Guidance for an aspiring behavioral expert

I want an applied behavioral job. Help.

I get asked regularly for career advice for someone who wants to ‘do something” behavioral:  design, finance, economics, etc. I figure, why only share with those who ask? So I wrote this up.

I’m going to mainly focus on a career in the private sector, doing applied work. If you want to know about government work, ask Maya Shankar or Owain Service.

I’ll also consider what I look for now when hiring people. I don’t know that I think like others, but hopefully it will be informative outside of applying for a job with me.

Calibrate your expectations

I need to be honest that I think luck (in timing, in people, in opportunities) plays a big role. When I look back, there were many things I did that absolutely helped me be prepared when opportunity knocked. But if it hadn’t knocked, I don’t know where I’d be. Probably very frustrated. So caveat emptor, your mileage may vary, and so on.

Question not here? I’ll add it. 

I hope to keep this as a living document, and add & refine through time. 

If what I’ve written doesn’t answer your questions, please feel free to email me at dpegan at dpegan dot com. Please have a specific question though! I get free coffee at work, so don’t worry about buying one. Just have something specific and interesting to ask about! I’ll add the question and answer here.

Intellectual track record

Generally speaking, a clear track record of being interested in applied behavioral work is key. I’m looking for strong evidence that this isn’t a passing fancy. For college this means specialized classes, independent study, a hackathon project, a blog;  pieces (plural) of evidence of depth and stable interest. Put conversely, show that you aren’t someone who had 1/3rd of an econ/finance course with a smattering of behavioral stuff in it, and ‘thought it was neat’.

Know the research broadly, and somewhat deeply. What’s the difference between loss aversion and risk aversion? What’s the decision weighting function? Peak end rule? What aspects of psychology does Save More Tomorrow leverage? Behavioral design/finance/economics is becoming it’s own discipline; there are sub-genres in health, government, policy, market design, etc. All of them have relevant literature and things you should absolutely know if someone is going to hire you as an expert.

To be clear, I think { hours spent + passion} > IQ when it comes to this. I put in hours reading and thinking about behavioral applications. I could have designed a behavioral finance course in undergrad… because I did it for myself.

As a result, in terms of what I want to do, I’m unusually well experienced and informed. I’m not a brilliant statistician, or quant, or wolf of wall street, or psychologist, or data-artist. But I like to think I’m in the 90th percentile on all of those things, which puts me in the 99th percentile in multivariate space.   😀

How did you get your start as a behavioral professional without a PhD?

I have to say, luck definitely played a role. Long after I was hired at Barclays, I learned that my immediate manager was on the fence about me when I interviewed (he came to love me afterwards. 😉  ). But his boss thought that I was a practical doer, perhaps who would mix well with my more academic colleagues. If manager^2 hadn’t nudged manager^1 like that, it’s entirely possible I wouldn’t have been hired.

“Should I get an advanced degree?

Maybe.

If you’re just doing it to get a better job, probably not. Would you do the degree if it didn’t improve your job prospects? When I did my masters in Decision Science, the answer was “yes!” This was interesting stuff, and I wanted time out to study it.

It definitely helped me get a better job. I met great people and one of them lead to a job offer while I was still doing the MSc. The degree gave more a more focused skill-set, and more letters after my name. It gave some evidence that I was intellectually serious.

I honestly don’t know if a Ph.D. is better. I’ll ask some Ph.Ds. A Masters degree definitely takes far less time, but is less focused on research methods & publishing. I don’t think a Ph.D. should be necessary for most behavioral roles. I personally don’t discount someone who doesn’t have one.

But… it really depends on the role you’re applying for, who is hiring for it, and how they think about it.

Skills to pay the bills?

There are some skills which I believe you’ll need in order to thrive at an applied behavioral role. But first…

Just do it.

Double down on whatever interests you. Figure out how now, in the real world, you can start doing it. Even if it’s in your personal life.

I was building skills even when I didn’t yet know exactly how I would use them. For example, I continued to learn Stata and statistical modelling after I left college. I’d find or create datasets to analyze. I analyzed my running and calorie patterns, and free data sets. At one job, I learned how to querying the database in free time. That moved into statistical analysis, and I found a way to predict when the company would not have enough product based on seasonal patterns. It wasn’t part of my job, but it was very fun to me.

The best job is one you want to do in your free time, so think about how you can build useful skills around what you love doing in your free time.

Endless curiosity & drive on a topic

I still read SJDM articles, academic articles, industry articles etc. I’m constantly looking for new ideas that might be useful. I spend a lot of my time reading, and every once in awhile I strike gold. And that’s not ‘work’ for me, it’s what I might be doing if I was an accountant too.

Hard skills: Databases / Coding / Analysis / Storytelling

These are the hard skills I think it might be difficult to do without. In the current and future world, you will probably be working with computers. Each technology you know nothing about is a missed opportunity. You don’t need to be a pro at any of these, but you need to know them conversationally, and how they work at a 202 level, to work with your future colleagues. I have had conversations where people say “we can’t do that”, and I say “Yes we can, we just {jargon} the {jargon} with {jargon} and it will work fine”. And they go “oh, yeah”.  

It’s also how you prove you’re doing something useful (more on that later).

Databases

This is where data lives.

How does it get there? Who decides what is recorded or not? How can you add something new to it? How do you query it?  How do you connect using unique identifiers? What transformations should be done in the query versus in memory on your machine? What’s a hash?

You should be comfortable with discussing these questions. Not to be the expert, just enough so you can work with the expert.

