That said, certain graduate programs, especially ones focused on research, can be very useful. It ultimately depends on what someone did in their undergraduate program and what the graduate program is.
Julian: Can you elaborate on the types of graduate programs relevant in this area?
Sekoul: There are two general types of graduate programs:
- Ones that are course focused.
- Ones that are research-focused.
A class-focused program will give you more knowledge within a specific field. It will usually focus on a subset of the fields. So, for example, if someone studied economics in undergraduate, they’ll then focus on something more granular, like behavioral economics.
A research-focused master’s or PhD program on the other hand is predominantly focused on producing some sort of research outputs. With one of these, one is essentially practicing the kinds of skills that would be useful in applied behavioral science, such as:
- Running experiments
- Learning about research methodologies
- Recruiting participants
- Incentivizing participants
- Checking if participants are doing the task that you set up in a good manner
- Creating pilots and then adjusting your task
- Doing power analyses
- Calculating what sample size you might need
- Creating engaging experiments
All those things are learned through practice. Graduate programs that focus on giving someone that kind of practice are very useful.
One caveat is that if someone spends too long in the graduate program, for example, a PhD, they might double down on a particular topic and then become a bit myopic when it comes to other topics.
It’s very important that when someone starts in applied behavioral science, they’re able to pull insights from different places. And that’s not something one typically learns as they’re doing something like a PhD. Usually, someone specializes more and more.
Julian: Are there any notable trends in the field of applied behavioral science that someone just getting started might be interested in?
Sekoul: One interesting trend is that people hiring for applied behavioral science positions a few years ago were really focused on the behavioral science portion of the equation.
Hiring managers essentially started by populating these nudge units or behavioral science teams with people who have a PhD in psychology or neuroscience.
And they assumed that these people, because they’ve studied these fields at a high level and had peer-reviewed papers, would be able to then take those skills and insights and transfer them into a real value add within the company in order to change, for example, sales numbers, or improve engagement in a product.
That has shifted with time. The idea that you can just take somebody with a PhD and get them to deliver real value on day one has really changed in the last few years.
And now there’s a trend towards looking for people who are essentially at the kind of meeting place between the more theoretical academic background and a more applied background.
So the optimal candidate shifted from being a PhD in neuroscience towards being someone who’s kind of a hybrid. For example, somebody with a master’s in neuroscience and a few years experiences in a business-focused position.
Julian: What about technical skills?
Another big trend is actually the overvaluation of technical skills in the field. It used to be important to hire somebody with very strong statistical skills or programming skills. In the real world, however, those kinds of skills don’t necessarily lend themselves to real value on day one.
Now, there’s still that kind of emphasis on some level of technical skills, but this has gone down with time. Instead, there’s a bigger emphasis on things like:
- Being able to follow certain design methodologies
- Being able to brainstorm
- Being able to work with others
And other skills on the softer side.
A lot of the initial behavioral science teams that were created didn’t perform as well as they could have, simply because they didn’t necessarily have the right balance of hard and soft skills. They overemphasized hard skills to the detriment of soft skills.
Julian: To expand on that, are there important skills that come from outside the classroom for someone looking to be an applied behavioral scientist?
Sekoul: The most important skill when one is applying behavioral science is the ability to tap into evidence, which splits off into two main categories:
Being able to read what’s already out there, and being able to run experiments to gather evidence yourself.
From a practical point of view, being able to read what’s out there means being able to read through papers like the ones on Google Scholar. Another way is by searching for a particular topic by opening up the most relevant papers and being able to read not only the abstracts, but also the methodology sections in order to understand what the key insights from the field are.
The other type is around testing by running experiments yourself. Once an experiment has been designed, one has to be able to validate it in the real world. One has to be able to:
- Design an experiment
- Code it
- Find an appropriately sized sample
- Run it
- Analyze the data
- Write it up
- Pull actual insights that one can then use to change an organization or a product
To develop those skills, what you might want to do is find some sort of behavior change goal that is considered interesting.
For example, say you might be very interested in fitness. In that case, you could focus on a subset of fitness. You could say, for example, that you want to develop better posture.
One good kind of activity to practice for being an applied behavioral scientist is a 3-step process:
- Go on Google Scholar
- Find different kinds of research talking about improving your posture from a behavior change perspective
- Design an experiment that tests out different kinds of interventions in order to see which one is most likely to improve posture over time
That process is something that you do nonstop in an applied behavioral science position. Finding an interesting and fun way to do that on the side while you’re still in school is probably the best kind of preparation you could do.
Julian: What is the most important part of the hiring process that applicants often lack?
Sekoul: A lot of people coming into the field are trained in the science part of applied behavioral science. They come in with many hard skills and a good familiarity with a particular field.
There’s usually a lack on the applied side, however, which is extremely important.
It’s pretty rare to find someone who is coming in with a balance of both science and applied experience. For most people, the lack of experience in going through the process of identifying a behavior change goal, looking for evidence, designing interventions, and then testing those interventions in the real world.
