A Guide to Career Paths in Behavioral Science

When people ask me how I ended up working as a behavioral scientist in a tech company, I always say it was pure luck: when I was doing my Masters in Behavioral Science, not too many people knew about the subject and even fewer were offering jobs in this specialization. In my case, my company just happened to be looking for a behavioral scientist, and I was in the right place at the right time.

But things have changed over the last few years. With more and more people actively taking up behavioral science, there’s much more demand from both the public and private sectors, and graduates now have a number of different career paths to choose from.

The behavioral scientist in me is nudging me to add that having a multitude of options could also mean a paradox of choice for students. Still, it’s reassuring to know that this subject, which literally burst on the scene only a few years ago, has gained acceptance around the world, and students brave enough to study it now have a career to look forward to.

So, what kind of career options exist in behavioral science?

Let’s start by dividing the career options into 2 distinct categories. One route is academics, and one is practitioners. In each of those routes, there are various types of profiles that emerge, as shown below:

The academic route

In academia, you have the option to study further, equip yourself with a Ph.D., specialize in certain aspects of behavioral sciences, and then start teaching. Most of the “rockstars” of behavioral science today followed this route: Dan Ariely, Katy Milkman, Angela Duckworth, Laurie Santos, John Bargh, and so many more. 

For academics, teaching and research most often go hand in hand. All of the above names are professors at prestigious universities, but they also head up notable research organizations. Increasingly, these research arms are engaging actively with the private and public sectors to solve real-world problems. The Behavior Change for Good Initiative, the Center for Behavioral and Decision Research, and the Center for Decision Sciences are great examples of research wings within universities that have been doing this successfully. For instance, work done by Behavior Change for Good on boosting vaccination rates has been adopted and deployed in various parts of the world.1

So, if you are interested in gaining deeper knowledge of an aspect of behavioral science—or working with people with such expertise—this route is perfect for you. To prepare yourself for this route, start researching specific topics that interest you in behavioral science, and keep an eye out for research positions and Ph.D. intakes related to those.

The applied behavioral science route

If you choose, however, to enter the big bad world of applied behavioral science, the career paths open to you are completely different. I generally tend to divide the world of applied behavioral science based on the nature of work done by the organization and I have found this distinction to also exist in behavioral science education. This distinction is on the basis of the private and public sectors.

Behavioral science in the public sector

Understandably, the type of problems that public sector behavioral scientists tend to focus on are related to governance, public behavior, adherence, etc. This includes goals such as getting people to pay taxes on time, encouraging more environmentally conscious behavior, and so on. Different types of organizations solve these in different capacities.

Governments

Many countries now have behavioral insight units within government ministries. This includes the UK, the USA, and Singapore, to name a few. Within a few days of Joe Biden taking office, his administration released a memorandum on the importance of behavioral insights and evidence-based decisions in policymaking, giving a huge boost to the uptake of behavioral science in governance.2

Today, per the OECD, there are more than 150 governmental organizations actively leveraging behavioral science.3 Government departments regularly advertise open positions for behavioral science associates and leads who can help run behavioral science initiatives at the department level. 

Organizations

The adoption of behavioral science by organizations such as the UN, the WHO, and the World Bank has to be one of the biggest positives to emerge over the last few years. That such major international organizations are creating dedicated behavioral science teams is a testament to the power of the subject to create real impact.

The UN has led the way with the establishment of the Behavioral Sciences Group, and with their recent Behavioral Science Week. The UN Secretary General’s Guidance Note on Behavioral Science shows the organization’s commitment to this.4

Consulting

There are also organizations that are dedicated to supporting governments in their behavioral science endeavors, such as the Behavioral Insights Team (BIT) in the UK, the first-ever governmental behavioral science team. Other consulting organizations such as Ogilvy Consulting also engage with government projects on behavioral science.

Non-profits

It is heart-warming to see the number of non-profit organizations that are investing in setting up behavioral science teams. This sector needs more behavioral scientists, and the fact that these organizations are attempting to get funds to do this is worthy of appreciation.

Over the last year, with COVID-19 causing havoc, non-profits have shown the way to apply behavioral science to real problems, from vaccine hesitancy to adherence to health and safety behaviors. Save The Children, the Busara Center, and Ideas 42 are just a few notable organizations. If you are interested in doing real, impactful work in applied behavioral science, this is the place for you.

