Deciding on a Career in Decision Science

Before they left home to study decision science, Carlos Trujillo of Colombia and Natalia Karelaia of the Republic of Belarus were pursuing careers in the private sector--Trujillo in finance and Karelaia at a bank. Both quit their jobs seeking greater intellectual challenges, and both ended up at the Department of Economics and Business at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, Spain.

But this is where the similarities end. "Carlos is an 'intuitive' type of person," says Robin Hogarth, their Ph.D. advisor. "He seems to feel his way around problems and to come up with interesting ideas." Natalia, in contrast, "is more analytical. She has terrific research skills and determination." The research topic the young scientists chose to tackle--Trujillo works on the role of emotions in decision-making, and Karelaia on how to select information and make decisions effectively--reflect these different personalities and their individual approaches to career decisions. But "in time," Hogarth says, "Carlos and Natalia will mature as scientists, and I expect that the differences between them will narrow as they develop."

Letting emotions in …

Trujillo obtained a B.A. from the Colegio de Estudios Superiores de Administración of Bogota, in 1998. By that time he had already spent 2 years as a research assistant studying the factors that lead Latin American companies to become multinational. "It was related to decision science," he says, although back then it wasn't yet known as such in Latin America. Trujillo was curious about the corporate world, so he did his final-year work experience at MasterCard Corporation. "When I graduated, I was offered a position at CitiGroup," a financial services company. But he stayed there for just 6 months, finding it difficult to adjust to the conformism of corporate life. "A company always likes to put you in a certain frame of mind. It was difficult for me to settle," he says. "After that, I started to think seriously about continuing my research career."

Still, Trujillo took another job in finance consulting which he liked better for being "more intellectual." Finally, around 2 years later, Trujillo surrendered to his longing for a research career and began to investigate graduate programmes that would allow him to become a researcher. His "corporate experience" was a "determining factor" in this decision, he says. Trujillo became fascinated with how corporate and personal values both influence employees’ decisions, often in a very fast process.

Trujillo left Colombia in 2001 to start a Masters degree programme in economics and management sciences at Pompeu Fabra University, where a Masters degree is a prerequisite to a Ph.D. He funded his first year from savings--"We sold everything we had in Colombia"--and a teaching assistantship. As part of his studies he took a class given by Hogarth on decision science. Knowing it "was the most important class I was going to take … I worked hard; I wanted to make an impression." It paid off; Trujillo got top marks, and the university admitted him for a Ph.D., with Hogarth as his adviser. As for funding, Trujillo secured a research assistantship from the Ministry of Education and Science.

Carlos Trujillo with a poster of his research findings.

Trujillo was free to choose his Ph.D. topic, and decided to study the relationship between emotions and rationality in decision-making. "I realised that human values are just an attribute in a decision," he says. His approach is empirical: He sets up psychology experiments where several hundreds of student volunteers fill in questionnaires saying how they feel while making simple decisions like choosing a restaurant for dinner. This research, he explains, is relevant to anyone. In our society, "the concept of emotion is [considered] less important for people than thinking," and people will often try to remain objective when making decisions. "But this research … shows that we need emotions to make good decisions."

Another application of this research is in marketing. "Knowing how consumers use their feelings help marketers to be more effective when communicating and selling. However, the unethical use of this knowledge to fool or manipulate implies the use of lies and false information. This goes to another field of research regarding marketing and business ethics," he says.

Trujillo will soon spend the last semester of his Ph.D. as a visiting scientist at the Los Andes University in Bogota, where he hopes to get a permanent position and develop the field. "I see a way to create good things for my country," he says. Because experiments are cheap to run in decision science, "I feel that in an emerging economy, this is a kind of research which I could do successfully at a very high level."

Natalia Karelaia

Or pondering information …

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in economics and management from Belarus State Economic University in Minsk in 1998, Natalia Karelaia opted for a banking job; "I just wanted to see in practice what I studied at university." But the work soon became routine and didn't provide the intellectual challenge she was looking for. "I am interested in discovering, and in the bank, it started to be all the same every day." So she decided to do an M.Sc. in management. Although she admits Spain was a "random" choice, the Pompeu Fabra University was recommended by a friend for its good reputation in economics. "It is one of the very few Spanish universities that try to compete at an international level," she says. She had no plans to go beyond the masters degree, but "I took a class with Robin [Hogarth] in decision science; that made me think about doing a doctorate."

