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Calculators and clipboards – my childhood dream?

March 22, 2011

Picture of people walking awaySeven years ago, r-net (the Market Research Society’s young researchers networking group) held a debate at RESEARCH 2004 entitled “Market Research will still be my dream career in three years’ time” which I wrote up into an article for the MRS website.

In 2004 we were worried that it was difficult to attract good graduates into the industry, and that when we got them there we wouldn’t be able to keep them.  The salaries were not great, our friends had no idea what we did during the day, and research had a bit of a negative image.  As the younger me said “our friends think we are telemarketers or people who stand on the street with clipboards until we tell them otherwise! Of course, some of our friends are a little more informed – to them we are perhaps administrators and number crunchers. Basically, we are boring and our jobs are not worth talking about.”

On the plus side, we thought that the industry was flexible, welcoming and inclusive and we hoped that this would be enough to keep us engaged.  We knew we were learning transferable skills and we thought that we might be tempted to leave the industry and use our skills elsewhere: “once you have got us you need to do something to keep us! If we are not happy then we will eventually drift out of the industry and into a job where our numerous skills are appreciated!”

The world has changed a lot since then.  As I presciently said in the original article “We are dependent on our external clients to provide the budget to employ us, and if their business takes a downturn then so inevitably must ours, especially if we are not giving them something useful.”

At the time I was a Research Executive with an agency in London, less than two years into my research career.  Seven years later I’m in Scotland and have recently started working as a freelance research consultant.  As I enter this new phase of my life it seems like a good time to pause and consider what happened in between and revisit whether market research is, or ever was, my dream career.

Is it everything I hoped it would be?

During my time in the industry I’ve experienced a wide range of working environments:

  • I’ve been a trainee, an executive, a manager, a consultant, a head of department and now a sole trader;
  • I’ve worked at two leading research agencies, and seen how they operate at a global and national level and from a satellite office;
  • I’ve mostly been the supplier, but I’ve also done some commissioning;
  • I’ve worked for profit and not-for-profit organisations;
  • I’ve worked in the office, I’ve worked from home, and I’ve worked in trains, planes, hotels and all sorts of bookable rooms.

I’ve been able to keep my skills and experience broad:

  • I’ve used all sorts of methodologies within qual and quant and I’ve had a go at mystery shopping, media evaluation and participant observation;
  • I’ve worked in B2B, consumer, social, brand&ad, medical, FMCG, opinion polling and product testing;
  • I’ve had clients in the public, private and voluntary sectors;
  • I’ve worked on projects on every scale from a couple of focus groups to national weekly trackers and managing a monthly omnibus.

I’ve developed a wide range of transferable skills that are useful within and outwith the research industry:

  • Project management;
  • Consulting;
  • Working with people;
  • Insight and analysis;
  • Presenting;
  • Writing long and precise documents;
  • Writing short and snappy presentations.

Working in research has offered me all sorts of opportunities to do things I would never have been able to do otherwise:

  • I’ve conducted research on a wide range of random and interesting subjects including whisky, ballet and terrorism;
  • I’ve accidentally become an international expert in an obscure niche and been invited to give a key note speech at a conference in Australia;
  • I’ve had all sorts of internal and external training on subjects including moderation, presentation skills, website testing and disability awareness;
  • I went to Barcelona for a training course (and ‘networking’) and I’ve travelled the UK from Durness to Brighton (737 miles – thankfully not all in one go);
  • I’ve been to awards dinners (both winning and losing), Michelin star restaurants and received corporate hospitality.

I have learned:

  • To build good practice and ethical considerations into everything I do, rather than seeing them as bureaucracy;
  • To manage expectations and ideally exceed them;
  • To embrace the fact that everything I produce is subject to scrutiny – the output is better for it;
  • To remember what it is like to be junior, and to give people I manage opportunities to learn new skills and access to the ‘bigger picture’.  I’m not scared of the ‘student becoming the master’.  This just means I have been a good master;
  • To trust my instincts – as someone wisely told me “if the data looks wrong, it is probably wrong.”

But don’t get me wrong, it hasn’t all been good:

  • I’ve worked on some truly boring jobs (I won’t say which!);
  • I’ve spent far too much time checking tables and scripts and adding fiddly last minute changes into ‘signed off’ questionnaires;
  • I’ve messed up, and cleared up the messes of others who have messed up;
  • I’ve been shouted at by colleagues, clients and respondents;
  • I’ve seen colleagues be made redundant, and taken voluntary redundancy myself;
  • My research has led to unfortunate media headlines including “This spells the end of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe” and “Scottish people think women deserve to be raped”.

So is research my dream career?

Well if I can’t sing on a West End stage (and I really can’t!) I will have to settle for more realistic ambitions.  I’m still here doing research after nearly nine years in the industry, and I still regularly find job satisfaction.

Research is an industry where:

  • Both structure and creativity are valued;
  • Ethics and integrity are built into everything you do;
  • You can have as much variety and flexibility as you want (or none if you prefer!);
  • You can take as much responsibility as you want (or none if you prefer!);
  • You can learn interesting things about subjects you never knew existed, and get an insight into the inner workings of all sorts of organisations.

Things have changed.  The world is smaller, more connected, and less affluent.  Clients expect more insight for less money.  This is something the industry has had to adapt to in order to survive.

Has the image of the industry improved?  I don’t think so.  People still associate us with suggers and fruggers (selling under the guise of research / fundraising under the guise of research) and all manner of other nefarious and irritating practices. 

Do my friends understand what I do?  Absolutely not.  The structure and the practice of research seem to be entirely alien to outsiders.

This is all part of the same challenge I highlighted in 2004 around encouraging promising graduates to choose a career in research and stick with it.  How are they supposed to know what it involves and make a genuine choice to join the industry?

If I was advising a research newbie I’d say that there are plenty of opportunities out there in research if you believe in yourself and believe in the ethos of insight and evidence-based decision-making.  I’d tell them to give it a go. 

Research was never my dream job in the sense that I didn’t spend my childhood playing with calculators and clipboards, but research is a career you can be proud of, and I’m proud to be doing it.  For most of us I think that’s as good as it gets.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 22, 2011 11:58 am

    Awesome piece.

  2. Lisa permalink
    April 4, 2011 10:37 am

    Hey Ruth, since I was involved in that debate with you back then, it is an interesting perspective!


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