Shirin Shahsavand is teaching a statistics class this semester.

Her PhD Journey Started with an Excel Class

By Becky Kramer

Shirin Shahsavand was thinking about getting an MBA from Washington State University when one of her professors pushed her to aim higher.

“Dr. Chuck Munson kept talking to me about a PhD,” she says. “I owe him a debt of gratitude; he opened my eyes to a whole different world.”

Now in her third year of doctoral work at the Carson College of Business, Shahsavand is studying operations management with plans of becoming a university professor. Through the doctorate, she can see her life experiences and diverse interests merging into a single path.

Her PhD studies utilize her undergraduate degree in computer science and her interest in the science behind management and business operations. The work also draws on her love of teaching and volunteer efforts to introduce girls to science, technology, engineering, and math.

“For me, this is a more balanced career choice than straight computer science,” Shahsavand says. “Operations management is analytical, but it also has practical applications. And there’s more interaction with people.”

“Every now and then a student comes along who has that ‘spark,’” says Munson, PhD program director at the Carson College. “Shirin was participating in my classes, providing thoughtful answers and asking good questions. When I see that inherent love of learning in students, I see the potential for future professors.”

“Teaching that sticks”

Shahsavand’s path to a doctorate began with an advanced class in Excel spreadsheets taught by Munson. She was working as an operations manager at the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture at the time and using her WSU employee tuition discount for introductory business courses toward an online MBA.

Munson’s teaching style resonated with Shahsavand. “He has a way of teaching that sticks with you,” she says. “It’s not about a giant company doing something. It’s about how you can use these applications in your daily life.”

One class led to another at the Carson College. Shahsavand completed the credits needed for master’s degrees in business administration and statistics. With Munson’s encouragement, she kept on going with her studies.

As part of the PhD program, Shahsavand became a teaching assistant for the advanced Excel class last year. The experience affirmed her decision to earn a doctorate.

“I realized that were was nothing more I wanted to do in the world than teach. It became central to my goals,” she says. “Working with college-aged students is a ‘sweet spot.’ They have a level of maturity, and yet they are still so open and interested in new ideas.”

Shahsavand received the Graduate Teaching Assistant of the Year award from WSU’s Graduate and Professional Student Association in 2022. The award recognized her commitment to helping students succeed.

“Students rave about the help they receive from Shirin,” Munson says. “She is remarkably clear in her explanations. Even though she is taking advanced graduate coursework in math, she can relate to college juniors and seniors and convey material on their level.”

Encouraging women’s careers

Through her work, Shahsavand hopes to encourage more women to consider careers in operations management, which helps organizations improve their efficiency and bottom line. Besides problem solving and data analysis, the field requires proficiency in statistics, research methods, and math.

“Like computer science, it’s a field largely dominated by male professors and male students,” she says. “I can see myself contributing to efforts to diversify the workforce. It’s an area where I can make a difference.”

Shahsavand recently completed a mentoring program for women doctoral students in operations management. The program, To My Younger Self INFORMS, connected her with peers and professors at other universities, offering insights on academic careers from a female perspective. Munson recommended her for the mentoring program.

Shahsavand was paired with a professor from the University of California, Berkeley. “We’ve passed the mentor stage and still talk every couple of weeks,” she says. “The women in the group have become a cohort I’ll keep in touch with throughout my professional life.”

“I feel very fortunate,” Shahsavand says. “Not everyone has these kinds of opportunities open up for them. I owe it to WSU and Dr. Munson.”