Master of Behavioral and Decision Sciences, University of Pennsylvania ‘19
Master of Business Administration, University of the Incarnate World ‘18
Bachelor’s Degree in History, Furman University ‘04
“I wouldn't have my current job if it weren’t for going through the MBDS program,” says US Army Major Alex Willard (Master of Behavioral and Decision Sciences ‘19). After serving as an infantry officer, Alex transitioned to a strategic planning role, and the Army agreed to send him to graduate school as part of his career development. “Most people who do policy and planning do graduate programs in history, political science, or international relations,” Alex says, “but Penn’s MBDS program really caught my eye because it is so relevant to strategic planning and it is so unique.” He was also drawn to the program’s world-renowned professors in the areas of forecasting and group decision-making, such as Dr. Barbara Mellers and Dr. Philip Tetlock.
As a student in the MBDS program, Alex’s research interests began to expand. “I took a lot of classes that frankly I just didn't anticipate would be so good,” he says. The social norms class that Alex took was particularly eye-opening for him. Grounded in the social norms theory created by Dr. Cristina Bicchieri, MBDS’s Founding Director, this class prompted Alex to “start thinking about a really big challenge for the Army—recruitment—through a lens of social norms and cognitive biases.” Alex notes that since the US military became an all-volunteer force in the 1970s, its salary and benefit packages have become more and more attractive but that has not translated to recruitment in the way that traditional economic models would predict. So, what does drive recruitment? Familiarity. Alex explains that the top five towns per capita that send recruits into the Army every year are towns where there are military bases. Additionally, about 80 percent of all new recruits have at least one extended family member who served in the military. These insights ultimately guided Alex’s capstone research project, which in turn precipitated a career change for him: he was selected to become an Army Marketing Officer.
In addition to the core courses, students in the MBDS program choose electives from across the University landscape. “There is an abundance of classes that MBDS students can take advantage of at Penn,” Alex says. He took a broad range of courses: a history class about how societies remember wars, a class on talent management and human capital, and classes on public policy that drove home the importance of piloting initiatives before implementing them at scale. Alex says the MBDS program’s emphasis on data and pilot-testing set it apart. “I am not a quantitative person—which is why I wrote a qualitative capstone paper,” Alex jokes; “however, after going through the program, I very much appreciate the importance of data and impact measurement.” He says that now he is surprised to see how underutilized practices such as A/B testing and message optimization are throughout the marketing industry.
Alex says that one of the biggest strengths of the MBDS program is the individualized attention that students receive from Managing Director Dr. Christopher Nave. “His door is always open, and he was unbelievably helpful throughout.” Alex also felt supported by the Penn community, as a mid-career professional returning to school, as a veteran, and as a new parent. He recommends that student-parents explore the Family Center at Penn, a family-friendly space on campus where parents can connect with each other and access free resources through the University, such as membership to care.com for finding childcare. Reflecting on his time at Penn, Alex says, “I wish I could have been there for longer.”
Though his time as an MBDS student is now complete, Alex plans to stay connected with the program for years to come. He currently serves as a client for the new course Consulting in Behavioral Science. “I’m working with a team of five very impressive students with diverse skill sets and industry experience,” he says. “They are helping us understand why some individuals who want to join the Army sign contracts to join but end up dropping out before basic training.” Alex notes that decreasing the attrition rate of these individuals even by a small percentage would save the Army millions of dollars. The team’s final report will include behavioral interventions that the Army could test to close the intention-behavior gap and decrease attrition.
To learn more about Alex’s current work, see this Army press release about his newly created role. Alex has also written for publications, such as his article “Managing Military Millennials” in PeopleScience.