Adrian Ward is a rockstar professor–in more ways than one. He played in several rock bands in high school and college. But now the 33-year-old assistant professor of marketing at the University of Texas-Austin McCombs School of Business spends less time being an actual rockstar and more time being a deft business professor. It’s that reason we’ve selected Ward on this year’s Best 40 Under 40 Professors list. Ward was as close to a shoo-in as one could get. A prolific and award-winning researcher, Ward already has over 1,000 Google Scholar citations. He was also recently named a 2020 “Rising Star” by the Association for Psychological Science.
And that doesn’t even begin to account for the nearly 70 nominations he received — the majority of which were thoughtful and spoke to Ward’s ability to connect with students. “Adrian is among our most impactful and well-liked professors. He has been at McCombs for five years now and has gotten the highest teaching ratings in the undergrad section EVERY single time he’s taught,” one nominator told us. “That is, he is the highest-rated (by undergrads) instructor in our department year after year for the past five years. In addition, what he teaches–consumer behavior in a digital world–is highly useful and has tremendous real-world impact. He’s been nominated this year as the best undergrad professor at McCombs and I fully expect him to win. So, I have no hesitation in nominating him for this award.”
Ward’s primary MBA course — Consumer Behavior in a Digital World — is a hugely popular and well-liked elective at the McCombs School.
“Dr. Adrian Ward is one of the best professors there is,” one nominator told us. “He has that rare ability to be both a professor that is a student/fan-favorite given his teaching chops, and one is constantly pushing the label on what top-tier academic research can look like, be about, and sound like.”
Outside of the classroom, Ward still picks up the guitar but says he spends more time hiking, spending time with his dogs, and exploring Austin’s robust music and food scene — all of which are activities that “require much less skill than playing a musical instrument.”
Assistant Professor of Marketing
Current age: 33
At current institution since what year? 2015
Education: Ph.D. in Psychology, Harvard University (2013); B.S. in Psychology and B.A. in Religion, Furman University (2008)
List of MBA courses you currently teach: Consumer Behavior in a Digital World
LIFE AS A PROFESSOR
I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when… I realized that business school professors have the opportunity to conduct rigorous psychological research in contexts with real-world consequences—to both understand the human condition, and (hopefully) improve it.
What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it?
Most of my research investigates how fundamental aspects of cognition—for example, attention, knowledge, and decision-making ability—are shaped by our relationships with technology and other people.
In one recent project examining financial responsibility and financial expertise in romantic relationships, we found that consumers learn about money on a “need to know” basis. Although early-stage distributions of financial responsibility between relationship partners typically have little to do with preexisting differences in financial knowledge or ability, they establish divergent trajectories of financial expertise; partners with high levels of responsibility develop expertise over time, whereas those with low levels of responsibility stagnate or decay.
Beyond specific implications for financial decision making and financial education, these findings also illustrate the broader idea that people will fail to develop their own knowledge when they believe they can rely on outside information—a tendency that, thanks to the Internet, may be more impactful now than ever before in human history. In a recent project related to this idea, I investigated how on-demand access to information shapes not what people know, but what they think they know. This research revealed a striking result: when people use Google to answer questions, they feel more confident in their own ability to remember and process information—so much so that they believe they will continue performing well even when Google is taken away.
These “blurred boundaries” between internal and external knowledge illustrate how human cognition is increasingly intertwined with digital technologies—a theme explored further in another recent research project testing how reliance on one’s own smartphone may affect cognitive functioning. In this project, participants performed a series of cognitive tasks while their phones were either on their desks, in their pockets/bags, or secured in another room. Consistent with our theory that resisting the urge to use one’s phone occupies cognitive resources, we found that available cognitive capacity was lowest when phones were nearby and in sight (i.e., on the desk) and highest when phones were entirely removed from the environment—a result that should give pause to anyone who works with their smartphone on their desk, and is already influencing technology policies in educational institutions across the United States.
If I weren’t a business school professor… I would be a zoologist by day and a bassist in an indie rock band by night.
As humans, it’s only natural that we tend to focus on human goals, worry about human problems, and generally see the world through a human lens. As a psychologist and business school professor, this perspective is at the heart of what I do. But there’s an incredible diversity of non-human life on this planet, reflecting equally diverse ways of experiencing and navigating the world—and I would love challenging myself to think about the world from such a drastically different perspective.