Starting your career in the public sector

To develop a behavioral science career in the public sector, you’ll need to gain some experience with research (e.g. conducting in-depth literature reviews, designing experiments, collecting and analyzing data, and so on). You’ll want to be especially familiar with low-cost research methodologies that work without requiring massive investments.

You’ll also need to learn how to “sell” behavioral science to others. Public sector work often involves applying behavioral science in not-so-obvious contexts, so you may often be in a position of needing to convince stakeholders of the effectiveness of behavioral techniques.

Behavioral science in the private sector

Slow to adopt, but now picking up fast, the private sector is where a lot of the action is happening in the behavioral science world. These roles require an understanding of how to apply behavioral science to business problems. Interestingly, in the private sector, the types of roles advertised also vary based on the nature of the organization.

Tech companies

Tech companies such as Google, Amazon, Spotify, and Netflix have been at the forefront of applied behavioral science for a long time. Today, even smaller tech companies, such as Headspace, Calm, and Robinhood, often employ behavioral scientists.

In fact, the latest additions to this growing list are companies founded on the principles of behavioral science. One notable example of this is Lemonade (where Dan Ariely himself is involved). Using consumer behavior data and mass experimentation, they have been able to learn a lot about human behavior and use that knowledge to improve the quality of products and services they offer.

There are, of course, questions around the ethics of applying behavioral science to certain problems. But I would argue that even to answer these ethical questions, we need more trained behavioral scientists in such organizations, who can also help set up ethical codes.

There is a variety of behavioral science roles within tech companies. These can be in the form of behavioral scientists, behavioral data scientists, user researchers, consumer insight specialists, and so on.

To pursue a career in behavioral science in tech companies, you need to start developing skills in data wrangling, basic data science, experiment design, behavioral design, user research, and most importantly, converting complicated academic research into simplified practical knowledge that can be used by the company.

Non-tech companies

Well before we got machine learning and data science, some companies had been using behavioral science in their marketing efforts. Leading this pack were companies such as The Coca-Cola Company, Apple, and P&G. How did they make their products habitual purchases? What makes people so willing to spend so much on Apple products? Somewhere in the company, someone was focusing on gleaning customer insights that drove important marketing and product decisions.

Another contender in this space is banks and financial institutions. Some of the most interesting problems being solved using behavioral science have a financial “flavor” to them. From nudging people to save more, to helping them develop better personal finance habits, financial institutions are increasingly looking to build behavioral capabilities into their offerings. Many such institutions across the world now hire behavioral scientists. Commonwealth Bank Australia, Morning Star, and ING are a few examples.

These roles are now merging with behavioral insights. Most of these companies now have behavioral science teams dedicated to understanding consumer behavior and guiding marketing and product development. If you are interested in learning how traditional industries are adapting to the world of big data, while still maintaining their positions as marketing leaders, this would be a great career option for you.

Note that these roles might be advertised under different names. Some might call it “human insights,” some might refer to it as “consumer insights,” and some might just call it good old behavioral science.

Starting your career in the private sector

To get into this career path, the most important skill to learn is bridging the gap between academic research and consumer insights. Private sector companies have been doing consumer research for much longer than we can imagine. The difference a behavioral scientist brings here is the ability to back up consumer insights with data and evidence.

Consulting

Consulting also exists in multiple forms: 

  1. As consulting firms dedicated to behavioral science, including organizations like The Decision Lab, Affective Advisory, and Irrational Labs. These firms work on both private and public sector work. Recently, Irrational Labs did some amazing work with TikTok to reduce the sharing of fake news and misinformation,5 while The Decision Lab is currently leveraging behavioral insights to help develop a government-funded platform for digital mental health services.
  2. As large consulting firms with a small arm dedicated to behavioral science, such as Deloitte Monitor and McKinsey.
  3. Freelance consultants who are working with various companies.

To get into the consulting field, make sure you are rock solid on behavioral science concepts and frameworks, which behavioral consultants often leverage in their work. Most consulting companies have their own frameworks, or adopt external frameworks.

Final thoughts

As you can see, the career options in behavioral science have now exploded. And this list is in no way exhaustive. Depending on what interests you, you can now choose which field you would like to pursue. There’s no one path better than the others. Yes, there would be differences in terms of financial outcomes, but in my opinion, that should be secondary. As far as the nature of work is concerned, there’s no dearth of opportunities. Like many have said, behavioral science is coming of age, and if you’re interested in getting into the field, there’s no time like the present.

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