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2020 Best 40 Under 40 Professors: Övül Sezer, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Kenan-Flagler Business School

Ovul Sezer of the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School is a Best 40 Under 40 MBA Professor

For MBA students at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, there is an opportunity to take a managerial decision-making class and gain something of a comedy show in the process. Assistant professor of organizational behavior Ovul Sezer is a B-school professor by day and a stand-up comedian by night. “I apply the same observational tools to both jobs: I identify a particular human behavior that strikes me as odd, interesting or confusing, and either study it in-depth using experiments or describe it with humor,” says the 33-year-old.

But it wasn’t just the moonlighting as a comedian that landed Sezer on this year’s Best 40 Under 40 Professors list (we haven’t actually seen her stand-up bit so can’t comment on if it’s actually LOL funny or not). With more than 200 Google Scholar citations, however. Sezer is getting plenty of applause in academic circles. She is an established and influential researcher and publisher. And with dozens of nominations, it’s clear the young prof connects deeply with students while impacting their careers and lives.

“I had a class with Professor Ovul Sezer during my second year of business school and it was an amazing class,” one nominator said. “Professor Ovul is extremely qualified and gives her best in every class. She engages students to reflect on topics discussed in class in a way that makes the classroom much more interesting and fun.”

One rave often reads like the next. “She is an amazing professor who not only connected with her students, but brought the material alive in an interesting and challenging way,” adds another enthusiastic recommender. “She was without a doubt one of my favorite professors during my MBA, and I am jealous of all of the future students who will take her classes!”

Sezer calls the focus of her research “Impression (Mis)Management.” Specifically, Sezer says she looks at mistakes people make when trying to impress others.

“One fascinating discovery that I find in my research is that we all think we know how to make a positive impression, and we can easily spot the mistakes others make. But when it comes to our own missteps, we tend to be blithely oblivious,” Sezer says. “I am fascinated by these mistakes, and investigate how we can do better. I think discoveries around how we can navigate our social world in a better way is so important, especially in our current times. Given the global challenges we are all facing with social distancing this year, I am passionately curious about discovering how we can enhance social connection.”

Övül Sezer

Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Kenan-Flagler Business School

Current age: 33

At current institution since what year? 2017

Education: Ph.D. Organizational Behavior, Harvard University & Harvard Business School, A.B. Applied Mathematics, Harvard University

List of MBA courses you currently teach: Managerial Decision Making

TELL US ABOUT YOUR LIFE AS A PROFESSOR

I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when… When I first realized that I can actually run behavioral experiments to investigate and understand my own behavior and other people’s behavior I observe. By being a business school professor, not only I get to do research, but I also take what we learn from these experiments and apply it to real-world problems to improve our lives. I knew I wanted to be a professor when I realized I could contribute to solutions to real-world problems with my research and make a real impact.

What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it?

My research focuses on Impression (Mis)Management—the mistakes we make when we want to impress others. I identify these mistakes and investigate how we can better navigate our social world. How can we signal that we are both competent and likeable? How can we brag wisely? How can we give valuable feedback in a way that strengthens our relationships rather than harming them? How can we network less awkwardly?

One fascinating discovery that I find in my research is that we all think we know how to make a positive impression, and we can easily spot the mistakes others make, but when it comes to our own missteps, we tend to be blithely oblivious. I am fascinated by these mistakes and investigate how we can do better. I think discoveries around how we can navigate our social world in a better way is so important, especially in our current times. Given the global challenges we are all facing with social distancing this year, I am passionately curious about discovering how we can enhance social connection.

If I weren’t a business school professor… I am a stand-up comedian and if I weren’t a business school professor, that would be my full-time job. At night, you can often find me on stage at local comedy clubs, trying out new jokes.

I apply the same observational tools to both jobs: I identify a particular human behavior that strikes me as odd, interesting or confusing, and either study it in-depth using experiments or describe it with humor.

What do you think makes you stand out as a professor?

I incorporate humor into my teaching and use my stand-up routine techniques in class. I teach Managerial Decision Making, a class about how people’s decisions deviate from “optimal” choices. Comedy is also about all the things that go wrong, so it fits really well into the theme.

One word that describes my first time teaching: Adventure

Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a business school professor:

That it is quite similar to my other passion in life. As an inveterate people-watcher, I feel tremendously lucky that, both as a professor and as a comedian, I regularly get to perform my favorite activity. Through my dual interests, I experience the joy of exploring the odd behaviors that make us human.

Professor I most admire and why:

There have been so many professors who inspired me and influenced me in several ways and I am so grateful for all the things I learned from them. But one class that I took in college changed the course of my path. Back in college, I was studying math, spending a lot of time on equations and mathematical proofs. In a very serendipitous way, I ended up trying to take a graduate-level economics class, called “Experimental Economics” because I wanted to take a class where I didn’t have to do any weekly “problem set” but it still counted as credit. To be able to take the class as an undergrad, I needed the professor’s permission. The professor teaching the course happened to be Al Roth, who allowed me to the class and introduced me to the love of experiments. Through him, I started learning a lot about experiments, and how we can take our very own observations about life and test them. This was the first time I fell in love with experimental science, and this is where I am today. In addition to being a great professor, Al Roth is also a very thoughtful and a kind person. I feel tremendously grateful to have taken that class.

STUDENTS

What do you enjoy most about teaching business students?

I usually try to run a smaller versions of a behavioral experiment in class, to make sure students experience the phenomenon first-hand. It is incredibly rewarding to see how the way they think changes once we go through these experiences live during class time. I also love learning together with them; they bring their unique perspectives and experiences into the classroom. They are really amazing people and it is so exciting to learn about all the great things they have done and witness all the great things they will continue to do in life.

What is most challenging?

