Doctoral insight: Everything you need to know about studying for a PhD

10 January 2020

Behavioural Science PhD student, Merle van den Akker shares her motivation behind doing a PhD and highlights the importance of a good working relationship with your supervisor(s) to develop your research interests whilst having the determination to go above and beyond.

I am currently a third-year student at Warwick Business School (WBS) studying for a PhD in Business and Management, specialising in Behavioural Science. My PhD focuses specifically on how contactless payment methods change how we spend money and how contactless methods change how we manage our personal finances.

Before I started my PhD I was already a University of Warwick student studying MSc Behavioural and Economic Science. I was part of the science track and quickly realised that I wanted to remain in academia and continue behavioural scientific research. Prior to this, I was based in my home country of the Netherlands where I was studying a BA honours in Liberal Arts and Science. I often describe my undergraduate course as a ‘choose your own adventure’ type of degree. I was able to spend my first year studying psychology and statistics and I spent my second year studying economics and game theory. In my final year, I studied economic psychology, complex cognition and neuroeconomics so it’s no surprise that I continued my studies in the area of behavioural science.

Applying to the PhD programme

My motivation to do a PhD came from my experience of applying for graduate jobs during my Masters. After completing numerous job applications and assessment centres I soon realised that I wanted to remain in academia and gain a much deeper understanding of doing academic research through a PhD. I had heard some horror stories about the PhD application process, however, I had a very different experience due to the fact that I had already found my supervisors when I applied. For me the hardest part of the application process was accumulating the right documents such as transcripts, reference letters, and my research proposal etc., to accompany my application. It was a time-consuming process but I had a lot of support from my supervisors which was really useful.

Finding a supervisor

I decided to do a PhD at WBS as the Behavioural Science Group here, have such a great reputation all over the world. I was lucky to find myself two supervisors who had actually taught me during my master’s course which was an added luxury that most PhD students don’t have. The support they gave me when applying for my PhD made me not want to apply anywhere else. I think the importance of having a good student/supervisor working relationship when studying for your PhD is absolutely pivotal. It is important that you both agree on what you require of each other from the very start, making it easier for your research to progress. I would also say that honesty is the best policy to ensure you build a good working relationship.

Working in an open and supportive environment

The best thing about my PhD programme so far is the people I have met from working within the Behavioural Science Group. I really enjoy being able to work within an open and supportive environment where I can reach out to anyone with the group regardless of their position for advice, and this has contributed to my experience massively. I would say that the advantage of studying for a PhD means that you can become an expert in your area of expertise which is really important if you want to pursue a career in academia. A disadvantage of studying for a PhD is the financial commitment that you will have to make and the possibility that when you finish your PhD and apply for jobs in industry some companies may struggle to understand what you actually did during your studies. However, I believe that the experience of studying a PhD means that you will have a solid foundation of knowledge for you to apply in your future career.

Exploring theory through research

My PhD research is focused on how different payment methods activate different levels of ‘pain’ (negative feelings) when you purchase something. Some methods activate more pain such as paying by cash compared to other payment methods such as paying by credit or debit card. This theory has been used to explain why people tend to spend more, spend more often and often don’t remember their spending when using less painful methods of payment. I wanted to explore this theory further and my research is based on figuring out whether this theory can be applied to contactless methods of payment, and whether it changes how much we spend, how often we spend, and how we deal with our personal finances.

Overcoming demotivation with determination and grit

To remain motivated throughout a PhD you will need determination and grit. Some days will be hard, you will have to face rejections and sometimes you may feel you haven’t made any progress with your research in several weeks but everyone experiences this. It is a key element of doing a PhD. It’s also a key element of academia and maybe even life. It is also vitally important to have a good work-life balance. I believe that having a set structure, set routines and deadlines has helped me a lot.

After I finish my PhD I really want to stay academia, pursue my passion for research and hopefully, one day become a professor. I will look for a post-doctoral position in an area very similar to what I’m doing now focusing on payment methods and their effect on personal finance management.

Discover more about our PhD programme at Warwick Business School, and find out more about Merle’s experience of studying a PhD by viewing her PhD blog: Money on the Mind.