The PhD That Changes Your Life

The PhD That Changes Your Life


About 50 new entrants are admitted to PhD programs at Bocconi each year, out of a total of over 700 applications. Only 20% of these are Bocconi graduates. viaSarfatti25 interviewed ten students who attended the PhD School to find out from their own voices what they are involved in today and how this experience has been important for the development of their academic careers.

Federica De Stefano
Helping companies improve their ability to compete with their human resources
In the knowledge economy, it’s common for companies to say their staff is “a competitive advantage.” But in reality, most companies still rely on hunches and gut instincts when it comes to gauging employee performance.
Federica De Stefano’s research uses HR analytics  to focus on how organizations achieve competitive advantage through human capital. “My overall ambition at Bocconi and what I am doing now is to understand how organizations can compete through people by moving them around and compensating them.”
She left Bocconi in 2018 with a PhD in Business Administration and Management, and is currently an Assistant Professor of Management and Human Resources at HEC Paris. Prior to joining HEC Paris, she was a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
One of her research findings would be of no surprise to anyone who has ever worked at a large organization:  the highest contributors are not bringing home their share of what they give to the company. 
“We mainly find that companies have a hard time identifying who the highest contributors are, because of  uncertainty about individuals’ inputs and what is the context,” she says. “And this ambiguity really messes up performance assessment and rewards.”
A second strand of her research looks at how companies can enact Human  Resources policies that benefit both themselves and the employee.
She says the mentorship she received at Bocconi (she cites her advisor Arnaldo Camuffo) “has made me a more complete scholar and more generous with my time, because I want to give back.”
Francesco Castellaneta
Understanding organizational learning in the context of buyouts, venture capital investments, and M&As
Francesco Castellaneta joined SKEMA Business School – University of Côte d'Azur in 2017 as Full Professor in Strategy and Entrepreneurship after leaving Bocconi in 2011 with a PhD in Business Administration and Management. At the University of Côte d'Azur, he holds the JEDI Chair of Excellence.
His research focus is “to contribute to our understanding of the factors that hinder or facilitate organizational learning and knowledge appropriability in the context of buyouts, venture capital investments, and M&As.”
“When I was doing my PhD at Bocconi, we still had a limited understanding of how investors’ experience and learning may affect value creation or destruction in their investee companies,” he said. “Given their important role in financial markets, we want to look at, for instance, how private equity firms can help owners develop new capabilities and better management.”
Working with teams of researchers he assembled at Bocconi and other universities, Francesco was able to cooperate with several investors to assemble a large and unique data set. He continued this project after he joined Católica Lisbon School of Business & Economics as Assistant Professor in Strategy and Entrepreneurship in 2011, where he focused on publishing his work as well as teaching. His arrival in Portugal coincided with the development of a fast-growing startup ecosystem, which dovetailed with his areas of interest.
At SKEMA, he is director of the Management Specialization of the PhD program, which he says is a very gratifying responsibility where he tries to leverage “my fantastic experience as a PhD student at Bocconi.” The Skema PhD in Management is designed to provide doctoral students with a solid education in areas needed to conduct high-quality research in innovation, strategy, and entrepreneurship. “Even though we are a management PhD program, our students often conduct interdisciplinary research related to digital transformation, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and the environment.”
Henok Asmelash  - Examining how the regulation of energy subsidies in the multilateral trading system can impact the energy transition
Henok Asmelash earned a PhD in International Law and Economics from Bocconi in 2019.
He was attracted to Bocconi by the opportunity it offered to mix economics and law, and to study under Prof. Giorgio Sacerdoti, who served as the European judge at the seven-member Appellate Body of the WTO from 2001 to 2009 and as its chairman from 2006 to 2007.
“My research focuses on international trade law and its implications for the achievement of public policy goals other than trade, such as the protection of the environment” says Henok.
Henok joined Birmingham Law School at the University of Birmingham as a Lecturer in January 2020, after work as a Postdoctoral Global Fellow at New York University School of Law.
In addition to teaching duties, Dr. Asmelash is continuing his research on energy subsidies and their regulation, looking at how they help or hinder the transition towards sustainable energy sources.
“If countries are serious about addressing climate change, the first step would be to reform environmentally harmful fossil fuel subsidies, which undermine the competitiveness of renewables” he says. “At the same time, we should not ignore the fact that some of these subsidies, especially in developing countries, have a social purpose as well. We need to be aware of them and find ways to mitigate the adverse effects of reforming these subsidies for poor and vulnerable households.”
