From Kazakhstan to Eller: Aizhan Anarkulova’s Journey to a PhD in Finance

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Aizhan Anarkulova ’13 BSBA (Economics), ’23 PhD (Finance) is preparing to defend her thesis and graduate in May. As she applies to and interviews for academic positions, she reflects on her time at the Eller College of Management.

Her journey began in her hometown of Korday, Kazakhstan, where she grew into an avid reader.

“Any time I had a spare moment, I would read,” she says.

In second grade, she began learning English—and loved it. Although it was difficult to obtain books in her small town, she and her mother would regularly trek across the border to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, to buy books.

At the urging of her sixth-grade teacher, Anarkulova decided one day to study in the United States. So in high school, she applied for a variety of scholarships. The one she received allowed her to pick from a list of 50 schools. She applied to about five, but in the end, she selected the University of Arizona.

In 2013, she earned her bachelor’s degree in Economics from Eller and headed back to her native Kazakhstan, where she worked at an international company—EY—to maintain her English skills. After working as an auditor for three years, she had a revelation.

“I realized the part I liked about EY was taking care of juniors,” she says. “You’re supposed to teach and train them.”

At last, she came a conclusion about what she wanted to do with her life: pursue a PhD.

“If I like sharing knowledge and training people, it’s academia,” she says.

Although Anarkulova applied to a variety of universities, she was drawn to the University of Arizona, in part because she already had a community of friends in Tucson. She debated what to study but ultimately picked finance. Eller’s doctoral finance program is competitive, yet Anarkulova sees that as an advantage.

“Because there are not many students, they do their best to make sure you succeed,” she says. “They take care of you and help place you.”

As a doctoral student, Anarkulova’s research interests include investments, portfolio choice and asset pricing. She has been a finalist for the 2022 TIAA Paul A. Samuelson Award for Outstanding Scholarly Writing on Lifelong Financial Security and a finalist for the Best Paper Award at the Southwestern Finance Association Annual Meeting.

However, her favorite part of her academic career at Eller has been the people. Her advisor, Associate Professor of Finance Scott Cederburg, has been particularly supportive.

“I do not think I’d be where I am without him,” she says, noting all the work he put into training her to be the researcher and teacher she is now.

She also pointed to Associated Professor of Finance David Brown, with whom she has co-authored papers. She has been a teaching assistant for his class as well.

During the pandemic, Cederburg and Brown would regularly check in with her.

“The two of them would be in touch with me,” she says. “That kept me on track in the program even during COVID.”

Looking ahead, Anarkulova is excited about what the future holds. When she secures an academic role, she plans to continue writing papers, prepare to teach classes and attend more conferences. Traveling to meetings is the most enjoyable part of academia for her, since conferences provide an opportunity to meet new people, network and find co-authors.

“A lot of people in academia are fired up,” she says. “They’re passionate about research and teaching.”

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