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To Ph.D. or Not to Ph.D.?

By Ross E. O'Hara
Ph.D.

May 13, 2019

Editor’s Note: We just launched our behavioral jobs board and have published a few pieces on working in the applied behavioral science field, from both the organizational perspective and the job seekers one. This is important to us.

Equally important to us is hosting a healthy debate/conversation about the future of the applied behavioral science field. That’s why we’re here.

One significant point of conversation among industry and academics is the importance of having a Ph.D. in order to practice applied behavioral science. I have my own opinion – which I don’t think is informed enough to publish just yet – and I know folks who have theirs, too. The first was Kristen Berman of Irrational Labs in her piece for us. The second is this one, from our friend Ross O’Hara, who respectfully disagrees with her on this point.

I think this is the continuation of a fantastic, informed and passionate conversation, and I welcome your thoughts in the comments, my email inbox or elsewhere. Onward!

 

I’ve spoken to a lot of people whose paths into behavioral economics can be described as happy accidents. Serendipity, however, is not useful or compelling career advice for young professionals interested in our field.

Last November, Kristen Berman, co-founder of Irrational Labs and Common Cents Lab, answered the question How Do I Get Into Behavioral Economics? for PeopleScience. I applaud her (and PeopleScience) for providing guidance on how to enter this exciting and influential field, because the sustainability and growth of behavioral economics demands articulated pathways into the profession.

However, I disagree with Ms. Berman’s assertion that a Ph.D. is incompatible with industry. As she commented in Behavioral Scientist:

In my experience, I find that the biggest misconception with getting a Ph.D. is that it’s training for an industry job. That is not only incorrect, the opposite is likely true.

Myself, and so many others, are thriving in industry because of – not in spite of – earning a Ph.D. I’m a behavioral researcher at Persistence Plus, an edtech start-up that uses behavioral science to craft and deliver SMS-based nudges that support college students. I regularly design research studies, interpret results, perform literature searches, translate science to clients, submit grants and write for both academic and lay audiences. I cannot imagine being successful in this role without the training I received in my Ph.D. program (plus three years of post-doc work!) in social psychology.

  

I cannot imagine being successful in this role without the training I received in my Ph.D. program.

I completely agree with Ms. Berman that a Ph.D. can be unnecessary. She has done well to raise awareness of the many paths into behavioral economics that combine work experience, education (e.g., an MBA; a “boot-camp”), and professional development. And although a Ph.D. can come at considerable expense in terms of money, opportunity, time, stress and relationships, I feel compelled to defend its value even for those interested in an industry career.

Referring back to Ms. Berman’s comments for PeopleScience, I will address her viewpoints one by one.

 

“Only explore a Ph.D. if you’re committed to staying in academia after your degree program.”

There are myriad jobs in business, government and public policy seeking – even demanding – Ph.D.s. Ph.D. training engenders a mindset around research and scholarship rarely acquired elsewhere, and employers value the skills and insight that Ph.D.s bring to their organization. My role at Persistence Plus requires a wide-ranging understanding of social psychology and behavioral economics, research design and statistics, science communication and project management. These skills and knowledge became deeply ingrained over my nine years of academic training under multiple advisors and mentors and have afford me a great deal of versatility within the world of industry.

 

“While many students do get industry jobs after completing a Ph.D., this is typically frowned upon by academic institutions.”

This statement, unfortunately, is true.

Those who possess the talent, drive and luck to be tenured in a research-focused appointment ardently believe that they have the best job in the world. Academics are passionate about their research and want to see that passion live on through their graduate students. But the winds are shifting. Professors are slowly accepting that there are simply not enough academic jobs to employ every Ph.D. and that graduate programs need to prepare students for non-academic work. Furthermore, some are beginning to appreciate the opportunity to have an indirect impact on the world via industry, non-profits and government.

My advice is to be forthright with potential graduate schools and advisors about your career plans. If you want to apply your Ph.D. in fields like business or public policy, state that upfront and you’ll quickly discover whether you’re a good fit for that program. Even better, seek out advisors who have come from or interact with the fields in which you’re interested so they can help you to bridge that divide between academia and the outside world.

 

If you want to apply your Ph.D. in business or public policy, state that upfront and you’ll quickly discover whether you’re a good fit for that program.

“On top of this, a Ph.D. does not provide great training for the business skills needed in industry. On the job, you’ll need to make decisions with less than adequate information and data – a skill you will not practice in your Ph.D. program.”

To begin with, inferential statistics is, by definition, decision-making with less than adequate information and data. What conclusions to draw in a paper, how to present those findings at a conference and how to construct the next study are all practice in making imperfect decisions. In fact, Ph.D.s are arguably best suited to understand the limitations of the data at hand and act appropriately in light of their inadequacy.

Furthermore, a Ph.D. bestows many skills that I see lacking in those who enter this industry through other channels. Primarily, a research-intensive Ph.D. program provides a deep understanding of how to design studies, interpret results and communicate findings in a reasonable and ethical manner. A good research design demands much more than simply random assignment, and a cursory knowledge of these matters can lead you down a path of erroneous conclusions and misinformed decisions.

 

A research-intensive Ph.D. program provides a deep understanding of how to design studies, interpret results and communicate findings.

Science communication is another skill fostered in Ph.D. programs, and in my experience, this happens in no better place than the undergraduate classroom. If you can explain loss aversion to a sleep-deprived, semi-interested, maybe-hungover, Internet-distracted 18-year-old, you can explain it to anyone. I walk into every meeting, no matter the audience, confident that I can get them to understand complex psychological and methodological concepts because I’ve faced much tougher crowds.

 

If you can explain loss aversion to a sleep-deprived, semi-interested, maybe-hungover, Internet-distracted 18-year-old, you can explain it to anyone.

If you want to use this advanced degree to get a job in industry, you’re taking a really long approach.

A long approach, yes, but a worthwhile one. Instead of resigning to the idea that a Ph.D. cannot lead to an industry job, you can shape the experience to serve your goals.

If you enter into a program with a clear sense of your endgame, understand how earning a Ph.D. will get you there, and make your intentions transparent to your mentors and colleagues, you’ll emerge an expert in your field ready to take a leadership role within industry. While you can work your way up to this position, you’ll do so without the kind of education and mentorship in behavioral science that you likely can get only in a Ph.D. program. Your goals and life circumstances will determine the right path for you, but I strongly recommend you reconsider the value of a Ph.D.

 

By Ross E. O'Hara
Ph.D.

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