There’s a perpetual thought bubble hanging over your head: Should I go to graduate school? Over and over again the question pops into your head. You imagine different counterfactual scenarios, each with a new cast of advisors and graduate students, in this city or that. Somehow the weather always feels particularly important—I love the school, but I am not sure if I could survive a polar vortex!—though it’s not. With the cast and stage set, you can just feel how your research will revolutionize the field. Tenure schmenure, a mere speed bump. What should the title of my book be? Finally you come to. But what if I don’t get in? And repeat. The daydream ends and you’re no closer to a decision than you were before.
The decision to pursue a Ph.D. is a significant one. Years of investment. Forgone income. Possibly moving across the country. At the same time, it’s not the only significant decision in your life. At the root of “Should I get a Ph.D.?” is, more often than not, the question, how can I continue to think about a topic I love and that I think matters.
At the root of “Should I get a Ph.D.?” is, more often than not, the question, how can I continue to think about a topic I love and that I think matters.
Traditionally, graduate school was the place to do this. Now, as more and more opportunities for studying and working in the behavioral sciences become available, pursuing a Ph.D. is just one possible route you might choose.
So, should you?
We collected advice from four behavioral scientists, with a diverse set of backgrounds and experiences, to help you answer that question. Zoe Chance acted on stage and film, earned her MBA, and managed a $200 million segment of Barbie, before getting her Ph.D. in Business Administration and joining Yale University’s School of Management. Kristen Berman, co-founder of Irrational Labs, has blazed a unique career path in behavioral science sans Ph.D.—including helping Google launch its behavioral science group. Chris Blattman worked as a consultant, rock-climbing instructor, and KFC grease-trap cleaner, before he took an economics and political science route to studying conflict and poverty, and is now a Professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. And Shannon White, a current Ph.D. student, helped developed business education tools for women in developing countries and worked for ideas42, a nonprofit behavioral design firm, before taking the plunge.
—Evan Nesterak, Editor-in-Chief
Zoe Chance, Assistant Professor of Marketing, Yale School of Management
When a working professional tells me, “I’m thinking of getting a Ph.D.,” they usually mean, “I’m thinking it would be nice to have a Ph.D.”
A Ph.D. is sort of like the perfect gym body. The having is nice, but the getting can be painful—and once you’re there, you never stop. So unless you intrinsically enjoy the process, you’ll quit before reaching your goal. In academia, the delayed gratification of having your work published takes years. And many Ph.D. students never get there at all. In the U.S., 50 percent of Ph.D. students leave before finishing their program because, ultimately, they didn’t know what they were getting into.
A Ph.D. is sort of like the perfect gym body. The having is nice, but the getting can be painful.
Academic research means activities like academic journal reading (not brain candy like the Behavioral Scientist), first drafting, infinite revisions, study design, software programming, data entry, statistical analysis, giving talks, receiving and dishing out public criticism. And bearing the knowledge that the impact of your work might be negligible and the readers of your article might number close to zero.
You do those things for five years, you get your Ph.D. and then—you keep doing those same things for the rest of your career. So find out whether you enjoy them. Read academic journals, volunteer as a research assistant, talk to Ph.D. students, join a lab meeting.
When you’re doing research activities in your spare time, and they’re so fun you want to do them all the time—then think about applying for a Ph.D.
Kristen Berman, Co-founder of Irrational Labs
Consider the following questions:
- How can we get more people to save for retirement? vs. How does risk salience affect saving allocations?
- How should we design a pill box to increase prescription adherence? vs. How can someone overcome information aversion related to health news?
- How should a dashboard report for energy usage be designed to drive action? vs. What goal gradient is optimal when someone is falling short of their target?
If you are most intrigued by the first question of each pair, you are likely best suited for an industry job. (“Industry” is the term academics use for all professions a besides academia!) If the second questions caught your attention, you may be on a Ph.D. track. Take a peek at these one-page research presentations from the Society of Judgement and Decision Making. These are examples of the type of work you could be doing during your Ph.D. and after it. The majority of these presentations focus on increasing the theoretical understanding of a problem. These papers typically represent multiple years of effort.