I used to think running a 3-hour classroom with about 70 students is challenging, but now I do it live in Zoom, back to back with two sections in a day, for three days every week. Teaching 6 hours in Zoom live is really something else, keeping students engaged in an online environment is the most challenging aspect. The only upside is, if I make jokes and don’t hear any laughter, I can say,“Oh it’s because they’re on mute.”

In one word, describe your favorite type of student: Curious

In one word, describe your least favorite type of student: As a teacher, I won’t say any type of student is least favorite. I love them all and we are all learning together. We can all improve in some ways.

When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as… Fair (what I aim for) and slow (I read their papers so carefully and really enjoy the process, despite promising myself to be faster every time.)

LIFE OUTSIDE THE CLASSROOM

What are your hobbies?

Stand-up comedy and comedy writing. Although I would say at this point it is more than a hobby for me. I take comedy very seriously and spend a lot of time on it.

I also play a wonderful instrument called Kanun, and I do Kickboxing.

How will you spend your summer?

Doing research, writing jokes, and Facetiming all my loved ones.

Favorite place(s) to vacation:

I grew up in Istanbul and my family lives in Istanbul, it will always stay as one of my most favorite places. Growing up in Istanbul, the “city of two continents,” I didn’t realize how unique it was. In Istanbul, everyone has big families, big meals, big celebrations and also big conflicts. Living in a small apartment with my sweet family amid a city of millions, I felt as if we were always on the move, always trying to catch up, and always struggling to get along. Thanks to all this tumult, I was forced to be very aware. I think Istanbul makes one a keen observer, being from there contributed to my interest in understanding human nature. It is always great to visit that dynamic city, enjoy time with my family, and remember the initial source of my current interests. Every year, I also try to go somewhere that I have never been before to learn and discover something new. So, my favorite place to vacation would also be somewhere that I haven’t been to before.

Favorite book(s):

I have abiding love for anything by Mark Twain, and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is definitely one of my favorites. I also love Oscar Wilde’s works. My favorite books include an adventure, a journey, a discovery, a comedic witty style, and a lot of great insights into human nature.

What is currently your favorite movie and/or show and what is it about the film or program that you enjoy so much?

One of my all-time favorite movies is “Back to the Future.” I am curious about the future and the fact that characters can time travel in that movie is so fun to watch. My students recommend that I start watching the series, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” due to my shared interest in comedy with Mrs. Maisel. It’s definitely on my list.

What is your favorite type of music or artist(s) and why?

I love all types of music that has a good rhythm. I think there is something so magical about rhythm and life, anything that is alive has a rhythm. Teaching, comedy, stories—all have rhythm. That is why the first category of my favorite music is anything I can dance to, from each decade, (and I do dance just myself almost every day). The other category is music from the artists I admire, such as Mozart, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Leonard Cohen, The Beatles, Queen, from all genres of music.

If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this… Rooms that are designated for naps. Naps are great.

In my opinion, companies and organizations today need to do a better job at… Two things stand out for me 1) Creating an inclusive environment where each person is heard and each person matters. Companies and organizations need to care about their members’ well-being; we all need more kindness and care. 2) Companies and organizations would benefit hugely from research, so I hope they do a better job at being open to research and evidence-based approaches.

I’m grateful for… My health, my loved ones’ health, all my loved ones including my wonderful family and wonderful friends, my job, my colleagues, my students, and all parts of the journey that got me to this point.

Faculty, students, alumni, and/or administrators say: 

“Ovul simply radiates energy, intellect, and creativity. Whether it’s having an hours-long conversation about a research project in her office or seeing her wit and generosity on full display in the classroom (or watching her deliver a great punchline in her stand-up comedy), Ovul has a way of making you feel mentally and spiritually uplifted – your day is somehow that much brighter, your mind inevitably more engaged in thinking deeply about the world around you for having crossed paths with her for a little while. It’s no surprise to me that UNC Kenan-Flagler students value her so highly. We all do!”

“Her groundbreaking research takes on a classic question from social psychology and organizational behavior – how do individuals form impressions of others? – and turns it on its head, by showing that a variety of techniques many people assume will impress others actually completely backfire. A recurring theme in many of her papers is that people are often judged most positively when they behave authentically, and when they don’t try to artificially manipulate others’ impressions of us. So her work on ‘impression mismanagement’ has important lessons for anyone prepping for job interviews, working on project teams or trying to be an inspiring leader in a time of crisis – be honest, be transparent, and stay true to yourself!” – Will Maddux, professor and area chair of organizational behavior

“Ovul brings her whole self to class and in doing so encourages her students to do the same. She had to move almost six courses online and not only managed to do so with aplomb and energy but continued to sprinkle her personality into the student experience. She made a hilarious video trailer for her course on decision-making using examples from individual decision-making during the pandemic (including questions like why are we stockpiling toilet paper) and breaks the silences common on Zoom by playing the theme from the “Office.’” – Shimul Melwani, associate professor of organizational behavior and Poets & Quants’ 2018 top undergraduate professor

“Ovul is such a passionate person, and her passion for research and her students shines through in the classroom! She has an incredible ability, in both her teaching and research, to relate real-world experiences and events to course content. For example, she produced an amazing video reel before her class to highlight how current events, like the toilet paper shortage, relate to organizational decision making. Finally, Ovul is a deeply caring person and this care comes out in the way she treats and interacts with her students. Ovul always makes a point to connect with her students and to learn about their experiences and aspirations. This is what truly makes her one of the top business school professors in the country.” – Angelica Leigh, who successfully defended her Ph.D. dissertation in March (despite COVID-19)

DON’T MISS: THE ENTIRE 2020 LIST OF THE WORLD’S BEST 40-UNDER-40 BUSINESS SCHOOL PROFESSORS