A second-year accounting doctoral student from Arizona State University named Thomas Lopez was among the presenters at the first PhD Project conference in 1994. And from that moment on, he’s been deeply connected and dedicated to The Project’s mission.
Today, he’s known as Dr. Lopez to students at the Culverhouse College of Business at The University of Alabama, “I’m glad I was in my office on that day in 1994 to take the call inviting me to present at this new conference,” he says. “So much of what we as academics do is in pursuit of individual goals and objectives – getting published, getting promoted. And The PhD Project for me has been a complete blessing because it offers a way to give back, to help people to rise up and to contribute to the academy in vitally important ways.”
Before he called Alabama home, Dr. Lopez’s academic journey took him to the University of South Carolina, Georgia State University and Texas A&M University – teaching both undergraduate and doctoral students. Along the way, his dedication to The PhD Project’s mission has shone through in his words and actions. He’s made an impact on campuses – developing and launching programs in South Carolina and Texas to increase underrepresented minority student enrollment in their business schools. He’s made an impact in the accounting industry through his work on the AICPA’s Minority Initiatives Committee. And he’s made an impact within The PhD Project in countless ways, earning him a place in its Hall of Fame.
Blazing a Trail
Determination, curiosity and commitment make Dr. Lopez a quintessential trailblazer.
His journey encompasses three distinct careers.
Dr. Lopez’s interests have taken him from the world of law enforcement to accounting, and, finally, to academia. He served as a police officer in Miami for 13 years, a role he held while he went to school for his accounting degree. Then Dr. Lopez worked in a public accounting firm in California for seven years before deciding to pursue his PhD – a path he started to seriously consider on the advice of a professor in his master’s program at California State University, Hayward.
“I had a decent job at the firm, so my wife thought I was out of my mind quitting my job to go back to school,” Dr. Lopez recalls. “But it was the right choice. Out of my three careers, academia is by far the best – the autonomy and experiences it has provided have been invaluable, and it’s given me the opportunity to really be there for my family over the years.”
He achieved full professor status.
“My grandmother believed in education as being one of the keys to having a good life,” Dr. Lopez says. “She once told me: I came to the United States because I didn’t want to have my children in a place where they couldn’t have access to education.”
Guided by his grandmother’s dream, Dr. Lopez grew up in a family that places a high value on academics. His father achieved a master’s degree; his two uncles earned PhDs; and among his siblings and cousins you’ll find PhDs, two medical doctors and many respected business executives. So, it’s little wonder that Dr. Lopez says becoming a full professor – a title sought by many but achieved by comparatively few – is probably his greatest accomplishment.
He pays it forward.
When you ask Dr. Lopez to talk about his academic career, he inevitably comes back to a key theme – the importance of lifting one another up. After all he knows personally how much of an impact that can have on an individual. “At that first conference – the close friendships and the networking that came from it are still with me today,” Dr. Lopez says. “I still remember like it was yesterday. Quiester Craig put his arm around me and said, ‘Don’t worry Tom, you’re going to get a job.’ Little things like that stick out in my mind. They were just really meaningful for me.”
Because of moments like that, Dr. Lopez makes it a priority to give back to others, in big ways and small – especially during those tough times in their academic careers. He recalls a doctoral student from his South Carolina days who was on the verge of being dismissed from the program because he was struggling with the balance between being a good dad and being a good doctoral student. “I was able to bring the review board around, to convince them to let him stay another year,” Dr. Lopez says. “But then I had to talk to the student about what he needed to do, and it probably wasn’t pleasant for him to hear. But it was a good outcome. Today he’s a full professor and department chair, and I rejoice in his success.”
As Dr. Lopez thinks about the challenges and the opportunities the next generation of PhDs face, he says, “What makes our job difficult is that you have to produce when nobody’s watching. There’s no paycheck or a grade on the line. And a lot of people can’t do that. They can’t force themselves to sit down and do their work when they’re not being evaluated on a constant basis. In this field, you have to be driven internally.”
At the end of the day, if you really want to be successful, you have to act like you want to be successful.