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. The skills you’ll perfect in an academic environment are often the opposite of the skills required to be successful within a company.
I’ve been involved with over 50 rigorous field experiments but haven’t published one paper.
Getting a Ph.D. is not right for everyone, but good news, it’s not the only path into behavioral science. My journey started by offering to help professor and author Dan Ariely. This informal apprenticeship led to helping Dan start the behavioral science group within Google, where we were embedded with multiple teams to bring behavioral economics into Google’s development process. I then moved on to bring behavioral science to startups. We started Duke’s Common Cents lab to help teams use behavioral science to drive financial health outcomes. Through this journey, I’ve been involved with over 50 rigorous field experiments but haven’t published one paper. I have impacted thousands of people. This, in a nutshell, is the tradeoff between Ph.D. and industry. (For more ideas on ways to get into behavioral science without a Ph.D., head here.)
Chris Blattman, Professor, Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago
Editor’s note: While preparing this AABS, we noticed Chris Blattman had compiled an exceptional resource for aspiring graduate students on his blog. The advice below is adapted from his blog post: “Frequently asked questions on Ph.D. applications.”
A first important, simple point: If your goal is to be a professional researcher and instructor, then a Ph.D. makes sense. If not, not.
In particular, if your goal is to be influential in policy and practice, then an Master of Arts (MA), Master of Public Administration (MPA), or Master of International Affairs (MIA) degree from a U.S., U.K., or European institution probably makes far more sense for you. (Consider the Master in Public Policy with a certificate in research methods program here at UChicago’s Harris Public Policy if you want intense and applied research training and the option of a Ph.D. at the end.)
Why? Opportunity cost. A Ph.D. is five to seven years, and a Master’s is two. A Ph.D. means you are sacrificing several years of valuable work experience and as much as several hundred thousand dollars in income. (I’ve written more about choosing among Masters-level programs here.)
Another thing to keep in mind: Ph.D. programs, like most organizations, don’t just teach you, they socialize you.
When I was an MPA student, Dani Rodrik advised me: “Look at the people you admire and want to be like, and do what they did.” This is good advice, though it biases you to the areas you know not the areas you don’t. Most of the political economy scholars I admired at the time trained as economists, so I took the economics route. But I didn’t know the most interesting political science work because I had been trained in economics. So at least be aware of this circular trap.
Another thing to keep in mind: Ph.D. programs, like most organizations, don’t just teach you, they socialize you. They gradually change what you think is interesting and important, the peer group you compare yourself to, the value you place on leisure and family over career, and the kind of life you will value when you emerge. This is good for science, maybe or maybe not so good for you. Enter with open eyes.
Shannon White, Behavioral Sciences Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business
When people ask me about earning a Ph.D. in behavioral science, I first ask, “What would you do if you did not go into academia?” If the answer is anything other than doing research outside of academia, then I advise against getting a Ph.D.
If you are committed to a career in research, there remain at least three interrelated decisions: whether to earn a Ph.D. (an interest in research is necessary but not sufficient), which discipline to study (economics, psychology, etc.), and what to do afterward (academia, government, industry, etc.). To make these decisions, consider the norms and lifestyles of different types of researchers, and perhaps browse the results of a survey on why psychologists have left academia, while keeping in mind that there’s bound to be differences for any path you choose. Talk to people who have thrived in each field or industry that might interest you, and even more importantly, if you can find them, talk to people who have not thrived. It may be tempting to treat each encounter as a networking opportunity, but don’t shy away from tough questions; they will save you time in the long run, and you will have a better sense of the variety of experiences on each path.
Taking into account the pros and the cons, it’s also worth noting that some of the most exciting changes are coming from young researchers seeking to make their fields or industries better.
For example, pay close attention to career incentives, and then ask about (and think carefully through) how those incentives can influence priorities and even crowd out values. For instance, does theoretical novelty (typically academia) resonate with you more or less than practical applications (typically industry and more applied fields)?
Finally, taking into account the pros and the cons, it’s also worth noting that some of the most exciting changes are coming from young researchers seeking to make their fields or industries better.