At just 31-years-old, Hengchen Dai is one of the youngest professors to make this year’s list of Best 40 Under 40 Professors. The assistant professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management has already amassed nearly 600 Google Scholar citations — more than many of the other profs on this year’s list. That research has led to numerous awards and media coverage in such major outlets as New York Magazine, the BBC, The Atlantic, NPR, and The Wall Street Journal.
“Hengchen is a rising star researcher and one of our most successful MBA teachers,” one nominator told us. “She is a conscientious and consistently engaged colleague.”
Yet it was only after she was admitted to Wharton’s Ph.D. program in 2019 that Dai realized that she could become a business school professor. “I thought, ‘Hey, that sounds like a cool idea,” she says. “It turns out to have been really cool!”
Dai’s focus is on the personal nuances and motivations behind decisions, a fertile field for timely analysis that has led her to study what kind of incentive is needed to get consumers to hit the ‘Buy Now’ button on a full shopping cart to what motivates Kickstarter funders to kick in the last 5% of a project’s funding. “In general, I study self-control and motivation using large-scale field experiments and archival analyses,” she says. “I seek to understand how individuals make decisions when facing self-control challenges and how to design interventions to steer individuals toward far-sighted decision making.”
Outside of the classroom, Dai says she has recently started a new hobby of taking funny videos of her daughter, thanks to sheltering-in-place restrictions.
“Professor Dai is a remarkably productive researcher, exploring interesting and important researcher questions using compelling large scale field experiments,” another nominator told us. “She is also a beloved teacher, who engages her students through her commitment to their class experience, use of interactive exercises, interesting content, and her humorous and likable demeanor.”
Current age: 31
At current institution since what year? 2017
Ph.D. in Operations, Information, and Decisions, The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
B.A. in Economics & B.S. in Psychology, Peking University
List of MBA courses you currently teach: Leadership Foundations, Organizational Behavior
TELL US ABOUT YOUR LIFE AS A BUSINESS PROFESSOR
I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when… When I was in college, I wanted to conduct research on behavioral economics, so I primarily applied to Ph.D. programs in economics departments. I only applied to Ph.D. programs in two business schools, since few business schools had behavioral econ. programs at that time. It was only after I was admitted to Wharton’s Ph.D. program did I realize that I could become a business school professor. I thought, hey, that sounds like a cool idea. It turns out to have been really cool!
What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it?
In general, I study self-control and motivation using large-scale field experiments and archival analyses. I seek to understand how individuals make decisions when facing self-control challenges and how to design interventions to steer individuals toward far-sighted decision making. For example, I have documented the “fresh start effect,” whereby people are more likely to start pursuing a goal at moments that feel like fresh starts, such as birthdays, the beginning of a week/season/year, or during job transitions. I also found that fresh starts can demotivate people when they have been performing well in the past or when they are unjustifiably optimistic about what they can do in the future. In another stream, my recent work on digital platforms shows that providing simple customer-related information at the beginning of a service encounter can facilitate interaction between customers and service providers, which improves customers’ service enjoyment, expands providers’ service capacity, and helps the two sides foster long-term relationships.
If I weren’t a business school professor… I would be a teacher in another field, or maybe a diplomat. These were my childhood career goals.
What do you think makes you stand out as a professor?
I love getting feedback (from students, TAs, colleagues, teaching coaches) and acting on it. Starting when I first taught at Wharton, I worked closely with teaching coaches to develop my class materials, had them sit in my class, asked them to give me the toughest feedback (that I could feasibly act on) after each class, and sought to implement my learning by the next class.
One word that describes my first time teaching: Exciting
Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a business school professor: It is an amazing and rewarding job.
Professor I most admire and why: There are many! Coming from Wharton, I admire how Katy Milkman connects fundamental behavioral science principles with business and policy applications, and encourages students to apply these principles in ways that really make an impact. I admire Uri Simonsohn’s ability to teach judgment and decision making in an analytical approach while making students learn and laugh at the same time. At Anderson, I learned a lot from my talented colleagues, who have an incredible sense of humor, unbelievable energy, and great devotion to their students.
What do you enjoy most about teaching business students?
Students at Anderson are very engaged in class and do a great job connecting course materials with their observations, which makes class discussion interesting and insightful. I enjoy learning about their work and life experiences, which helps me expand my understanding of how work is done in various industries. Also, it is really rewarding when students tell me that they applied our learning points at work, and it worked!
What is most challenging?
Managing conversations in a class with 50-70 students is challenging. Students are engaged, but sometimes can get excited about tangentially relevant topics and may not always use the right lens to analyze a problem. It can be challenging to keep the discussion on track and push students to adopt a more appropriate analytical lens, without discouraging them or making them feel that I do not have an open mind about their perspective.
In one word, describe your favorite type of student: Engaged
In one word, describe your least favorite type of student: Disengaged
When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as… Fair but a bit tough
LIFE OUTSIDE OF THE CLASSROOM
What are your hobbies?
Nowadays, my most fun activity is to take funny videos of my daughter.
How will you spend your summer?
If my summer and fall courses will be online, then I will spend a fair amount of the summer transforming my in-person courses into online ones. Any down time will be used for research.
Favorite place(s) to vacation: I hope to do safari in the Amazon or Africa one day. Seeing aurora while camping on a snowy mountain also sounds like a dream.
Favorite book(s): There are many books I’ve enjoyed reading, but for years, my favorite books have been the Harry Potter series.
What is currently your favorite movie and/or show and what is it about the film or program that you enjoy so much?
I used to like watching political shows like West Wing and House of Cards, maybe because they gave me the illusion that I was learning how American politics and politicians work.
What is your favorite type of music or artist(s) and why?
I like any type of relaxing piano music. Great background music for work.
THOUGHTS AND REFLECTIONS
If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this…
Greater connection with business and policy applications in research, so that we can show students how research from our fields has directly impacted business and policymakers and made employees/consumers happier, healthier, and productive.
In my opinion, companies and organizations today need to do a better job at… Making employees and contractors feel valued and appreciated by managers, colleagues, and customers. Besides motivating employees to better serve customers, organizations can also consider encouraging customers to behave in ways that can motivate employees.
I’m grateful for… I am grateful for my Ph.D. advisor (Katy Milkman) and other mentors who have shown me what being a great researcher and teacher means, while helping me get closer to that ideal state; for Devin Pope, who told me about the Ph.D. program that I eventually enrolled in (otherwise, I would not have become a business school professor); for my Anderson colleagues, who are always available to answer my (endless) questions.
Faculty, students, alumni, and/or administrators say:
“Professor Dai goes the extra mile to help us build a great culture at UCLA Anderson. At our Welcome Weekends, she inspires our incoming students and we are always grateful for her generosity.” –Assistant Dean and Director of Admissions, Dylan Stafford
“Hengchen is a rising star researcher and one of our most successful MBA teachers. She is a conscientious and consistently engaged colleague.”
“Hengchen is not only a stellar teacher in the classroom, but she also conducts incredibly important and applicable research. Her work has implications for goal pursuit, financial decision-making, and healthcare. She is most deserving of this award!”
“Professor Dai is a remarkably productive researcher, exploring interesting and important researcher questions using compelling large scale field experiments. She is also a beloved teacher, who engages her students through her commitment to their class experience, use of interactive exercises, interesting content, and her humorous and likable demeanor.”