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FAQs About Doing a PhD (in Behavioural Science)


For the Warwick Behavioural Insights Team, members of the leadership (Neo, Tom and myself) decided to host a Q&A session on what it's like getting into, and doing a PhD in Behavioural Science. In the same week, Elliot Ludvig organised a similar event for the MSc Behavioural and Economic Science, which I also attended. We know that not everyone who wanted to could make it and get their questions answered, so I felt there was an opportunity for me to write this article, almost as a report and recap of the events. Please enjoy the following Q&A below, and let me know if this was useful or if you have anymore questions!


1. How to prepare for applying to a PhD? A lot of questions in the sessions focused on increasing the likelihood of getting into a PhD. Some people were worried their respective undergraduates not linking that well to their PhDs and this being a sign of not being prepared. Others were worried about their Master degrees not preparing them well enough. The following scenario was mentioned: Having an undergraduate degree in Finance and a postgraduate degree in the MSc BES, what PhDs would you be able to apply for? Well, degrees in Behavioural Science and Behavioural Finance would fit well. A degree in Behavioural Economics would be really difficult to get into. For degrees such as Neuroeconomics, in which the specific student had an interest, they would lack the skills need (computational, technology (EEG, fMRI etc.) and as such would find it very difficult to apply successfully. Other things to look into are that not all PhDs are equal. Some PhDs are 3 years. As soon as you start this type of PhD you will have to hit the ground running. For these PhDs you need to have most of the skillset required already. Other PhDs (like my own) are 1+3 programs, in which tje first year still has taught modules, and preparation for the research can still be done. It depends on you which one you prefer, one doesn't tend to be much more competitive than the other. The best way to prepare for a PhD is to have a clear focus on a topic, and to have research experience in that topic. For example, in the MSc BES, you are training to be a behavioural scientist. If the PhDs you are applying for fall within the domain of behavioural science, you tend to be a good match. Moroever, your dissertation will be research based and as such, you will have research experience. It can also help to get research experience through doing Research Assistantships (RAships). Through these, you can increase the likelihood of a PhD in multiple ways:

  1. you will gain experience in the topic

  2. you will gain research experience

  3. you will get to know people in this domain

  4. you will likely be able to apply for a PhD within the group/people you are working with.

Any additional work experience gained before or after the UG and PG can also help prepare you financially and mentally for the PhD, but they are not a must. Another important point to look at is grades. If you are applying during the MSc, and don't have most of the grades in yet, sometimes your undergraduate transcript might be relevant. However, most times, to prepare for the PhD application, having most grades ready does help, although most institutions do realise that you won't have most grades ready. Just something to keep in mind, and something we will touch on again later in the applications section. Quick note here: some people find it difficult to establish the difference between doing a PhD in Behavioural Science as compared to doing a PhD in Behavioural Economics. The difference is rather simple: A Behavioural Economics PhD can only be given out by an economics department. To get into a PhD of this type it is expected that your background is fully grounded in economics (both UG (BSc/BA) and PG (MSc/MA). People without this background often do not get accepted into an economics department as it assumed prior economic training. Behavioural Science PhDs are often found within Psychology departments or Business Schools, for which criteria are often different and need not be so rigid.




2. How to apply? Applying to a PhD can be quite a time consuming process. You are going to need to get ready quite a few lenghty documents: transcripts, motivation letter, research proposal, and the much dreaded reference letters. Let's discuss those in turn: Your transcripts as mentioned before, might not be remotely complete. The UK term starts in October, and ends in September. Yet, most of the application deadlines for PhDs fall in December and January. Most institutions are aware of the "lag" between what they are asking for and what you are able to provide. Most of the time, if all the other documents are in order and you have been accepted, you will have been accepted "conditionally." This means that as long as you get grades above a certain level (in the UK this is often above 65 or 70%), you will be automatically enrolled into the PhD program. If you fail to get these grades, you won't be. Your motivation letter is quite easy: it has to outline who you are, why you want the PhD (future plans) and why you would be a good fit (topic, skillset, practice, experience etc,). It's worth it to have this letter checked by multiple of your peers/colleagues. The research proposal is a much more rigid format, in which you have to outline your research plans for the duration of the PhD (3 or 4 years). You will have to show deeper understanding of the topic, the method(s) being used and to some extent the analysis. If you are applying without a supervisor, you tend to get matched to one on the basis of your research proposal. Last, you will need reference letters. It is important to get goods ones, but it seems to be much more important in the US than it is in the UK. These reference letters need to come from people either in or related to the topic of the PhD, and/or people who you have worked with and know of your research experience. Within some MSc programs there will be Personal Tutors available to all students, and they might be good reference writers as well. They key here is to not be hesitant to ask for a reference letter. Most academics expect their students to ask for them, and are properly trained in writing good ones, so don't worry too much about asking for "too much", it's almost expected. When it comes to the application there is another important part: are you applying with or without a supervisor, and how exactly do you get one? I've written a previous article on "How to Pick your Supervisor" so I will skip over that, but focus on the difference in application. When applying with a supervisor, you have one foot and an arm in the door. Someone has already told you they want you to be there doing a PhD. Now, you just have to convince the respective department or University that this is a good idea. With the supervisor, especially if they help you form the research proposal, the department just had to check that you qualify by their standards (grades, experience, previous education) and will let you in more easily (it also helps with getting funding). With a "cold" application (a.k.a you know no one), you will be competing on your cv, transcripts and proposal alone. You won't receive help with the research proposal and that might be disadvantageous to you. You are effectively a stranger to the department and the university. If it comes to you vs. someone they know, you are the riskier option and often, as a result, you will lose out. This is not to discourage you, but keep it in mind. So knowing this, how do you obtain a supervisor? Well, if you're in an MSc or general postgraduate degree, find one of your teachers, arrange a talk with them and see if there's any overlap. If not, maybe they can direct you to someone who is doing what you want to do. Establishing a connection is always a good idea. If you don't want to stay in the same university, and maybe even want to move country, you are going to have to rely mostly on e-mail (or social media, depending on how connected and proactive you are). E-mailing potential supervisors is not a generalised process. Elliot explained how many e-mails he got and the difference between the ones he would reply positively to and the ones he would reject. The difference is quite simple: you can tell from an e-mail whether it's a copy+paste job to multiple professors. Those e-mails he would always refuse. Second, e-mails which references his old work rather than his new work he would also refuse. He is no longer working in, or interested in that topic and as such wouldn't be a good match as a supervisor. E-mails he did respond to positively would be e-mails that showed you had a clear interest in a specific topic, that alligned with his recent work. To those e-mails he would reply positively and try to arrange a (Skype) meeting. Most academics are like Elliot and will try to help you out. So, there you go. A step by step plan for finding a supervisor. It just requires quite a bit of research on your part!