Also, I play a lot of musical instruments but have very little musical talent—and in my personal experience playing with friends who do have talent, I’ve found that I have the least negative effect on a band’s overall sound when I’m holding down the bassline. So, for the sake of eardrums everywhere, bass it is!
What do you think makes you stand out as a professor?
Empathy. Every student is a person, and every person is different. I strive to meet students where they are and encourage them to develop confidence in their unique strengths and interests. I worked as a mental health counselor prior to graduate school, and it turns out that teaching is often a lot like counseling—if you want someone to see the world differently, it helps to first understand how they see it now.
One word that describes my first time teaching: T’wired. (Tired and Wired—my excitement prevented me from getting any sleep the night before…but thankfully also kept me going all day long.)
Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a business school professor:
Own your expertise. When I started as a professor, I was acutely aware that I had never run a business, worked in marketing, or even taken a business class—in other words, I was acutely aware of what I didn’t know. This held me back from making the most of what I did know—from owning my expertise in psychology, and from showing students how understanding consumer behavior is critical to solving real-world business problems.
I’ve gotten a lot better at owning my expertise (hopefully with humility!) in the last few years, and want to encourage students to do the same.
Professor I most admire and why: I cannot imagine who I would be without Dan Wegner, my Ph.D. advisor at Harvard. Dan’s research addresses big questions that are both intellectually stimulating and relevant to everyday life—like whether or not our thoughts actually control our actions, and why trying not to think about something can cause you to think about it even more. Personally, he was one of the kindest, funniest, and most insightful humans I have ever known. I aspire to live up to his example, and I miss him almost every day (he passed away in 2013).
I also feel incredibly fortunate for the mentorship of John Lynch, my post-doc advisor at CU-Boulder and the founding director of the Center for Research on Consumer Financial Decision-Making. John cares deeply about consumer welfare, and his career provides ample evidence of how academic research can actually change the world for the better. He is intellectually rigorous, generous with his time, a joy to be around—and the reason I chose to join the field of marketing;
What do you enjoy most about teaching business students?
Many business students have a clear sense of vision and purpose—a family business they want to improve, a firm they want to join, or an entirely new idea they want to develop. I’m thrilled when the class starts to “click,” and students begin spontaneously applying concepts from lecture to their own business interests and problems. I also love knowing that what students learn in my class may help them care for themselves, their families, and their communities.
What is most challenging?
Many business students have a clear sense of vision and purpose…and that can be a challenge if they do not immediately see how your class is relevant to that vision or purpose. (In my experience, students in other disciplines are sometimes more willing to “go along for the ride” and trust that the destination will be worth it.)
In one word, describe your favorite type of student: Curious
In one word, describe your least favorite type of student: Absent
When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as… Transparent. For most of the assignments in my class, students conduct actual behavioral research on topics they choose themselves. I want them to focus their energy on what matters—understanding and exploring consumer behavior—not on guessing how they will be graded. To this end, I provide detailed guidelines and feedback for all assignments, and always give students the opportunity to improve their output—and grades—by incorporating this feedback into a revised deliverable.
LIFE OUTSIDE THE CLASSROOM
What are your hobbies?
Most of my current hobbies are vestiges of past lives—for example, I played in several rock bands during high school and college, and still enjoy playing music whenever I can…but every time I pick up a guitar, I feel like I’m re-activating a fading skill rather than building a new one.
I also enjoy hiking, walking my dogs, and exploring all of the live music and restaurants that Austin has to offer—all hobbies that (thankfully) require much less skill than playing a musical instrument.
How will you spend your summer?
Like everyone else: at home! Aside from research and writing, my big goal is to finally install the new bird feeder I bought last month…
Favorite place(s) to vacation: I’m from South Carolina and my partner is from Colorado—so we’re fortunate that visits home always involve either beaches or mountains, in addition to family.
When thinking of places rather than people, my favorite location will always be the one I’ve never visited before. Life is short and the world is big—I’d like to experience as much of it as possible while I have the chance!
Favorite book(s): I read constantly for work, so when I’m reading for fun I usually stick to fiction. My favorite book is probably Cloud Atlas, and anything by David Mitchell is almost certainly worth the read. But my most prized literary possession my complete Calvin and Hobbes anthology.