Decision science was attractive; it was theoretically and psychologically rich--a "child's dream"--while also being the "most practical course that I have seen during the Masters [programme]." So in 2000, Karelaia started a thesis in heuristics--using "simple decision rules that allow the decision-maker to avoid complicated mathematical calculations and yet reach a satisfying result." Her aim was to study "how real people make decisions"--ignoring some information, taking into account other, and seeking confirmation from other sources. Through theoretical analysis and mathematical simulations, she compared the quality of decisions resulting from different decision rules. Although Karelaia’s work was mainly theoretical, she also used experiments in psychology; in particular, to look at how redundant information may influence decision-makers. Other than consumer research, Karelaia’s research has applications in strategic decision-making.

Working in this field indeed "helps me to know myself better," says Karelaia. And even though there are disadvantages--"Before I wasn’t thinking about decision strategy. It takes me more time to make decisions right now"-- it certainly helps her making good ones. Before accepting a 6-year assistant professorship in decision analysis in the Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales at Lausanne University last September, Karelaia pondered the offer carefully. The faculty had a good reputation and she knew the group for doing research similar to her own.

"Another reason that I applied for this position is that it is great in terms of teaching load"--just one course a year. She was "very comfortable" teaching decision analysis and strategic decision-making, having financed both her Masters and her Ph.D. by giving courses in these subjects. The fact that she had to learn French well enough to teach in it in just a few months "isn’t something that scared me," she says. She had already tackled the challenge successfully with Spanish and Catalan. The job wasn't permanent--it was a 6-year term appointment--but she saw this as an advantage. "If you don’t know the place, how can you decide that you want to stay there forever?" she asks.

Things seem to be going well for Karelaia. "Right now I am happy with my position," she says. She has published five papers so far--including three from her Ph.D. She has also secured a European Collaborative Research Grant in the Social Sciences that allows her to keep close ties with her group at Pompeu Fabra University.

Natalia Karelaia and Carlos Trujillo with their advisor, Robin Hogarth (left).

For a successful career in decision-making research …

Hogarth writes in an e-mail that both Trujillo and Karelaia have what it takes to be good scientists--"curiosity, passion, good academic training in basic disciplines [in our case, economics, statistics, and psychology] openness to new ideas, and the stamina to work hard." Both are also creative, he writes. "Both attracted my attention because they were obviously very bright and came up with interesting ideas [on their own]."

The two young scientists found, in Hogarth's lab, the intellectual richness and freedom they had been seeking. "You don’t need to be a genius to have ideas for research," says Trujillo. "You need an environment that really helps you and encourages you to say what you think." This is especially true in decision science, he believes; because it is a young discipline, it leaves a lot of space for creativity. "Decision science is moving quickly, and is very open ... to new methods and ideas. You can really challenge things and make contributions. There is more space to grow" than in more established disciplines like economics.

But working in such a new and specialised discipline also has its downside. "I don’t think that opportunities and funding for decision research are as well developed as they should be," says Hogarth. Even though the situation has improved in recent decades, most decision research in Spain is being carried out within other departments and disciplines rather than dedicated labs, meaning that job opportunities too are scarce. But with research becoming increasingly interdisciplinary, Hogarth believes that opportunities may expand soon. "Precisely because decision research is an intersection of disciplines, I believe it is a good place for young scientists to be."

"The difficulty of finding a job is relative," adds Karelaia. "In a sense, decision-making is applicable as a field of management, so it’s a matter of where you want to develop applications [for] your research." Hogarth agrees that young scientists should "Keep an eye on both applications and theory." Finally, young scientists may also find opportunities outside of academia, mainly in consulting for consumer research, strategic management for companies, or group and individual decision-making. "There are interesting jobs outside academia that allow you to make interesting decisions and to learn about the decisions you make," says Karelaia, who is keeping her options open.

Hogarth is confident regarding the future of the two young researchers in academia. "Carlos should do well in Colombia, provided he can get a foothold in one of the better universities. Natalia is a potential international 'star' and so, in a few years, she should be able to command a good position in many different places [not just Switzerland]."

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for South and West Europe.

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