Showcasing careers beyond academia

Lourdes Valencia-Torres

Behavioural Scientist

Year entered into a non-academic position:  2019

Job highlight: 

In 2019, I joined the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) as an advisor and led over 25 research projects aimed at enhancing the design of products, services, policies, and communications using behavioural science. My work spanned various sectors, including public health, employment, financial behaviour, and sustainability, and involved collaborations with national and international partners. In 2023, I was seconded to Nesta’s Healthy Life Mission, which aims to halve the number of people with obesity in the UK by 2030, helping individuals live longer, healthier lives. Earlier this year, I transitioned from BIT to become a full-time employee at Nesta, continuing to utilize my expertise in behavioural science to achieve our mission’s ambitious goals.  

At BIT, I developed behavioural solutions for a wide range of projects, notably including efforts to increase COVID-19 vaccination rates during the pandemic. I also pioneered the first behavioural online Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT) with landlords in the UK. This project was aimed at understanding the barriers faced by individuals receiving benefits in accessing private accommodation. Additionally, I designed comprehensive RCTs to evaluate public communications in health, social care, and environmental programs. Most recently, at Nesta, I led a pioneering collaboration with a major multinational coffee chain, applying behavioural science to help customers make healthier choices. 

My research training set me up to…:

apply the scientific method with rigor, evaluate scientific studies, perform in-depth statistical analyses and grasp the psychological processes that influence decision-making.

While I  was studying psychology in Mexico, I developed a comprehensive understanding of the dynamics regulating decision-making and brain function. This foundational knowledge was crucial as I moved into the field of behavioral economics. My expertise in trial and experimental design has been central to my role, allowing me to manage and conduct structured experiments to test hypotheses and measure outcomes. Additionally, the soft skills I acquired, such as teamwork and project management, have been instrumental to my successful transition to industry roles.

Left academia after:

7 years of postdoctoral work

What’s your background?

I am an experimental psychologist. My PhD focused on intertemporal choice, examining how individuals make decisions that involve trade-offs between costs and benefits occurring at different times. 

Why did you move away from academia?

I initially pursued a career in academia with the dream of running my own lab and developing my own line of research. However, over time, I realized that the path I thought was my dream was not truly fulfilling for me.

The realities of academic life, including the intense competition for permanent positions, the frequent rejections of grant applications, and the necessity to constantly relocate, were disheartening. I saw many talented colleagues facing these challenges, and it prompted me to reconsider my professional goals.

This reflection led me to transition into a role where I could apply my expertise in behavioural science to real-world issues and in this way  contribute to societal well-being in a more immediate and practical way. 

Is there anything you miss about academia?

The hands-on animal work was particularly rewarding; I enjoyed setting up and conducting experiments in the operant chambers. Additionally, I miss the camaraderie with my lab colleagues. 

How did you get this job? Did you face any challenges when considering a move away from academia or applying for the role? 

Securing my current role at BIT involved a series of rigorous steps that differed significantly from my experiences in academia. I had to pass written evaluations, analyse a research paper, and develop a small project proposal. This was followed by a couple of interviews that were more focused on practical applications of my skills rather than solely on  academic knowledge. 

One of the challenges I faced when considering the move from academia was adapting to the different expectations and cultures in industry. Interviewing for an industry role required a deep understanding of the sector I was entering. I needed to clearly articulate how my skills and  expertise  in conducting behavioural research could directly contribute to the goals of the organization.

This shift in perspective -thinking more about practical applications and impact rather than theoretical contributions- was both challenging and rewarding. It pushed me to translate my academic expertise into tangible benefits for real-world problems. 

What motivated you to/why did you choose the sector you transitioned into?

My interest in behavioral economics began during my psychology training in Mexico, where I was inspired by the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. This interest led me to discover the Behavioural Insights Team, often referred to as the ‘Nudge Unit.’ The possibility of directly applying behavioural economic theories to improve public policies and enhance societal outcomes was incredibly appealing. 

Did you think you had the skills required for your current position before you started? How did your PhD prepare you for your current job? 

I believed I had a good chance when I applied for the position, thanks to my strong background in research and psychology training, which indeed proved very useful.

However, I initially lacked the specific consultancy skills, which were crucial for my role. Over time, I developed these skills through on-the-job experience, learning how to apply my knowledge in more diverse and practical contexts, which enhanced my effectiveness in the position. 

How did your PhD prepare you for your current job? For example, what were the transferable skills that you developed during your PhD that are most relevant to your current job? 

My PhD in Behavioural Neuroscience, coupled with my post-doctoral research in the neurobiology of eating and metabolism, equipped me with skills that are highly relevant to my current role which focuses on public health and obesity.