Leo Azzolini
Examining inequality through a mix of different approaches
Leo Azzollini is currently finishing up his PhD in Public Policy and Administration, and in January 2021 will defend his dissertation on how social class, unemployment and education affect electoral participation in Europe. He is a Postdoctoral Research Officer at University of Oxford within a joint project between Oxford, PSE, and UC Berkeley, led by Thomas Piketty.
“The focus of my work is to study inequalities from a wide set of different of social-scientific perspectives,” he says. “At Oxford now I am analyzing inequality from the perspective of demography, intersected with economics.”
Azzollini said he got interested inequality by reading Aristotle’s “Politics” in high school.
“He talked about the dangerous consequences of inequality, and I was struck by how something written 24 centuries ago could still be so current,” he said.
He has a Master’s degree in Political Science from the London School of Economics, and did his undergraduate degree at Bocconi in International Economics and Management. This mix has given him good mix of approaches  to better understand inequality, he says.
Getting his PhD from Bocconi was worthwhile for several reasons, he says. The first in the interdisciplinary approach of his degree course. Secondly, Bocconi’s emphasis on methods training in his degree program was “extremely rigorous,” he says, which is not always the case. Lastly,  Bocconi attracts world class scholars.
“The Social and Political Science Department has hired several top scholars, and they are shaping the program,” he says. 
Michela Carlana
An interdisciplinary approach to inequality studies at the Harvard Kennedy School
Michela Carlana received her PhD in Economics from Bocconi University in June 2018, and is currently an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Her doctoral work at Bocconi was on the role of how bias in education can affect inequalities in terms of gender and socioeconomic backgrounds, working with advisors Eliana La Ferrara, Alberto Alesina, Nicola Gennaioli and Paolo Pinotti. She is a faculty affiliate at LEAP-Bocconi University and a research affiliate at IZA-Institute of Labor Economics and J-PAL.
Her affiliation with LEAP means she keeps part of her work strongly centered at Bocconi, and she continues to co-author papers with Pinotti and La Ferrara.
“I am currently working in Brazil, partnering with government agencies and NGOs to find ways to mitigate the gaps in education and the impact these may have on the future occupational choices of individuals,” she says.
She is also preparing field work in Finland for a study called “Teachers at Work: Preventing Social Exclusion of Immigrants.”
At Harvard, she teaches a course on empirical methods for Master degree students in public policy, as well as a second course analyzing education policy.
“There is a lot of attention in the US and especially at Harvard on issues related to inequality, both racial and gender inequality,” she says. “I am an economist by training but I interact a lot with social psychologists, education experts and people from other fields. So it was a very good match for me to be at the Kennedy School because it is an interdisciplinary place where we can work with great economists and also people from other fields.  This sort of interaction is really beneficial.”
Paolo Surico
One of the first PhD candidates, snapped up by the Bank of England
Paolo Surico was one of the first Bocconi students in the PhD program. He left the University with a PhD in Economics and Finance with a thesis under Carlo Favero in 2004. Being among the first had certain advantages, he recalls.
“All the professors had all the time in the world for me,” he says. “They wanted to nurture this new PdD program.”
Since Bocconi’s PhD program was new, Surico was among the first to test the job market. He was immediately snapped up by the Bank of England as a research economist in the Monetary and Assessment and Strategy Division and started in September 2004. He is currently a Professor of Economics at the London Business School, where he also serves as Academic Director of the Leadership Program and PhD director.
Surico is one of the first economists to pioneer the use of micro data for households and companies. For example, his latest research shows that the people with a high marginal propensity to consume are households with a mortgage, and firms with the highest propensity to invest are the younger firms that pay no dividends.
“These are the people driving the economy, so government support for them has the most impact on the economy overall,” he says.
What did you learn at Bocconi that helped you most?
“To ask the question that most interests you,” he says, “And to be self-driven.”
Simone Santamaria
What Tinder’s entrepreneurial strategy can show about successful market entry
Simone Santamaria left Bocconi in 2018 with a PhD in Management and Business Administration, and is currently an Assistant Professor at the National University of Singapore Business School, where he teaches strategy and policy to undergraduate students and continues his research on entrepreneurship.
“Bocconi’s reputation is truly international,” he says. “Even here in Asia, people have heard about the University.”
His current research focuses on how new entrants and incumbent companies interact in new and established markets. The dating app industry in the United States was the focus of a February 2020 article he co-authored with Niloofar Abolfathi published in the MIT Sloan Management Review called “Dating Disruption: How Tinder Gamified an Industry.”
