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Research consultant? But what do you actually do?

January 18, 2012

Sometimes people ask me what I actually do.  Like what happens during my working day. Consultant is such a woolly term, and research is a strange and often misunderstood term.  Plus I work for myself, from home, and people are always curious about what that involves.  I’ve thought for a while I might do a ‘day in the life’ blog and I’ve been waiting for a typical day.  Here’s the thing, there isn’t a typical day.  I work on lots of projects at the same time, things come up that demand attention, and I rarely spend more than a couple of hours on a task before skipping on to something else.  But 5th January 2012 seems like as a good a day as any…  

9.30am – Wake up to admin

I usually come to my desk in the spare room around 9.30am, having got up at… erm… well 9.30am.  I never pretended to be a morning person, and working for myself (and usually from home) means I am rarely under any pressure to get up too early.  I spend the first half hour doing my admin – reading and responding to emails, having a quick look at Twitter and LinkedIn, checking my bank account against any expected invoicing, and sorting out any equipment I might need for the day.  Today I have a depth interview at 10am so I needed to ensure I had a (working) digital recorder to hand and a print out of my interview schedule in advance of that.

10 to 10.45am – Depth interview

I have had a depth interview scheduled in to undertake at 10am, which was very kindly set up for me several weeks ago and so was a fixed point in my diary.  This project involves me and some associates conducting 30 interviews by telephone with fairly senior people around Scotland.  This is my fourth, and I have another scheduled in for next week and some more as yet unscheduled.  The interviews are semi-structured meaning that at the start of the project I designed an interview schedule which is a list of questions to cover during the interviews.  Preparing an interview schedule is not as straightforward as it looks, as it involves taking all of your client’s random thoughts and putting them into an order which will appear seamless and logical to the respondent.  The idea is that the sessions feel fluid and natural to the respondents and are flexible enough to explore new issues as they arise, but because we have a list of questions there will be a certain amount of consistency across the 30 interviews and all of the client’s key needs will be addressed.  There is a certain skill to conducting depth interviews, these being conversations in which you do not actually take part – glossing over the fact that you have a list of questions, and not joining in with your own opinions.  In fact, the less you say the better.  If you plan it properly, and with a bit of experience, the respondent will never notice that it isn’t a ‘real’ conversation. The actual interview today took 38 minutes (which is typical for this project) but there is always a bit of faff at the start (speaking to secretary and getting put through, introducing the project and getting consent to record the session) and more at the end (answering questions about when the report will come out, politely closing the conversation).

10.45am to 12 noon – Hate listening to myself on tape

This project requires me to submit an overview of each interview I conduct to my client, and from these my client will collate all the themes into a report for his client.  That’s unusual, I usually do the whole thing myself, but I this case I am being employed as an expert adviser and interviewer rather than a full service consultant.  It is much quicker and easier to write an overview such as this if it is done by the person who conducted the interview, immediately after it was conducted.  Preparing the overview involves downloading the recording onto my laptop and listening to the interview and pulling out key themes and verbatim comments under headings of each of the client’s objectives.  This takes longer than the original interview because there is a lot of starting and stopping of the recording involved, and interviews tend to roam about a bit so notes need to be reordered thematically rather than reported chronologically. This respondent also used quite a few acronyms that I had to look up on the internet.

12 noon to 12.20pm – New Business Development

Working for yourself you always have to have your eye on the next thing, and I have had a list of people that I wanted to catch up with and chat about future opportunities.  No point doing so in December as people are busy and less focused, so I’ve saved them up for January.  Spent a bit of time today firing out emails to all the relevant people to set up lunch or coffee meetings later in the month.