The in-depth knowledge of scientific methods, statistical analysis, and experimental design gained during my PhD has been foundational for developing and leading impactful research projects.

My understanding of psychological processes has directly informed the behavioral solutions I implement across various sectors. Additionally, the soft skills I gained, such as teamwork and project management, have been beneficial in managing projects and collaborating with diverse teams. 

Did you have any preconceptions about your sector that proved to be wrong?

I entered the industry with the preconception that it generally offers better compensation than academia. However, I soon learned that this isn’t always the case. The financial rewards in the industry can vary significantly depending on the sector, company, and many other variables. 

Can you describe a typical week in your job?

In my current role, I predominantly work from home, with frequent visits to our Edinburgh and London offices. A typical day at home involves a mix of video calls with colleagues, project teams, and stakeholders, along with hands-on tasks such as project management, designing behavioural solutions, conducting evidence reviews, and developing research methodologies. The nature of my work involves substantial screen time, so I greatly value my standing desk and make sure to take short 5–10-minute walks throughout the day to stay  energized . 

When visiting the offices, my days are generally more social. These visits are filled with in-person meetings and brainstorming sessions, where ideation with colleagues is more dynamic and collaborative.  

What is the workplace culture like? Please include comments on work-life balance, flexibility, remote working?

The workplace culture in my current role is exceptionally supportive of work-life balance and flexibility. I’m really happy with the arrangement they offered me, as it allows me to work from home most days. This flexibility allows me to organize my work schedule in a way that best suits my personal and professional needs, provided I meet deadlines with high-quality deliverables. I never feel overwhelmed or overworked, a stark contrast to my experiences in academia. 

Additionally, I work with a team of people from very diverse backgrounds, which enriches our collaborative environment. I learn from them all the time, gaining new perspectives and insights that enhance our projects and my personal growth.

Do people with a PhD frequently get hired in the company/sector?

In our sector, particularly within an innovation charity that focuses on evidence-based solutions and policymaking, hiring individuals with PhDs is not uncommon, especially among researchers. The depth of expertise and analytical skills that come with a PhD are highly valued for their contribution to our rigorous approach to developing and evaluating policies. 

What are your favourite parts of your job?

My favorite parts of my job include developing behavioral solutions and running trials; I’ve always had a passion for running experiments, a love that started back in my days in academia. Additionally, I thoroughly enjoy public engagement, presenting our work to stakeholders and various audiences. 

What are your reflections on your career path?

I am deeply grateful for the theoretical knowledge in psychology that I possess. It’s a niche field, but one that consistently sparks tremendous curiosity among people I meet. I am pleased to have found a path outside of academia that not only makes me happy but is also highly applicable across various sectors. Currently, I work in public health, but the principles of behavioural science extend well into finance, technology, education, and more.

Do you have any advice for current graduate students and postdocs considering a career outside of academia?

For graduate students and postdocs contemplating a career beyond the academic sphere, I’d like to offer three pieces of advice based on my own experiences: 

  1. Leaving academia is not a failure: Transitioning to a new career path is a proactive step forward, not a retreat. It took me several reminders to see that moving on to something new opens up opportunities that can be as fulfilling, if not more , than staying in academia. 
  1. Explore diverse career options: Starting my PhD, I was solely focused on leading my own lab. It was only later that I discovered the vast array of opportunities available outside of academic research. The skills you develop during your PhD are highly valued in numerous other fields, do not limit yourself to the academic track. 
  1. Identify your transferable skills: My background in experimental psychology and research provided a solid foundation for my work in developing public policy. I encourage graduates to recognize how your unique skills can be advantageous in various industries. For example, my understanding of self-control theories proved invaluable when I joined The Behavioural Insights Team, where I applied these concepts to create interventions aimed at reducing smoking and drinking. 

What do you know now that you wish you’d known when exploring a transition?

Looking back, one major thing I wish I’d known when considering a transition out of academia is the value of acting decisively.

I prolonged my decision to leave, hoping for a breakthrough or change in my academic career that never came. My advice to others in a similar position is this: once you realize that academia isn’t where you want to be, don’t hesitate. Prepare thoroughly, research your intended sector, ensure your financial stability, and make the move confidently. 

Can you recommend any relevant resources, organisations or events that might help somebody new to the sector find out more about it? 

LinkedIn is a great resource for anyone new to the sector. Follow companies like Nesta, which regularly posts updates, blogs, and job openings. Connect with industry professionals who share insights and advice. This platform can help you understand industry trends, network effectively, and find opportunities directly related to your interests.