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 movie of all time is Big, because it is objectively the best movie of all time and Tom Hanks is a national treasure.
In terms of TV, I recently finished watching Future Man, and it has everything—time travel, artificial intelligence, social commentary, dystopia, utopia, comedy, action, and Haley Joel Osment. But it also has bad words, so watch out!
What is your favorite type of music or artist(s) and why?
I can find something to like about almost every type of music—although pop country is often a challenge.
One silver lining of the recent transition to online teaching (due to Covid-19) is that I have the power to play background music as students are trickling in before class begins. Selections so far include “In My Love” by Brockbeats, “Good News” by Mac Miller, “My Only Swerving” by El Ten Eleven, and “Dern Kala” by Khruangbin. If head bops are any indication, all went over well!
THOUGHTS & REFLECTIONS
If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this… Emphasis on consumer welfare.
In my opinion, companies and organizations today need to do a better job at… Considering the long-term social and behavioral implications of business models. This is particularly relevant for digital products and services that operate according to the rules of the “attention economy.” The fact is that consumers are paying for many “free” services with the most limited resource they have: their attention. Tech firms (and their algorithms) have gotten very good at capturing attention—but at what cost? Is this really a sustainable business model?
I’m grateful for… Way too many people to name, or even count. But I can point to so many inflection points where my life may have gone in an entirely different direction if not for the attention and generosity of others—when I tested into “special education” before kindergarten, but my mom decided to home school me instead; when my freshman roommate in college told me that intro psych was really hard, but totally worth it; when a professor at my undergrad helped me get a summer job as a research assistant, even though I had never taken a class with her; when my first research supervisor recommended me to a second research supervisor, who eventually became my Ph.D. advisor; and when friends and colleagues helped me find post-doc opportunities in the midst of an abrupt and unexpected end to my Ph.D. studies. At these points and others, the people around me took care of me—at personal cost, and with no personal benefit. I am eternally grateful, and can only hope to pay it forward.
Faculty, students, alumni, and/or administrators say:
“Adrian Ward is the best professor I have had. His classes are both remarkably interesting and incredible fun. I remember clearly how impressed I was when I met him. He was—and still is—younger than I, yet knowledgeable and articulate beyond his years or mine for that matter. As mundane as it sounds, he seemed like a real-life Spencer Reid—the teenage genius from Criminal Minds. They have the same impressive understanding of human behavior but luckily Adrian lacks the fictional profiler’s somber view of life. Jokes aside, Adrian Ward is the reason why I chose to go into behavioral economics, machine learning, and predictive models—which basically means that his class defined my post-MBA career. He is the kind of professor that you hope you will find in college, the one whose influence stays with you for the rest of your life and you mention to your kids when they ask you why did you decide to do what you do for a living. Unfortunately for college kids, Adrian’s talents deserve a more immediate impact on the business world—the kind only he can create by sharpening MBA minds through his astounding lectures. Long story short, Professor Ward deserves to be recognized not just as the best MBA professor under 40 but one of the best MBA professors in the world regardless of their age brackets.”
“To this day, I’ve been integrating what Professor Ward has taught me not only my professional career but also personal life. I often find myself thinking, “Oh I remember learning about this in his class!” – His teaching style is extremely refreshing. He challenges you, while also making sure to come across as relatable. His PowerPoint slides are incredible (and better designed than any other teacher I’ve come across — including those in design-heavy departments). – The first day of class/First impression, you know he’s there because he loves it and WANTS to be there. Even up until the very end of the semester, that thought hadn’t wavered one bit for me and my fellow classmates. – TLDR; Not many people can recall what they’ve learned in, to be frank, any class. I can say with confidence, I’ve retained at least 80% of what I’ve learned from Professor Ward’s class (and this is without heavy study). An incredible human being, and a beyond phenomenal teacher.”
“Adrian is among our most impactful and well-liked professors. He has been at McCombs for 5 years now and has gotten the highest teaching ratings in the undergrad section EVERY single time he’s taught. That is, he is the highest-rated (by undergrads) instructor in our department year after year for the past five years. In addition, what he teaches–consumer behavior in a digital world–is highly useful and has tremendous real-world impact. He’s been nominated this year as the best undergrad professor at McCombs and I fully expect him to win. So, I have no hesitation in nominating him for this award.”