Do You Really Need a Degree in Behavioural Science?

Through putting myself and my opinions out in the world (read: blogging without privacy settings), a lot of people have reached out to me asking for advice. Most advice revolves around doing a PhD or the more general “how do you get into the field of behavioural science?” and the latter is a very good question. Now you can get into behavioural science a variety of pathways, but I’ll have to admit that the first ones that come to mind are pathways that are based in education. Do an undergraduate in behavioural science, or more likely, a behavioural science adjacent field, such as psychology, economics, sociology, marketing or data/computer science (it’s just a great combo). From thereon, you can decide to do a postgraduate (Master’s) degree, in behavioural science or behavioural economics specifically. That sets you up for a career as either a behavioural science practitioner, or academic, granted that for the latter you’ll also require a PhD in behavioural science or a behavioural science adjacent field. If you want more info about getting into a behavioural science PhD, this article should do you. These are the pathways I’d recommend for someone young(ish) with an interest in behavioural science, and who wants a career in this field. However, these pathways assume something quite critical: that you have the time and money to go through longer-term education. And that is not true for everyone…

When I found behavioural science, I was young. Kahneman and Tversky had already busted the field of neo-classical economics wide open and the epic academic meet-ups with behavioural science heroes such as Loewenstein and Camerer had already happened. But more importantly, several prominent members had written pop science books, making the field more mainstream. The educational programs for this field became available. You could get trained in behavioural science. And that became my first MSc degree. Although you, my dear reader, might believe and pray that behavioural science is a mainstream field and everyone knows and understands its value, that is not the reality of the world we’re living in. It was not the case for most people who are now over the age of thirty. The educational programs did not exist to the extent that they do now. Behavioural science was not as widely recognized as useful, nor was it being practiced to the extent it is now. The reason for me writing this article can be pinpointed to a single conversation I had. A colleague of a friend of mine had recently started working in a behavioural science unit, but had no formal training in behavioural science. They reached out to me (amongst several others!!!) to hear my opinion on whether going back into education (MSc program) would be a good idea. After hearing their case I told them it was a bad idea, and they shouldn’t do it. I am a massive proponent of education. Love learning, love teaching. But can you honestly tell someone they should go back into full-time behavioural science education, risking their job (it might not be available to them next year) whilst they have a mortgage and children? There is no economic incentive to go back into education, there are mostly risks, especially as they already held a job in behavioural science. Many people go into education so they can secure themselves a job in behavioural science, not the other way round!

I did understand their reasoning though. As they were working in a unit where most people held at least an MSc in behavioural science, some sporting a PhD as well. But this idea that you need to hold a behavioural science degree to work in behavioural science is not an idea that finds a lot of resonance. Founder and CEO of Mindworx Matej Sucha, is quite known for promoting what he calls a “behavioural mindset” rather than a necessity to hold the degree. You might be better off holding a different degree, Matej holds degrees in mathematics, to complement and elevate skills you need for behavioural science. But many people might worry about being “the odd one out.” However, that is not a very legitimate worry, as most people over the age of 30-35 wouldn’t have had the chance to do a behavioural science degree to begin with. You will not stand out as a sore thumb. There are quite a few powerhouses in behavioural science who do not have what we call “behavioural science degrees”. Just ask Dilip Soman or Koen Smets how their engineering degrees are treating them. Behavioural science is built on a large number of interested people giving their perspectives, through a variety of backgrounds, on what’s going on in the field of judgement, reasoning and decision-making.

The type of degree you’d need to correctly do behavioural science can differ quite a bit, depending on the type of behavioural science you’d want to practice. Behavioural science degrees are still quite generalist. They treat behavioural science as a general discipline, mainly focusing on the theoretical aspects of the science. This prepares you for more theoretical development and (academic) research. However it is general. There is little to no in-depth preparation on subfield specific knowledge and skills such as behavioural finance, business applications of behavioural science, such as behavioural design. If you are someone who has got loads of work experience in a particular (sub)field and wish to apply behavioural scientific insights to this field, without actually leaving this field (you’re not making a career switch), I have strong doubts about whether a formal degree (university education) is really the most useful tool out there, because the applications you are most likely looking at can be quite niche (e.g. exclusively design or strategy focused). In that case, doing certified online courses seems the way to go, where you can integrated your domain specific knowledge with rather specific and applied behavioural scientific insights. Your credibility as a behavioural [inset your job title here] will then come from (successfully) carrying out behaviourally informed interventions/projects etc. within your domain of expertise. Let the work speak for itself, rather than a degree. I know this is very much the idea behind If you’re not 100% sold yet, this article by Sam Salzer has listed 23 online courses, some generalist like this one by Toronto’s BEAR, or specialized such as Cristina Bicchieri’s course on social change through social norms.

Sam himself is offering a great course on Behavioural Design, showcasing and teaching the proven motivation and reward loop playbooks from some of the world’s top behavioural designers, so you can create more impact with less effort. Level up your ability to motivate and change behavior in just six fun, action-packed weeks. If that sounds like something you would be interested in, you can join here, with an additional $200 off through being a valued reader of Money on the Mind!