Behavioral science is a deep passion of mine. Upon graduation, I didn't want to stop studying it. Many asked (myself included), "Why not go get a PhD?" There were many reasons, but this thought experiment was the main one.
As a disclaimer - I want to point out that the conclusions I came to during this thought experiment are as a result of the fact that I knew I eventually wanted to do applied work.
Before I started consulting, I formed this thought experiment: fast forwarding the 6 years it might take to get a PhD, in which situation would I learn more, have more of an impact, and become more credible? In the situation where I spend that time getting a PhD, or gaining clients? I've worked with quite a few products at this point. How many will I have by the end of 2020? 2024?
Consulting is a clear winner here. Working on a PhD, I would basically be 6 years removed from real impact. I might publish some work that gets widely accepted, but who would use it besides other researchers? Most of the impact that I would have would be indirect, through my students. Plus turns out I could publish in journals anyway if I wanted to, I'd probably just need a co-author.
In consulting, I'm working with products, which have a direct impact on everyone who uses them.
Here it’s less clear, but I’m still going to give the edge to consulting.
In academia, I would have been reading a lot of papers and learning from professors, but it would have been a lot of theorizing on my own about how the world works given my literature-based understanding. I would have ended up siloed in some way, shape, or form. I experienced some of that in the summer before I started taking clients. The mental models that I was building needed to be tested on real products being built in order to make a difference.
In my current work, I’m still reading research and continuously learning, but I’m doing the critical thinking that comes from figuring out ways to apply the research to other situations, and the evaluation that comes from seeing what does and doesn’t work.
Since real client relationships are on the line, I need to be able to evaluate the practicality/applicability of a theory. I’m working on a large variety of projects, so I Learn by going up and down the ladder of abstraction. My thinking is driven out of any box that would come with focusing on one thing for a while. Also, I'm allowed to go down research rabbit holes that I wouldn’t have otherwise engaged with, which is valuable because There is no curriculum that encompasses everything you should know.
Credentials are simply a way of knowing that someone knows what they are doing when they themselves don't know the field. If I'm hiring a programmer and I don't know programming myself, I'm just looking for a signal that I can trust their expertise.
Given the choice between hiring someone who just got a PhD and someone with six years of consulting experience with products, the choice seems clearly in favor of the person with directly applicable experience.
If I got a PhD, my first year or so of consulting would have still had many of the same growing pains that I ended up having.
I’m already gaining a lot of credibility from my work. I can only imagine it’ll go up from here, especially as I start uploading testimonials and case studies and publishing more content.
In hindsight, my job as a consultant might have been a bit easier if I decided to at least do a one-year master's program, and I would have learned a lot. That being said, it might have just been delaying the inevitable, and I think that I’m on a good path right now. No regrets there.
The important thing for anyone to remember- you don't need to be in academia to pursue your academic interests. You can learn on your own. You can put yourself into contexts where your theorizing gets put to the test and end up with beliefs that align better with reality/are more practical/applicable. Your output becomes your credentials.