They combined detailed industry data with the text analysis of more than half a million reviews of these applications and reached some interesting conclusions.
“Although emerging technologies may allow newcomers the opportunity to overthrow incumbent competitors, our research shows that altering the user experience for an overlooked market segment, not technology, is the key success driver for industry disruption,” he says.
 Two key factors underpinned Tinder’s sudden success: focusing on young adults, an overlooked market segment; and introducing new game-like features.
“The core takeaway is that successful market entry most of the times involves the identification of a segment which has been ignored, understanding the barriers, and identifying the solution,” he says.
Sara Wade
Using Bayesian statistics to predict dementia and Alzheimer’s
Sara Wade left Bocconi with a PhD in Statistics in 2013, and is currently a Lecturer in Statistics and Data Science at the School of Mathematics of University of Edinburgh.
She was attracted to Bocconi because of its strong reputation for Bayesian statistics. Working under supervisor Sonia Petrone, she has applied her analytical skills to predicting dementia and  Alzheimer’s disease. 
“We were looking at diagnoses of dementia using neuroimaging data, with the hope that by using this data as opposed to just using clinical assumptions you can get more accurate diagnoses earlier in the disease stage,” she says.
She is also working with researchers who hope to eventually be able to predict the evolution of Alzheimer’s. Her work has also branched out into machine learning, which has a strong overlap with statistics.
As a Mathematics undergraduate at the University of Maryland, she says she got used to being in a minority because of her gender. During her second year of computer science courses, she was literally the only female. What would she say to other young women who are considering  pursuing a career in mathematics?
“Go for it,” she says. “Now there are a lot of role models and people to talk to and look up to. I would strongly encourage them.”
Senem Aydin
At Cass Business School as Strategy Lecturer
Senem Aydin graduated from Bocconi in 2016 with a PhD in Business Administration and Management. She worked as a Post-doctoral Research Associate in D’Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University in Boston before joining the faculty of the Cass Business School in London as a Lecturer in Strategy in 2019.
The title of her thesis was “Three Essays on Inter-organizational Technology Transfer”. To prepare for her thesis, she worked with Professors Alfonso Gambardella, Marco Giarratana and Giovanni Valentini.
Senem’s research interests fall into two main streams. In the first stream, she examines inter-organizational technology transfer in diverse contexts, i.e. markets for technology and market for firms, exploring the factors influential at institutional, dyadic and technological levels. In 2016, she won the Technology and Innovation Management Division of the Academy of Management award for Best Student Paper.
In the second stream, she looks at the competitive dynamics in nascent platform ecosystems within the emergent smart home market, in a paper published in the Academy of Management Best Paper Proceedings (2019).
“Doing my PhD at Bocconi University was an excellent choice and helped me in multiple ways,” she says. “I had the chance to learn from and work with management scholars who are at the top of their fields. And the University gave us a network of scholars that is essential for our academic career. Plus it has excellent job placement.”
Eleanor Woodhouse
Discovering a passion for public policy in Brussels
Eleanor Woodhouse was the first to graduate from Bocconi’s “Public Policy and Administration” PhD program in 2019. She is also the first to say her academic career was unusual.
“My undergraduate degree was in French and Italian literature at Oxford,” she says. “And then I did a Master at University College London on European integration theory, because I specifically wanted to work at the EU, which I did for two years.”
Her love of languages and the European project led to a job as Policy Officer in the Directorate General for Education and Culture in Brussels, which in turn shaped her research agenda. She is now a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Public Policy, at the Department of Political Science at the University College London, where she continues to do research. She says the quantitative skills she acquired at Bocconi are key. 
“What I am interested in is trying to ask original questions about how bureaucratic processes or features of the bureaucracy itself affect fundamental outcomes of governmental processes,” she says.
One of her current research projects is co-authoring a book to model the networks of public private partnerships across the world, looking at how political institutions shape the types of networks we see in these different countries.  
One of the best things about her experience at Bocconi, she says, was being able to spend a year at Harvard University on a Fulbright Scholarship under the supervision of Professor Claudia Goldin, a leading labor economist and scholar of gender in the economy. 

Read more:
New discoveries begin with a PhD - Interview with Andrea Fosfuri, Dean of the Bocconi PhD School

Eleanor Woodhouse, Michela Carlana, Leo Azzolini, Francesco Castellaneta.
Sara Wade, Federica De Stefano.
Simone Santamaria, Henok Asmelash, Paolo Surico, Senem Aydin.


by Jennifer Clark

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