Engaging undergraduates with research projects

Centre for Decision Research

Dr Simon McNair is a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at the Centre for Decision Research at Leeds University Business School. His primary interest is in the psychology of financial decision making. Dr Rufina Gafeeva graduated this spring from the Cologne Graduate School in Management, Economics and Social Sciences (University of Cologne, Germany). In her dissertation, she focused on the digital transformation of retail payments. Simon and Rufina are currently collaborating on research into how digital payment technology influences people’s spending behaviour. Eleanor Faragher- Siddall is a BA Management and Marketing student at Leeds University Business School. She joined the research team for the 4-week Q Step Summer Placement Scheme 2018.

Card machine and a contactless transaction taking place

Q-Step is a £19.5 million initiative designed to promote a step-change in quantitative social science training. The initiative is funded by the Nuffield Foundation, Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), and Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and is aimed at stimulating universities to develop new courses, pathways, and placement opportunities for undergraduates that promote the development of deep quantitative skills. One prominent activity is the Q-Steps Summer Placement Scheme, in which students are offered a four-week paid research project placement working directly with faculty on a live research project.

For 2018’s Summer Placement Scheme, we [Simon McNair and Rufina Gafeeva] welcomed successful applicant Eleanor Faragher- Siddall (BA Management and Marketing student) to join us on a four-week research placement. The project – an extension of our previous work – aims to understand how cashless payment systems (eg smartphone payment apps) might affect people’s spending behaviour. Numerous studies show that paying via digital means (ie cards, smartphone) increases consumers’ willingness to spend.

While research has focused on differences in terms of cards vs. cash, cashless payments also differ in their characteristics beyond the physical form. For instance, in our ongoing project, we focus on “payment account settings” as a distinctive characteristic within cashless payment modes that reflects how money is accessed to fund a transaction. Is the specific amount of money of the transaction simply deducted from the user’s bank account (what we call the “automatic debit” setting), for instance, or must the user “top up” their cashless payment system by making dedicated transfers between their bank account and a separate account (what we call the “manual deposit” setting)? We examine whether retaining separation between the bank account and the cashless payment system account (ie “manual deposit” setting) may create a different perception of fund availability, and consequently affect spending decisions.

To study this, we conducted an online experiment with the help of Q-Step Summer Placement holder Eleanor, as part of her placement. The experiment aimed to compare how the total amount people spend was substantially different depending on what kinds of cashless payment system people used, and what their payment account settings were.  

Over four weeks, Eleanor gained experience in the major cornerstones of conducting a scientific research project: reviewing existing scientific literature to develop understanding; designing experimental materials; recruiting participants; and preparing and statistically analysing the data collected. We asked Eleanor about her experience as a Q-Step Summer Placement holder, and what it was like to be involved in a live research project.

What interested you to take part in the Q-Steps Summer Placement Scheme?

I could gain valuable experience in research and training in an area very desirable to employers and highly useful for my future career: quantitative data analysis. I had great opportunities to further develop my skills and knowledge in useful software and platforms including R Studio, SPSS, Prolific academic and Qualtrics. The opportunity to gain such valuable skills and be paid to do so is not one that comes around often!

What drew you to this particular project?

I was drawn to this particular project because of my previous modules which covered mental accounting, the psychology behind decision making in consumers, and consumer behaviour. Mobile payments are only increasing in their usage, and once I had found a research project in an area I was enthusiastic about I knew it was the right choice for me. I would urge anyone considering taking part in a Q-Step project, to find an interesting research topic that you will enjoy taking part in then go for it because it is an unbelievable opportunity to any student.

What was most surprising or challenging about conducting the research?

The thing that surprised me most about the research project was how much independence I had. It was a really great experience as I believe it has given me much more confidence in my own abilities moving forward into third year. I found the most challenging aspect of the project to be the final stages before the survey launch; from my course experience I already knew this was a process that required a lot of fine tuning. When it comes to an academic project, survey mistakes could most severely impact our results, so the time taken to ensure the meticulous finish of the project is even more crucial.

How do you feel you have benefitted as a result of your placement?

The Q-step scheme has most benefitted me in how it has further developed me as an individual. Not only do I feel more confident in my own research abilities, the experience has given me drive to begin my dissertation. The placement has also opened my eyes to the possibility of further study beyond my third and final year, as I now plan to begin applying for my Masters at the University. I am very proud to have been involved in this project, and I am excited to see what future findings Simon and Rufina will discover.


From our perspective, Eleanor carried out every aspect of her work to high standards. Her previous knowledge of Qualtrics (a research, survey and experience software) and SPSS (a software package used for statistical analysis) was especially beneficial in that it enabled her to contribute to the project right from the start. We are happy that she enjoyed the experience of conducting a scientific research project.

Overall, we feel that the Q-Steps Summer Placement Scheme is a mutual gain for both the undergraduate interns and the supervising researchers. The Q-Steps Summer Placement Scheme afforded us a much quicker turnaround in all aspects of the designing, developing and conducting of the experiment. We believe that students as well as researchers can benefit from joining the Q-Steps Summer Placement Scheme.

As the Q Step Programme at the University of Leeds is designed to help promote and develop quantitative skills, we will be looking to support quantitative based research projects for the summer 2019 Q Step placement scheme, particularly those with links to external organisations.

A call for project proposals will be released in January 2019 through Schools, Divisions and University research networks. If you have any questions or would like to discuss possible placements before then, please contact Andrea Denny: A.J.Denny@Leeds.ac.uk

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