Italy-bound Olin PhD graduate aims to seek the truth, make ‘a meaningful contribution’

  • January 11, 2024
  • By WashU Olin Business School
  • 2 minute read

WashU Olin’s five-year PhD program offers students the opportunity to expand their skills, with the goal of pursuing an academic career at top global business schools.

Shirley Tang earned her PhD in 2023 in strategy and entrepreneurship. In September, she joined the faculty at Bocconi University in Milan, Italy. She shared her WashU PhD experience with Olin Business magazine; this is an excerpt from that interview.

Why did you pursue a PhD?

At 16, I published my first novel based on my observation of the sweeping reforms in China's state-owned enterprises and subsequent societal repercussions. Later I worked in the world’s biggest SOE—Sinopec, a Fortune 500 company, focusing on cross-border M&A and strategic planning. I was fascinated by the interplay between business, people, technology and society. I realized that if I wanted to make a meaningful contribution with my experience and ideas, I needed rigorous academic training and an intellectual career.

What challenges confronted you in the PhD program?

First, I recognized that what gave me success in the past may not help me succeed now. Academia and industry value different things. Second, I acknowledged that what I thought I knew may be wrong.

In my research, I draw on intuition and experience far more than younger students, but I had to be careful. Science is about seeking truth. Sometimes the truth is not ‘common sense.’ 

Shirley Tang

What successes have you had in pursuing an academic career?

I pressed on when things weren’t going well. For this, I thank Lamar Pierce (Olin’s Beverly and James Hance Professor of Strategy), one of my advisors. I produced a couple of award-winning papers and got more than a dozen flyouts and multiple job offers. The real affirmation was the consistent feedback that my work was “important and interesting.”

What excites you most about joining Bocconi University in Milan?

Joining a renowned strategy department known for impactful research is thrilling. I'm eager to see how this environment shapes my work. Additionally, the opportunity to immerse myself in Milan's rich culture and language is equally exciting.

What did you enjoy most about your time at WashU Olin?

The faculty is incredibly open-minded and supportive. My advisors, Nick Argyres (Vernon W. & Marion K. Piper Professor of Strategy) and Pierce, were quick to see my strengths and help me navigate where my weaknesses might hinder progress. The relationships I developed here will be a source of inspiration and support for years to come.

To read more compelling stories about the Olin community, check out the latest issue of Olin Business magazine.

About the Author


Washington University in Saint Louis

WashU Olin Business School

Firmly established at the Gateway to the West, Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis stands as the gateway to something far grander in scale. The education we deliver prepares our students to thoughtfully make difficult decisions—the kind that can change the world.

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