Philanthropy’s Impact: Nicholas Crain

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The rigor of a PhD program at a top business school demands tenacity and a well-developed sense of preparedness, in addition to strong academic skills. Doctoral students may pick up these attributes in Nicholas Crainindustry or academia, but for second-year finance student Nicholas Crain, they came by way of a fast attack nuclear submarine.

Crain is studying corporate finance and governance — in particular, the ways in which corporations structure their boards of directors, and how to get past board structures that make it difficult for shareholders to remove members if their performance is not in the best interest of the corporation. The recipient of a three-year Donald D. Harrington Graduate Fellowship, Crain was attracted to The University of Texas by its high-quality faculty and the considerable support of the fellowship.

He took a roundabout path to Texas — around the globe, in fact. After graduating from Carnegie Mellon University with University Honors and a degree in mechanical engineering, the Washington, D.C., native was accepted into the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, which is among the military’s most academically rigorous training programs. Graduating in the top 15 percent of his class, Crain became an officer on the USS Augusta (SSN-710), where he gained leadership and communication skills while supervising the division responsible for radiological work and chemical controls in the submarine’s reactor plant. He also stood watch as officer of the deck, which required directing operations and reporting directly to the captain.

How does one go from being one of the Junior Officers of the Year for the Atlantic Submarine Fleet to a doctoral student in Texas? “One of the most helpful things I think I gained from the submarine force,” Crain says, “was learning to translate somewhat abstract technical ideas into practical intuition. Unlike what is often portrayed in the movies, using sonar to figure out the location and motion of another ship is tricky. We have some equations that can translate what we see on a sonar screen and through the periscope into a solution, but often we get conflicting information. One of the critical skills of standing officer of the deck is logically working through conflicting information and sources of error to develop a good target solution.”

One could say the same thing about research puzzles that exist in finance, Crain says. “The interesting research tries to make sense of what seems like conflicting information. We try to revisit our assumptions or propose alternative theories to explain what we observe in the data.”

Overall, Crain spent three years stationed on a submarine. Roughly 60 percent of that time was spent underwater, he says, including two six-month overseas deployments. While he enjoyed being on the sub, the time away from his wife and young son caused him to think about his future career plans. He became an ROTC instructor at the University of Idaho and then Washington State while he completed a master’s degree in economics. The combination of teaching and learning how to apply research to solve practical problems inspired Crain to pursue his PhD with the goal of becoming a faculty member at a top university upon graduation.

One of his former professors at Washington State says, “What made Nick stand out was not his excellent command of mathematics or even his deep interest in economics. Rather, it was his ability to encourage his classmates to achieve their potential.” Whether that skill was learned in the Navy or is innate in Nick Crain, it’s likely to serve him well at UT Austin and beyond.

By Kathleen Mabley
March 2009

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