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2020 Best 40 Under 40 Professors: Seth Carnahan, Washington University in St. Louis Olin Business School

Seth Carnahan of Washington University in St. Louis is a Best 40 Under 40 Professor.

Seth Carnahan is an award-winning researcher and teacher at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis. The 34-year-old associate professor of strategy has spent his early career building a strong and robust research pipeline with more than 600 Google Scholar citations and multiple grants and awards to boot.

“Professor Carnahan provided a great experience for one of my first MBA courses at WashU, his lectures were relevant, current, and generated engaging class discussion,” one nominator said about Carnahan’s teaching ability. “I feel as though my point of view changed greatly with regard to business strategy after having taken his class.”

While Carnahan says he doesn’t have any family history of academics, he was hooked early. “As an undergrad, my strategy professor mentioned her research during class, and I dug up some of her papers and read them,” Carnahan says. He was also working as a teaching assistant at the time and says he “loved teaching.” “When my professor explained to me that her job was to write those papers and teach, I thought, ‘I want to do that too,’” Carnahan recalls. “I went to work as an accountant, but I knew that I wanted to return to graduate school.”

In fact, he spent all of two years at Deloitte Touche as an auditor from 2006 to 2008 before returning to school for his PhD. His first teaching stint, at the University of Michigan began in 2013 and lasted more than five years before he joined the Olin School in 2018.

Carnahan’s current research is examining the “human side of firm strategy.” Specifically, Carnahan looks at how organizations can out-compete their competition for talent and how firms can increase performance of the employees they already have by “managing their people more effectively.”

Outside of the classroom, Carnahan says his “main recreation” is eating and drinking with his spouse, parents, and friends. He also spends time exercising, listening to music and podcasts, and playing board games.

Seth Carnahan

Associate Professor of Strategy

Washington University in St. Louis

Current age: 34

At current institution since what year? 2018

Education: Ph.D. in Management from University of Maryland, Bachelors and Masters in Accounting from University of Illinois

List of MBA courses you currently teach: I currently teach a required course that provides students with an introduction to business strategy. I have also taught an elective course about corporate strategy.


I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when… No one in my family is an academic, so I had no concept of academia as a career path. As an undergrad, my strategy professor mentioned her research during class, and I dug up some of her papers and read them. They hooked me immediately. I also happened to be working as a TA at the same time, and I loved teaching. When my professor explained to me that her job was to write those papers and teach, I thought, “I want to do that too.”  I went to work as an accountant, but I knew that I wanted to return to graduate school.

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

My research examines the human side of firm strategy. I study how organizations can outcompete their rivals for talent and how firms can increase performance by managing their people more effectively. The most important finding that I have published (along with my coauthors Brad Greenwood and Laura Huang) documents that female heart attack patients have higher survival rates when their emergency room doctor is also a woman. This finding seems to be having an impact on how some hospitals train their staff.

If I weren’t a business school professor… Before graduate school, I worked in St. Louis as an auditor for the Big 4. I might still be doing that. I am drawn to entrepreneurship, so I might be doing something in a startup.

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

Based on the feedback they give me, I think students appreciate the open, inclusive culture that I try to create in my class.  I think they see my class as a safe place where they can experiment with ideas, take risks, make mistakes, and learn from each other.

One word that describes my first time teaching: Scary

Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a business school professor: A relatively small percentage of people who begin a Ph.D. end up with the professor job they envisioned at the beginning of graduate school. I work hard, but I count myself extremely, extremely fortunate to have one of these awesome jobs.

Professor I most admire and why: Rajshree Agarwal is the professor who introduced me to this career when I was an undergrad. My life would be completely different if I’d not taken her class. Later on, she became my dissertation adviser. She is a force of nature. She publishes high impact research, she teaches like a rockstar, she writes a regular column for Forbes, she edits prestigious academic journals. But what I appreciate most is Rajshree’s generosity. She gets more satisfaction from the achievements of her students and junior collaborators than she does from her own.


What do you enjoy most about teaching business students?

Students have a wide array of life experiences and backgrounds, and they teach me something each time we meet, whether it is inside or outside of class.

What is most challenging?

Students have a wide array of life experiences and backgrounds. The joy and the challenge are the same.  It can be hard to craft a class that invigorates the student who has experience in banking *and* the student who has an M.D. but no business experience. It’s a fun challenge.

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

In one word, describe your least favorite type of student: Arrogant

When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as… Constructive. I try to give as much personal feedback on assignments as I can.


What are your hobbies?

My main recreation is eating and drinking with MaryJane (my spouse), my parents, and our friends. I also like to exercise, listen to music and podcasts, and play board games. During the quarantine, I’ve been listening to the Harry Potter books for the first time.

How will you spend your summer?

Normally, I would travel. I would attend academic conferences, and I would visit my sister in Memphis and our friends in Montreal and Chicago. With the pandemic, MaryJane and I will stay in St. Louis and work on research papers (she is a killer accounting professor). I will also be preparing to teach my course online for the first time, with the uncertainties surrounding Covid-19.

Favorite place(s) to vacation: MaryJane’s mom is from Italy, and my sister was born in Belgium when my parents lived there for two years in the 1980s. My two most memorable vacations were to visit my mother-in-law’s family in southern Italy and to visit my parents’ old stomping grounds in Belgium.

Favorite book(s): Confederacy of Dunces, a comedy about New Orleans, is my favorite novel. I recently finished Say Nothing, a gripping non-fiction book about the Irish Troubles.

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

My favorite TV show is Arrested Development. It is a clever comedy about a wealthy, moronic family. It contains the best piece of business advice that I have ever seen on television:  “there is always money in the banana stand.”

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

I like simple, catchy songs. I grew up in the southern US, so I have a soft spot for southern artists like Lucinda Williams, J Cole, John Prine, and Kacey Musgraves. I am a child of the 90s, so I am a sucker for 90s songs, like MMMBop or Return of the Mack.


If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this… The labor market changes at a dizzying pace, and I think business schools need to do a better job of helping alumni build their skills and their networks after graduation. I’m proud that Wash U emphasizes this long term perspective.

In my opinion, companies and organizations today need to do a better job at… Using data to make decisions.

I’m grateful for… The health and well-being of my family and friends. Life changes in an instant when someone you care about gets sick or injured.

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

“Professor Carnahan provided a great experience for one of my first MBA courses at WashU, his lectures were relevant, current and generated engaging class discussion. I feel as though my point of view changed greatly with regard to business strategy after having taken his class.”

“Dr. Seth Carnahan is an inspiring, motivating, and enthusiastic instructor. He was eager to discuss student’s ideas and insights.”