Completing an Executive PhD at Bayes

Finding your dissertation topic as an Executive PhD candidate

Stephen ShuWhen deciding on a dissertation topic as an Executive PhD candidate, one needs to address research questions that are unique, significant, and interesting enough for the scientific community while also appealing to the business world.

For my PhD journey, I decided to focus my research in the behavioural finance area. I used experimental methods to determine to what extent certain end user experiences and nudges casually affect psychological judgements and outcomes related to people saving money.

One aspect of my research involved persuading companies to implement randomised controlled trials in their retirement savings and fintech app experiences. My research questions therefore needed to be focused to be tractable enough to answer, and research designs needed to be feasible to implement with an appropriate risk/reward balance for both the company and me as a researcher.

In addition to working with companies, I worked in parallel with my advisors and others in the academic community to both vet and refine the research questions and designs.

Balancing research, a full-time job and a personal life

Studying an Executive PhD while working is no easy feat.

Firstly, I set expectations with my spouse and my employer that I would be embarking on this journey and that there might be risks with my pursuit. As mental preparation, we talked through both the good and bad that could happen along the journey.

Secondly, I set notional goals and key milestones for each year for each of the papers that would comprise my dissertation. This meant setting out rough timeframes of when I would submit and carry out my literature background, research question, research host, research design, research methods, and analytical skills required for each paper.

Thirdly, I organised my work into time slots. Weekends were generally reserved for PhD work with periodic times (say monthly) as a set aside for more significant personal activities (e.g., personal getaway). I also tried to schedule work into time slots that would enable me to get two hours of literature reading and note taking time during the work week (say between 06:30 - 08:30 am on Tuesday and Thursdays) at prime times when I needed the highest brain power versus stamina.

A challenging but rewarding journey

During the PhD, the most rewarding aspect of the research was getting statistical analyses to come together, whether significant or null results.

The most challenging aspect of the research process was trying to be realistic about research risks— such as what results might not come out. In these cases, one might want to first do a pilot study to see whether what you have in mind is likely to lead you down the right path.

After completing the PhD, the most rewarding aspect I underestimated was the feeling of having researched and learned more about one specific thing than perhaps any other in the person in the world has done.

Advice to future Executive PhD students

I would offer one piece of advice and one piece of reassurance. The one piece of advice is to make sure you have a support network that sticks with you through thick and thin. The piece of reassurance is that as an Executive PhD, you have a big advantage in that you generally know how to get things done. You are not someone fresh out of undergraduate school still learning the basics about yourself and life. As an Executive PhD, you simply need to focus on what approaches, methods, and skills you need to make it through the PhD process. That’s not a simple process by any means, but you’ve already been through a lot.

Stephen Shu PhD holds a PhD in Behavioural Finance (2021) from Bayes Business School. His research specialises in behavioural finance, with current research interests including savings, retirement, and democratising financial decision-making in digital and fintech environments. He is a Principal at Digital Nudging Tech and a Visiting Lecturer at Cornell Dyson School of Applied Economics & Management.