12.20pm to 12.40pm – More New Business Development

I also keep my eye on opportunities to competitively tender, so that I can put in proposals for projects where my skills are relevant.  I check the internet for opportunities every few days as there tends to be a fairly quick turnaround of clients wanting proposals back in a week or two so it is good to find them early.  I have a favourited list of sites that tend to feature relevant ‘invitations to tender’, and I also have some standard advanced search terms that I use on Google.  When something comes up, I download the documents and consider whether I think it is worth the effort of putting a proposal in.  Is it interesting?  Do I have the right skills and experience?  Is the client asking for something reasonable within the level of funding offered?  There was quite a few maybes today (but no definite yeses), so I put them aside to look at another day.

12.40pm to 1pm – Non-research work

I have my finger in a few pies and I am corresponding with a branding expert who is working on logos and straplines and so on for one of my other enterprises.  He’s sent some thoughts through, so I considered his ideas and sent back my response by email.

1pm to 2pm – Break for lunch

I Sky+ myself a lot of social commentary style documentaries and I like to watch these while I have my lunch.  Working as a researcher and particularly working in the voluntary sector I think it is important to expose myself to all of the different lifestyles that the world has to offer.  I think it makes me a better researcher to know what’s out there – both strategically (when designing research) and operationally (treating people respectfully).

2pm to 4pm – Work on a proposal

Just before Christmas I identified a tender that I would like to respond to, that was due on 6th Jan (tomorrow).  I therefore planned to prepare it this week, and had already done a lot of it yesterday.  This included designing the methodology and budget by dividing the project up into tasks, estimating how long each would take, adding these up against a daily rate, and messing about with it until it came in under budget. This proposal requires me to write 1,000 words for the approach and methodology (and I sneaked in two pages of appendices).  That’s not a lot at all.  It is much easier to write a 30 page document so cutting it down was the challenging bit.  Finished it up, and will leave it until tomorrow for a proof read.  I like to put in a bit of distance between finishing up a document and giving it a last look over.  You can get too close to something you have been writing for days and this makes you miss important points.

4pm to 4.15pm – Update client

I have been working on a project in December and it is due to complete at the end of January.  My client is fairly hands off, but I wanted to make sure he was updated and informed so I prepared and sent a quick email detailing progress and plans against what we had originally agreed.

4.15pm to 5.30pm – Work on report

As I mentioned earlier I like to put a bit of distance between myself and a document I had prepared, and final reports are another example of this.  I have been working on a project for a year now, collecting lots and lots of data and writing it up – and the report is due in January.  I aimed to (and achieved) drafting the 60 page report before Christmas, so I looked at it again today for a final edit.  As some changes were required, I will look at it again tomorrow and see if I’m ready to submit it.

So that’s my day.  A reasonable representation of my working life, although some of the other things I might do include phoning or meeting with clients, designing research tools and methodologies, planning and moderating focus groups, data analysis and networking.  Amongst other things.

Today I finished around 5.30pm which you will note means I did a standard working day.  Although it is quite typical that I worked for seven hours it isn’t usually so clear cut.  Today I’m going out to the pub at 6pm so I needed to fit the working day in before then.  Usually I might go on until 7pm or so having got up later, gone out for a jog, taken a long lunch, or gone out on personal errands.  Some days I will have meetings outside the office, and I might go for a swim or to the shops on my way home and work on a bit later.  Unlike most people I seem to work better in the evenings and will happily work through til 8pm if I don’t have anything better to do.  Self-employment means you can work in a way that suits you, and I like that a lot.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 8, 2012 7:36 pm

    Thanks for the post. As a student about to enter the industry this was very helpful! Setting your own schedule has to be both liberating and slightly scary.

  2. January 27, 2017 6:04 pm

    Very interesting! Thank you for sharing! (I am just looking into becoming a research consultant, myself)

  3. April 27, 2017 2:49 pm

    Thanks for this, very interesting and helpful. I am very interested in developing this kind of work. Can I ask, where do you look to find tenders?

    • May 2, 2017 11:37 am

      I have a Google search set up which I run about once a week. It shows me what is new in the UK that week and incorporates my key words such as – research evaluation qualitative quantitative charity tender. Through trial and error and different approaches I know this actually gets me most of what’s currently relevant and online.


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