Brian Jonghwan Lee

Brian Jonghwan Lee
Class Year
Seoul, Korea and Georgia, USA
Areas of Interest
Previous Education
Carnegie Mellon University

Why did you choose to pursue a PhD in your discipline of Business?

I was always deeply curious about what drives economic trends. At the macro-level, growing up in 1990s South Korea naturally exposed me to how both economic development and financial markets could generate spectacular impacts in people’s lives. At the micro-level, I grew interested in various aspects of business operations – from setting prices, financing, supplier search, to negotiating wage contracts – from my direct first-hand experiences with my family’s businesses as we navigated the path of immigrant business owners in the US.

Financial economics proved a perfect fit for my background and intellectual curiosity. I am fascinated by both of the two core scientific aspects of the discipline: (1) drawing from deep theoretical understanding of primitive forces in human decisions; and (2) application of rigorous quantitative tools. More importantly, I’m inspired by the difference that sound financial economic research can make. I’m profoundly excited by the possibly of directly contributing to our collective knowledge of financial markets and thereby helping us to design better public and private policies moving forward.

Why did you choose to come to Columbia Business School for a PhD?

Columbia offers an incredible range of support and resources for student success. The collective expertise of our faculty spans over all topics in financial economics, and they’re truly enthusiastic about connecting with students. The PhD office is eager to support student research efforts in any form; e.g., helping you obtain data, attend conferences, and apply to workshops. I was also thrilled to become part of an impressive community of PhD scholars at Columbia. It became a no-brainer decision to commit to Columbia after my visit, during which I got to meet many superb PhD students.

What type of research are you exploring?

My interests are still developing, but at the moment I’m exploring topics in both corporate finance and household finance. I am particularly drawn to the theme of financial distress. In one project, I’m studying how zombie lending – i.e., over-allocation of credit to insolvent borrowers – arises organically in a financial crisis environment by examining banks’ differential pricing behaviors toward safe borrowers and risky borrowers. In another project, I’m exploring how social connections can positively affect households in financial distress moving to new places by providing consumption insurance.

What’s your favorite part of the PhD experience so far?

Interacting with my classmates has been the greatest feature of my PhD experience. I’m tremendously grateful for my wonderful cohort classmates, who not only serve as great academic resources for one another (we continuously share academic insights and resource materials with each other) but also value a supportive, collegial and friendly environment. Especially during the coursework years, it makes a tremendous difference to have a supportive group of friends who empathize with and encourage each other through problem sets and exams.

Which faculty member(s) and courses influenced you the most, and how?

Professor Daniel Wolfenzon has been an invaluable force in my growth as a young scholar. He has enthusiastically supported my efforts spanning various aspects of research, including specific items (such as data access requests and workshop applications) and also major efforts to move research forward and stay on top of PhD milestones. The PhD journey is challenging in many ways and it’s extremely helpful to have supportive professors that care about your success and well-being.

Working as a teaching assistant for Professor Stephen Zeldes has also been a tremendous experience. As an aspiring business school educator, it’s important for me to learn how to prepare for and deliver a successful and engaging business school course. Working with Professor Zeldes not only gives me the opportunity to observe him delivering outstanding lectures and leading productive classroom discussions, but also allows me to learn from directly taking part in the organization and management of his class.

In the classroom, Professor Xavier Giroud has been instrumental for not only my subject knowledge in corporate finance but also my growth as an academic scholar in general. His focus on the practical skills in research proved especially valuable, and I gained a lot from doing referee reports and paper discussions for the first time. Professor Stijn Van Nieuwerburgh also delivered outstanding lectures in asset pricing and real estate finance for us. He constantly amazes us (the students) with his superhuman knowledge spectrum and his exceptional ability to explain and interpret economic concepts with extreme clarity.

Can you share a little about your academic experience? 

Columbia Business School offers truly an outstanding environment for growing as a young scholar. I think the most important thing is to find your people early on; i.e., your PhD colleagues and professors. The people have been my best resource for both making progress in research and my well-being.

It’s also a place with a lot of freedom, and it’s important to “stay on top of it” and use this to your advantage. The professors trust you to find courses, conferences, workshops, and activities that best fit your interests, so naturally I think the students with a more concrete idea about their strengths, preferences, and research agenda often accelerate faster here.

What are your future plans, and how has your PhD experience translated into growth in your career?

I plan to move forward in finance academia and stay curious about the world. The nature of academic research is very different from industry work in that the product is intended to be shared with the world, and success is measured by how many people it can reach, whereas industry work is generally proprietary. I would like the motivation for my work to come from the value it can create when shared with others, and an academic career can organically offer this feature.

What will you take with you from your CBS experience?

I will always value the people the most. I hope my Columbia professors can remain connected to my future work. I also hope to stay closely connected with my classmates, and I hope that we can remain as important resources for each other and serve as a sound boards for research ideas.