Carnegie Mellon University
November 19, 2015

Carving Unique Paths in Decision Science

By Elizabeth Jeffries 

If your career goals as a student include dentistry, a decision science major is probably not for you.

For virtually anyone else, though, studying decision science provides enormous flexibility in pursuing different careers and acquiring resources for responding to life’s opportunities and challenges.

Baruch Fischhoff, a world-renowned expert in risk analysis and judgment and decision making, sees the value of this every day in his own work and wanted to bring it to Carnegie Mellon University. Fischhoff predicted that graduates who studied a combination of psychology, economics and management science would receive a versatile educational foundation that could be applied in any field or industry. Fifteen years after he co-founded the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences’ major in decision science, it is clear that he was right.

“About ten percent of students are accepted into Ph.D., programs, most often in psychology departments or business schools with decision science programs. Others have gone on to almost every professional school, except dentistry, but including medical, law, business, public policy, public health, fine arts and divinity school,” said Fischhoff, the Howard Heinz University Professor of Social and Decision Sciences and Engineering and Public Policy and director of the major.

Offered through the Department of Social and Decision Sciences, decision science teaches fundamental approaches to decision-making, including the cognitive, emotional, social and other factors that influence judgment and choice, models of rational choice and how judgment and decision-making can be predicted and/or improved. Students are also taught the skills needed to to understand why individuals and organizations behave the way they do, as well as to choose rationally among competing courses of action and to organize the actions of those who will carry out decisions. And, for students interested in decision science, CMU is the place to be – no other university has an undergraduate major like it.

In addition to required courses, the major helps students find electives that helps identify personal interests. Nadia Tuma-Weldon (DC’04) deemed this one of the most important aspects to the program.

“You are able to make Decision Science what you want,” said Tuma-Weldon, the director of Truth Central, McCann Worldgroup's global thought leadership unit. “As a transfer student from piano performance, I did not have a clear idea of what I wanted to do. In speaking with Baruch Fischhoff, however, I found my path in the program and still reference the research I did at CMU in my career today.”

David Zimmerman (DC’14), a statistics and decision science double major who now conducts decision science research at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, was first drawn to the program because he was fascinated with how humans can create environments that bring out the natural strengths of decision-making. He thinks that society has started to ask people to think in ways that are very challenging for the brain.

“By continuing to study decision science, we will hopefully be able to place individuals, groups, and organizations in environments where humans excel by using the powerful processes they naturally possess. If we can change the decisions making environment in these cases when we have gone beyond what the human brain can do, we can make a strong impact on increasing the quality of life,” Zimmerman said.

Crystal Hall (DC’03) also majored in policy and management and went on to obtain a doctorate degree in social psychology from Princeton University. Recently, Hall accepted a one-year appointment as a fellow with the White House’s Social and Behavioral Sciences team to continue her research on decision making in the context of poverty. She said the decision science degree was integral to her current work.

“My research now is a direct link from what I was learning at CMU. The country is now at a point where the government is putting a lot of focus on the issue of poverty. Doing that work as an undergraduate is something that gave me a unique perspective on even my own decision making,” she said.

Hall, who will return to her faculty appointment at the University of Washington after her stint at the White House, is also grateful for CMU’s faculty, which she described as “a unique blend of brilliance and kindness, a rare combination in academia.”

Learn more about the Decision Science major.