With the new year coming up, is there really a better time for some self-reflection? Of course not! Leading question aside, I thought I’d dedicate an article to my journey into behavioural science, what I would have done differently in hindsight and what I’d advice I’d give to those of you just starting out.
First things first: I didn’t know the term “behavioural economics” or “behavioural science” just before I started looking for Master degrees in late 2015. I got lucky to the extent that my undergraduate degree was a liberal arts (“choose your own adventure”) degree which I crafted to include economics and psychology. Now this is a bit of a chicken and egg story, as my “crafted” degree was clearly pointing towards behavioural economics. I just didn’t know that term existed yet. I realised what behavioural economics was when I had a neuro-economist (Tony Williams) teach me economic psychology. He explained to me what behavioural economics was and that this was essentially my curriculum. I then started looking for master degrees knowing that specific term, which helped a lot. Without Tony, I’m not too sure what type of psychology I would have ended up with, but I’m not too sure I would’ve made it to behavioural science on my own. Given that behavioural science has now become massively popular you don’t really have an excuse for not knowing what it is, especially if you’re already in psychology, economics or a behaviour-focused field. In hindsight I should’ve figured this out sooner. And that is also my advice to you: figure out early on what the “key terms” are for the topics you like. There’s not many master degrees in economic psychology, but there’s loads in behavioural science!
So onto the master’s degree. I was not impressed with the selection in the Netherlands (in 2015!) for MSc degrees in behavioural science. I got chatting to the interim dean of the faculty (Teun Dekker) who recommended I looked at what the UK had to offer in terms of BeSci degrees. The UK had more to offer than the Netherlands (the bar was low) and the applications went out. I ended up at Warwick and honestly, it was a great fit for me. In hindsight, I should have done more shopping around. I did relatively little research (when I compare it to the amount of research I do now for much simpler decisions) when it came to the amount of universities I checked out. Also, Teun said UK, so I only researched the UK really. I know there’s such a thing as choice overload and information avoidance, but in hindsight I can only facepalm when looking back at how I went about this process… Now, for the advice part: since late 2015 the UK has doubled its behavioural science programs. When I was applying, the LSE one didn’t exist and if UCL had one they need to fire whomever ran their marketing campaign. Warwick stood out head, shoulders and bloody knees (for me). Choices were much more limited, but they no longer are now. I’m pretty sure that apart from ‘ye old’ Oxbridge most universities have a behavioural science or behavioural economics program. So find the right fit for you! Don’t think you need to go to the UK either. The UK is expensive and thanks to Brexit hasn’t exactly become more accessible… Education doesn’t need to cost an arm, a leg and a kidney, it really doesn’t. Cheaper and equally high quality (and high ranking) programs can (now!!!) be found in most countries in Europe, most notably in the Netherlands, Switzerland and Germany. And thankfully, most of these places have improved their marketing… I know the US also offers MSc degrees in behavioural science, but on the DL – I’ve never heard anything positive about them. So there’s that little nugget. Quite helpful given the prices of So what should I have done differently: I should have done more research. So what advice do I give to you: do more research. Type in the right keywords into google and see what rolls out. Talk to people who have taught you behavioural science (adjacent) courses. Once you have found/been recommended certain courses or universities, reach out to current students, teachers or alumni and talk to them about it. Find out which program is the best fit for you. DO YOUR RESEARCH! Even in hindsight though, I would have ended up at Warwick. Now during the masters itself I was taught loads of research and I am forever grateful. I would recommend it 100%. What I wouldn’t recommend is my attitude towards some of it: I mainly liked theory and writing (surprise, anyone?), but wasn’t very fond of the statistics and coding aspect. So in term 1 I did the bare minimum with regards to learning R. And that bit me in the behind like a rabid dog during a full moon. A lot of behavioural science is understanding what you’re looking at, from a data perspective. It helps if you know at least one program/language well. And if you cannot explain what a t-test does or what margins of error and confidence intervals are, well than you’re really going to have a problem. Because those are the very basics. Like pumpkin spice latte in autumn basic. Don’t fight me on this one; put the hours into learning how to code properly.
Now, next portion: I chose to do a PhD as well. I did it straight after the master’s degree, meaning I applied for PhD programs in late 2016. My motivation for this was multi-faceted, but a strong although not significant contribution to this was my experience in the UK job market. Let me explain. In the UK university system you get your welcome fairs in weeks 1 & 2 of term 1, and from week 3 onwards you immediately get career fairs. Yes, that threw me off too. So I was already thinking of my next move, before having bloody settled into the masters or the country. Disorganised, dazed and confused I signed up for schemes involving standardized aptitude testing (which I don’t believe works), aptitude interviews (same issues) and “regular” job interviews. I also signed up for all the “big clubs”. I got the interviews and they were all shit. Not because I suck at interviews (I’m quite good), but quite frankly, because they sucked. Not a single one of those experiences was a good one, so I turned my back to industry, not realizing that this did not in any way, shape or form represented doing applied behavioural science work. Only hindsight is 20/20 but I’m pretty sure I was blind as a bat in 2016. Now the advice is pretty clear: if you want to work for a big consultancy in behavioural science, aim for that trajectory. If you don’t want to do that – if you want to work for smaller or boutique consultancies, the government, a government adjacent body, in (applied) research, in theoretical (yet private) research – then go do that! Just research what’s out there. And don’t confuse them as all being one big pot. They are not! God damn I didn’t think writing this article would make me cringe at myself so much. Oh well, 2022 will be the year of optimizing Merle.
Now, do I regret doing the PhD? No. Do I recommend doing a PhD? That depends entirely on your circumstances, but my default answer is no (if you want tailored advice feel free to reach out to me, happy to help). But I am happy having done the PhD and it turned out to be the right thing for me in the end. It’s just that a large chunk of my motivation was just not good and, well, delusional. Also, you DO NOT need a PhD to get ahead in behavioural science. There’s plenty of amazing practitioners who “only” hold MSc degrees (and sometimes not even in BeSci or adjacent fields, how about that?!). You’re likely going to need one for staying in academia though, but behavioural science extends waaaaay beyond academia.
We’ve just gone through the stages of me “entering” behavioural science. Overall advice, drumroll please… Do your research!
There’s so much stuff out there about what behavioural science is, where to do it, who’s involved, who’s applied it in which domain, which companies are active in those respective domains, how to plan out your career trajectory, possible mentors, loads of alumni etc. etc. And I’m not saying that I didn’t have these things available to me. I’m not saying that behavioural science was a “relatively unknown field” in 2015, because it wasn’t. I won’t even attempt that pathetic excuse. I should have done more research. WAY more research. I have almost exclusively looked at doing any type of behavioural science education in the Netherlands and the UK (MSc and PhD), and even then I never strayed too far from advice I had obtained from a single source. As I now know as a behavioural scientist, this is a terrible way of going about your decision-making. Am I happy with where I ended up? Yes I am. But there was definitely room for improving and streamlining that trajectory. And that’s why I wrote this article – so you don’t have to make the same mistakes and can have your streamlined, optimized journey into behavioural science. At least, if that’s what you want. But in the name of our Lord and Saviour Cthulhu, do your damn research!