That process is something that not many people have gone through simply because the process itself is a combination of those technical academic skills and applied skills.
So, a lot of candidates will have experience on the technical side and will be able to read technical journals and examine evidence and design experiments and run them, but they won’t necessarily have an idea about how the results of those experiments might be implemented in the real world.
They won’t, for example, know about agile methodologies.
They may not know how to work with the UX designer, how to design features that are engaging to users, how to iterate through different versions of something.
The applied aspect — that connection to the real world, and ultimately the users — is what’s lacking in most candidates.
Julian: Could you discuss disruption in the field of applied behavioral science and how to be positioned against it?
Sekoul: There is a shift happening in applied behavioral science towards thinking about it as evidence-based design.
For some context, applied behavioral science is something that started off probably about `5 to 20 years ago. What happened was that the field of economics combined with psychology, forming what is known as behavioral economics. And this behavioral economics work started being more and more prominent with time, especially when it is applied in the organizational context.
People have focused more and more on this. They’ve taken insights from behavioral economics and tried to translate them into real-world change, which has had some success. And a lot of what behavioral science has done so far is based on insights from behavioral economics.
Julian: Are there pitfalls from focusing too much on the granular details?
Sekoul: One potential pitfall for people who are starting off in applied behavioral science is to focus too much on a particular field, and to think that the field is what’s delivering the value they’re seeking to deliver as an applied behavioral scientist.
And what evidence-based design means is less where the insights come from, and more about the ability to use the scientific method, to create interventions and then test them in the real world.
As the field becomes more agnostic to the bodies of knowledge that it might leverage, the skill set that’s needed from a person will be less reliant on a particular sub-field of behavioral science as well.
In order to respond to this trend, anyone looking to break into this field and stay in it for a long time should think about detaching from any particular fealties to neuroscience or psychology or sociology, for example, and think about what evidence-based approaches in design really look like.
Julian: What kind of organizations an applied behavioral scientist can work for?
Sekoul: The value of applied behavioral science is really dependent on the extent to which the behavior change goals can be shifted.
Some behaviors can only be shifted through systemic change. It’s important to identify whether the company offers an environment that lends itself well to the kinds of insights that behavioral science provides. Typically, what that means in the real world is essentially looking at companies where behavioral science is able to add value to the lives of users or staff inside.
A good test for that might be to think about what kinds of goals a company has and then to see, to what extent applying empathy, understanding users better and designing with their preferences, can be augmented through behavioral science.
Take banking, for example. There’s an enormous upside for somebody applying behavioral science in banking, because the kinds of decisions that go into an interaction with a bank are typically affected by a lack of information, a lack of understanding on the consumer side, a lack of resources in terms of time, in terms of the money, or a need to make certain decisions.
Behavioral science can alleviate or unblock a lot of the barriers that might be present for good decisions.
In other companies, however, the kinds of change that you would need could be systemic. And in those cases, an applied behavioral scientist might be more focused on things like marketing rather than actually helping consumers make better decisions.
And if you wish to apply behavioral science ethically, you should go towards companies that are able to actually improve the lives of those that they’re targeting, as opposed to just focusing on KPIs.
Julian: Okay, to conclude, what would you say are the 3 most important pieces of advice for becoming an applied behavioral scientist?
Sekoul: Number one: Think very early on about the kind of change that you’d actually want to see happen in your career.
More specifically, think about what kind of behavior change you actually want to create and what kinds of issues in the world matter to you. That will allow you to think more deeply about what fields would be relevant, what methodologies, even things like what statistical tasks or what software you might want to use. Everything should start with this idea of a cause or something in the world that you want to tackle in some way.
Number two: Once you have an idea of what your specific cause might be, think about all the practical implementations that are associated with it.
So for example, if you are interested in something like fitness, you might think about what particular tests are involved.
What types of interventions might be useful in raising the fitness level of someone? What are the most common pitfalls?
That will then allow you to think more critically about practical implementations of behavioral science principles, and to think about what kinds of tools and interventions you might want to design. And so within that category, actually getting your hands dirty and designing tools and testing them in the real world and something that should happen as early as possible, as often as possible, because it’s ultimately what you’d be doing on the job.
Number three: Stay field agnostic, and approach problems with an open mind.
If you’re looking to create behavior change in fitness, for example, just because you’ve studied psychology, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you should be tapping into insights from psychology to achieve your goal.
You could, for example, tap into insights from AI, you could use things like organizational behavior, etc. You could look at exercise science. There are many fields from which your insights might be pulled.
Think about what types of products have worked in the past. What types of features of them successful in different products is something that’s a very useful exercise.
Ultimately, a good applied behavioral scientist is somebody who is able to pull intervention ideas to open design opportunities in a wide variety of fields, pull them all together and then test them in the real world.
So becoming field agnostic, rather than being attached to a particular set of insights, is very important early on — and even more important later on.
Julian: Thank you for sharing your expertise, this has been really insightful and I hope that many future behavioral scientists will take this advice to heart.