3. Where to get funding? Other important things to look into: money! PhDs are a long time commitment for which you get paid a terrible wage. If you get paid at all. When applying to EU institutions as someone from the EU, getting funding is easier, and the funding you will receive should be able to cover all costs. When applying to EU institutions as a non-EU students, things become more difficult. Often, funding programs for EU institutions fund against the EU rate, so even if you get this funding as a non-EU student, your full costs will not be covered, as your tuition fee for doing the PhD is higher than that of an EU student. Make sure you look into this when applying for funding. It is also important to see if you could get money from your own country to support your research. Other ways of getting funded is through companies. This is a very rare source of funding, and often comes from having worked for that company for years already. For some people that is just not a reality. But again, keep it in mind, it might be an option, if not now, maybe later. Another question we got quite a lot is whether it is possible to do a self-funded PhD. This is technically possible in the UK, impossible in the US and illegal in other countries (it's against employment laws). Focussing on the UK exclusively: could you do it? Yes. Should you do it? No. Unless you already have millions in the bank, for many people the burden of having to fund your own PhD is too big. Don't underestimate the cost. Regular funded PhD students get about 20.000 pounds a year, of which 4.500 is tuition fees alone (paid for 3 out of 4 years). So, the cost of the PhD is 13.500 already. Plus your living costs. And potentially even having to pay for your participants or methods of analysis. You would massively disadvantage yourself financially by funding it yourself. Questions were also asked about getting additional funding throughout the year, to go from a self-funded student to an institutionally-funded student. The ugly truth is, that this almost never happens and that institutions prefer to fund new PhDs, rather than invest into already existing PhDs. So if your plan is to self-fund your PhD, you are going to have to prepare for funding it all the way. I personally would not recommend doing this.


Your time, effort and research are worth a lot. To you, to the institution and potentially even to society. You are worth more than zero. Don't self-fund.



4. How to manage your time in a PhD?

A few questions also focused on how to manage your time in a PhD. As I said before, not all PhDs are equal, so it's quite difficult to paint a clear picture. In a 3 year PhD (meaning you get funding for 3 years only), people have to immediately get to their research. Often, what happens in these PhDs is that all the research gets done upfront, and the writing gets done much later. As such, these PhDs tend to be 3 years of research, and half a year to a year of unpaid writing. It's an ugly truth but it's the truth and it does happen to quite a few people. Additional pots of funding do tend to be available, but they rarely cover the costs of living.


In 4 year PhDs you have funding for the full 4 years. There tends to be a better divide between research and writing, although people often submit past their initial deadline as well. The difference with 4 year PhDs is that they tend to be 1+3 programs as I described before. As such, you have a year of training and writing before starting most of the research. It might create a better division and a clearer idea of what you want from your research, which might help managing your time later on. Once already in the PhD, if you feel like you are not managing your time well within the PhD there are options to do better. You can talk to your supervisor about them setting you artificial deadlines. It will make it easier to stay on track. If you feel like you are not managing your time well in the PhD because your are preoccupied with other things going on in your life (physical and mental health, family, financial issues etc.) there is always the option to put the PhD (and the funding) on hold, and return to it later. It doesn't get mentioned too often outside of the PhD circle, but this actually quite common. A lot of people also pause their PhDs for doing internships or other work opportunities. It's quite common once you're in the PhD bubble and everyone talks about it openly.



I think these should be the main questions from both sessions. I hope this was a useful article, and if you've got more questions please don't hesitate to reach out to me via the socials, or use the forum to post a question and I will make sure to get back to you. I also have written more articles about the PhD experience, please do check them out here