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Doing a PhD at BIT – insights from a BIT research fellow


April 11, 2016 Jess Whittlestone

Last September, I started working for the Behavioural Insights Team as a Research Fellow alongside my PhD. At BIT, I feel like I’ve been reminded of why I wanted to go into the field of behavioural science in the first place.

I chose to do a PhD in behavioural science because I wanted to have a positive impact on the world. When I finished my undergraduate degree nearly four years ago, I stumbled across a copy of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow on my dad’s bookshelf (he’s not seen it since). As I started reading, I was struck by the realisation that many of the biggest problems we face – both as individuals and as a society – seem to be underpinned by various human “irrationalities”.

Our tendency to weigh costs (and benefits) today much more highly than the same costs tomorrow makes maintaining a diet or exercise regime nearly impossible, and makes it incredibly difficult to mobilise a society to tackle long term challenges like climate change.  Confirmation bias, and the difficulty we can have seeing “the other side” of a viewpoint can lead to political polarisation and intergroup conflict. I went into academia hoping to find ways to better tackle these challenges with an improved understanding of human behaviour.

Unfortunately,  academia isn’t always the easiest place to feel like you’re having real-world impact. It’s certainly true that a lot of fantastic, world-changing research comes out of academia. But the process is slow, and academic incentives aren’t always aligned with what the world most needs. Two years into my PhD, I’d become somewhat disillusioned.

Working at BIT has allowed me to apply what I’ve learned in my PhD to real-world problems, exactly as I’d wanted to do from the beginning. My day-to-day work also feeds back into my research. I’m much more attuned to the most pressing policy issues, so I can think more about how to address them in my research. Rather than being a distraction, my projects at BIT actually increase my motivation to work on my PhD.

Above all, I’m working on a daily basis with a team of people who are both deeply interested in behavioural science and care a great deal about their impact on the world. This description also fits many academics I’ve met, but academia can be a lonely place, especially as a PhD student. This is something I only really appreciated when I started at BIT, working as part of a team.

For me, the combination of working at BIT and doing a PhD has advantages over doing either on their own. My PhD provides a useful link back to the academic world, which lets me make the most of my experience at BIT. Doing a PhD gives me the time and space to dig a little deeper, and to make sure I don’t neglect academic rigour. It also allows me to develop expertise in a particular area of behavioural science (confirmation bias), and to explore this with experimental research before I try and take new ideas to the the field.

Finally, working at BIT whilst doing my own research provides me with a great deal of variety. This is both valuable in itself – the literature on job satisfaction suggests that variety is one of the biggest predictors of enjoying your work, whilst also providing more experience and options for future career paths.

I’m not going to pretend that doing a PhD whilst working is easy. It’s certainly a challenge. But if you want to undertake original research in behavioural science whilst simultaneously applying that research to real world problems, then nothing beats it – the last six months have been far more rewarding than my first two years as a PhD student.

Inspired by Jess’s post? The Behavioural Insights Team and UCL are recruiting for the first year of our PhD Programme in Behavioural Science and Policy – find out more here.

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