Coding

You should know how coding works. Computers are very literal, and you need to be able to understand *how* they speak. On the upside, once you’ve learned one computer language, it’s super easy to learn a different one.

R, Python and Julia are open source/free, really good for stats/analysis, and have a great community, and good tools to work with. Pick one, and start learning/playing with it. Start tracking data about yourself, or grab a public dataset your interested in. Sports, or government stats. Learn how to do research with a focused question in mind. 

Also, I recommend learning git & github for versioning and working with others. And reproducible research patterns. But that’s extra credit.  

Statistics / Analysis

Again, you don’t need to be a pro. But you do need to come equipped to speak with/like one.  What’s an RCT? A regression? When you A/B test something, how much power do you need? How long will it take to build a big enough sample? How do you know the right kind of analysis?

You won’t use everything you learn in undergrad stats courses – never proofs. But you need a wide-ranging toolkit to be able to make inferences and analysis with confidence.

Storytelling: writing, presenting, and data visualization

Communication is key. If you want to get people excited about the potential for your work, you need to get your ideas into their heads. Once you’ve done work, you need to get credit for it by presenting it well, and making others value it.

For writing: start writing a blog once a week. It honestly doesn’t matter if no-one reads it. It’s about you getting in the habit and flow of writing, sticking to deadline, and self-editing. Here’s the thing – it has to be your ideas. Write about your ideas of what could be done, bad design, whatever. Just be original and focused.

For presenting, take opportunities in your job or at college to do it. It may well suck at first – it can be nerve wracking. But it will get better very quickly. If you’re nervous, do whatever gets you loose. I used to (and sometimes still do) listen to James Brown, or meditate before a big talk. I’m at the point now where I’m confident enough to say “I don’t know” when somebody asks me a question and it feels like a relief rather than weakness. But that took a while.

Finally, be good at presenting quantitative results. Read Tufte, Information Is Beautiful, the NYTimes graphics, and look at D3 projects. You are in the job of using data to tell a story. Make the story interesting and beautiful.

Plan a career

Ha, just kidding.

I didn’t have a plan for this career. I just worked a lot to try and be aware of all the opportunities, and take advantage of them. I subscribed to list-serves (do they still have those?), job boards, keyword alerts in Google. I made my own webpage to talk about who I was and what I was interested in. Generally:

  1. Making the top of your funnel as wide as possible.
  2. Build strong filters so that you only see relevant stuff.
  3. Be decisive with your time. Respond to that email;  apply for that job, or… delete.
  4. Be friendly. Listen to others, and talk about what interests you. They need to know enough about you to refer others to you when it comes up. And you need to do likewise to help them.  

Getting a job

Finding the job

Be on top of things

I learned about the Barclays job from an academic list-serv. At that time, I had alerts on Monster.com (a job search site for you young people) and two others. If it was related to a potential job in behavioral finance, I probably heard about it. It’s up to you to find the out-bound channels that might have what you’re looking for, but try to make the top of the funnel big.

Pitch for a job that doesn’t exist yet, if you think it should

I had been using Betterment as a customer for about 6 months when I decided I might want to work there. I spent hours writing out exactly what I wanted to improve. I then emailed the CEO directly, praising the company and product, and sharing my thoughts. And he asked me if I wanted to grab a coffee.

Now he pays me to send him those emails. 😀

  1. The most important moral of this story is that I was intrinsically motivated to think about how to improve the product company. I was doing this in my spare time, because I thought it would make the service better.  
  2. There is very limited downside to cold-emailing someone saying you like what they’re doing, and want to help.

Assessing the job

First, make sure you find the role and company you want. This is about what you’ll spend most of your waking hours doing. Are they invested in this position? What resources will you have available? How will your manager measure success or failure? How clear are the incentives of people in the company?

How much leeway will you have to research and publish? Does the company want you publishing (even non-academically)? How will they invest in your development?

Most critically, what are you building? Do you want to spend at least 2 years building that? Will you be proud to talk about it when you’re done?

In the job, getting traction

Ok, so you have skills, the job, and you’re trying to make the most of it inside the company.

Pitch ideas like an MBA

Do you understand how your company makes and spends money? That’s priority #1. If you don’t know how to help with either of those (in some fashion), it will be very tough to get traction.

When you have an idea, think about how it might benefit the company. There are many different ways:

  • Bring in more customers
  • Make margins higher on existing customers
  • Make customers happy -> demand your service more, or refer new customers
  • Get free publicity from research / proprietary data (this is called ‘earned’ media in the biz)
  • Reduce attrition or churn
  • Reduce costs

When you pitch your idea, you’ll probably need to talk about the benefits of it, as well as the potential costs. Think like your colleagues, and the pitch will go better.

Also, think about their local incentives. What’s going to make them look good? How are they going to benefit from putting their effort behind your project?

For the first project, pick something small, low cost, and certain to improve things. That’s a great way to start building a track record and capital you can ‘spend’ on bigger projects later.

Get credit

Doing the project thing isn’t enough. Once it’s done, you need to get credit for it, as human capital, so you can spend it next time. This means writing and presenting about it. Share the credit with everyone who contributed to it’s success: this is not a fixed pie problem. But make sure people know what the success was and, how it improved things. This is just about making sure people know that your work is valuable, so they’ll invest in your crazy ideas again.

Be ethical

While I wouldn’t call behavioral expertise ‘great power’, I do believe with the power to influence peoples outcomes comes personal responsibility. Please nudge for good, and follow the guidelines for avoiding misuse.


That’s what I can share so far. If you have a specific question, feel free to get in touch: dpegan at dpegan dot com

 

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