Alumni Profiles Series: William Choi
William Choi is an economist and a Partner and Managing Director at AlixPartners, a global consulting firm. He provides operational and financial advisory services to a diverse range of clients, including Fortune 100 companies, the U.S. government, and other organizations. He started his consulting career after graduating from Duke with his A.M. and Ph.D. in Economics. After a few years with an economics-focused consulting firm, he joined and founded the U.S. economics practice at AlixPartners and currently serves as the firm’s San Francisco market leader. William has been identified repeatedly in Who’s Who Legal Consulting Experts and has served as an expert witness in high-stakes commercial litigation matters. He previously has been retained to testify on economics and statistics on behalf of Samsung, Walmart, CVS, Pfizer, Rio Tinto, Ernst & Young, Nike, McDonald’s, Fiat Chrysler, General Electric, Honeywell, AMC Entertainment, Kohl’s, Clif Bar, and others.
How did your doctoral training at Duke prepare you for your career?
Although doctoral programs are typically associated with a career in academia, my doctoral training and experience were essential in preparing me for my consulting career.
Doctoral training provides distinct experiences, such as conducting research for a dissertation, critically reviewing academic studies, finding a common theme across prior and sometimes disparate studies, and learning to conduct a study with academic integrity using proper techniques. I have found that this particular training was crucial in preparing me for my consulting career.
Another valuable lesson from the doctoral experience is being mentored by a dissertation advisor who challenges one to address difficult questions rigorously under tight timelines. I was fortunate to have had a dissertation advisor, Frank Sloan, who properly prepared me for a demanding consulting environment.
Finally, as most often happens when working on a dissertation, I hit many dead ends, fell on my face several times, and frequently struggled to respond to critical questions. There is an old joke that when the villain in a movie has a Ph.D., it resonates differently to two different groups. The general audience is inclined to think: “Of course, they are trying to emphasize that he’s a smart villain.” But those with a Ph.D. think: “Of course, the grad school experience is what drove him to madness.” However, criticisms and failure are valuable experiences that build resilience and thicken one’s skin.
How did you decide to pursue a career in consulting?
Initially, I enrolled in the Ph.D. program with an academic career in mind. However, as I progressed, I realized academia may not be the best fit for me.
Academic careers are not for everyone, and that’s fine. There are many rewarding and challenging career paths. Fortunately, Ph.D. economists generally are in demand in the private and public sectors, particularly in consulting. After my third year of grad school, I interned for the president of a global economics consulting firm, which exposed me to real-world applications of economics and statistics. This experience helped me discover that I enjoy the fast-paced, collaborative environment of consulting, including the opportunity to work on a multidisciplinary team of professionals in high-stakes matters.
Tell me more about your work.
I enjoy working with diverse clients, colleagues, and professionals. This often includes collaborating with C-suite executives, litigators, accountants, statisticians, engineers, and other economists.
I have been fortunate to work on a wide variety of very interesting matters, including advising clients on pricing, strategy, and promotions in industries such as retail, hospitality, pharmaceuticals, and more. Additionally, I advise companies on data management and analysis, consumer behavior, and quantitative methods across different industries. I have also been retained by the U.S. government to conduct statistical analyses in mortgage fraud investigations, which resulted in the largest settlements in U.S. history. Finally, I have been retained to provide expert testimony on economic damages for some of the largest global companies across a range of issues from antitrust, securities, and intellectual property.
What advice would you give to current graduate students at Duke?
Demand for your time will be the key metric for success in your early years in consulting. To create this demand, you must be hardworking, smart, and collaborative. However, as you progress in your career, there will be a point where intelligence and hard work are no longer the most critical factors for further development. Instead, a strong professional network becomes crucial. Focus on building a solid professional network early in your career, which may define your ultimate success.
Remember that your current position in life is owed, in part, to the guidance and support of your mentors. The most fitting way to repay them is to selflessly mentor the upcoming generation with no strings attached.
Master's student, Economics
Xiaoyi Zhao is a first-year master’s student in the M.A. Economics (MAE) program at Duke University. Her research interests are primarily focused on health economics and applied microeconomics, particularly in the context of social events. She earned her bachelor’s degree at UC Davis in economics and philosophy. She worked in the banking system in China before attending Duke.