed in All India Radio, a national public radio broadcast in India. I love theater and dramatics. If I had to clone myself, I think I would be a singer/artist/performer of some sort.

Q.       What is something you think would surprise people to learn about you?

A.       I used to play handball, a sport that is not common in the U.S., but popular among Europeans. I was a national player and represented my state of Andhra Pradesh (now Telangana).

Q.       What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

I love listening to music. I also enjoy traveling, cooking, meditation and yoga.

Q.       What is your life motto in one sentence?

A.       “No matter how challenging things get, never stop believing in yourself!”

Mark J. Scarp is media relations officer for the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.