The first grant proposal Harvard assistant professor Brigitte Madrian (BA ’89, MA ’89) ever submitted for research funding from the National Institutes of Health was rejected. After revising and resubmitting, her second proposal was rejected, too. “It was an insult to my ego and a huge blow to my confidence and I questioned whether I was actually working on something that was interesting, something that people would value.” With the encouragement of a faculty advisor, she made one last effort to revise and resubmit. The third time really was the charm: the agency accepted the proposal and gave her continuous funding for almost 20 years. “I had to learn to be persistent and to not take rejections personally… I had to learn grant writing through trial and error.”
Perseverance became Madrian’s hallmark, and in 2019 she was named Dean of BYU’s Marriott School of Business. Madrian’s BYU ties, however, began long before. She spent her childhood on campus “seeing movies in the Varsity Theater, visiting the Monte L. Bean Museum, swimming in the pool at Helaman Halls, and attending all the athletic and musical events” while her father worked as a professor of sociology. “BYU was the only school that I ever even considered attending,” she says. “It never so much as crossed my mind to go someplace else.” Madrian began college intending to study Political Science. By the end of her first semester, however, she changed her major to Economics after excelling in ECON 110, a required course at the time. She later went on to earn a PhD in economics at MIT.
Before coming to serve as dean, Madrian worked as a full professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government for nearly 13 years, where about 40 percent of the students came from abroad. She says, “It gave me a real appreciation for building relationships and interacting with people who think very differently than you do.” Now Madrian strives to implement what she learned at Harvard in order to foster an environment where, despite cultural or ideological differences, BYU students and faculty can work in harmony and learn from one another’s unique perspectives. “My favorite part of the job,” she says, “is all the people I’ve had the opportunity to meet and all the relationships I’ve built. It’s so exciting to feel like you can do something that has a real impact on not just your own professional career, but also on the goals and mission of a larger organization like BYU.”
Madrian’s research on behavioral economics and household financial decision-making has also informed the approach she takes to leadership. Over time, she has learned that people most frequently tend to do whatever is easiest, not necessarily what is best for them. “It quickly became clear that, if you want people to make good financial decisions, you have to make that particular outcome easy; make it the most likely thing to happen.”
Madrian has utilized this insight from her research at home and at church as well as in academics. Serving as Young Women’s president several years ago, she shares the story of how difficult it was to get the youth registered for events like Girls Camp or youth conferences. “Instead of emailing them the forms and hoping they would print them and fill them out themselves, I would park myself in the lobby right outside the chapel after sacrament meeting and nab the kids as they walked out.” She would have at the ready pens, forms, and envelopes (already stamped and addressed) prepared for each person—all they had to do was simply fill out the forms. She laughs, “The stake leaders were always impressed because we had all of our kids registered before anyone else, but it was because I had applied these insights from my research on how to get people to actually do what you want them to do.”
A career in academia, however, is hardly a picnic. “What no one tells you when you’re hired as a professor,” Madrian says, “is that, although they primarily hired you to teach, they decide if they’ll keep you based on whether or not you’re a productive researcher. But, a lot of the time, you don’t have the resources you need to do it all.”
But Madrian persevered, and her dedication to research has led to changes in employer-sponsored savings plans and has even influenced pension reform legislation in the U.S. and abroad. As an academic and mother of two daughters, she says, “I think all good things in life are difficult and they naturally come with challenges, but that’s what makes them rewarding. Ultimately, you decide what’s most important and, whatever that is, it probably involves making sacrifices. With those sacrifices, you find which ones you’re willing to make and, in the end, it all has a way of working out.”