Szelenyi is the former Dean of Social Sciences (2010-2014) and first Emeritus Professor at NYU Abu Dhabi. A sociologist specializing in the comparative study of social stratification across cultures over time, Szelenyi is interested in social inequalities, studying the interplay of ethnicity, gender and socioeconomics in transitional and post-communist societies. In 2006, he was awarded the Szechenyi Prize, recognizing outstanding contributions to academic life by the President of the Hungarian Republic, and his book Patterns of Exclusion won the Karl Polanyi Prize for the best publication of the year from the Hungarian Sociology Association. His works have been published in various international journals, including the American Journal of Sociology, American Sociological Review, Handbook of Economic Sociology, Annual Review of Sociology and Theory and Society. He is an elected fellow at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has served as the vice president of the American Sociological Association and executive director of the Society for Comparative Social Research. In 1990 Szelenyi was elected to the Hungarian National Academy of Sciences.
Before joining NYU Abu Dhabi, Szelenyi served as the William Graham Sumner Professor of Sociology and professor of political science at Yale University. He also served as the University's sociology department chair and director of the Center for Comparative Research. Prior to his tenure at Yale, Szelenyi was chair of the sociology department and director of the Center for Comparative Social Analysis at the University of California, Los Angeles. His international experience includes work as foundation professor and chair of sociology at The Flinders University of South Australia, head of the Department of Regional Sociology at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and served as a visiting research professor at the University of Kent in Canterbury. He has received numerous grants from the National Science Foundation and the Ford Foundation to fund studies in poverty, ethnicity, gender and social stratification in Southern Europe and China.
Szelenyi holds a Doctor of Sciences (D.Sc.) and Ph.D. in philosophy and sociology from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. He also holds honorary doctorates from The University of Economics, Budapest, The Flinders University of Australia, and the University of Nurnberg.