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How to get into research consultancy as a career

November 5, 2013

2013-01-02Sometimes people ask me how I got into research consultancy, or how they can get into research consultancy as a career.

It’s a great, varied, challenging career and I’d certainly recommend it.

Well the main thing that you need to have in order to be a successful research consultant is research consultancy experience, especially if you plan to be a research consultant in any sort of autonomous way.  You can’t just do it, sorry, you do need to learn how.

So how can you gain this research consultancy experience?

Firstly, you need to get your foot in the door.  You’ll need to learn how to be a researcher (and how to be a consultant) either in a very general way or through specialising in some particular area (qualitative research, quantitative research, consumer research, social research, data analysis…)

Opportunities to learn any of these elements of the research trade can be found at market research consultancies (internships, graduate schemes, Research Assistant and Research Executive roles), clientside (research and customer insight roles at big companies), academia (Research Assistant, Research Fellow and Post Doctoral Researcher roles) and in the public and third sectors (civil service, Research Officer roles).  Once you’re in, you’re in – and you can work your way up.

Unfortunately there’s a lot of competition for that elusive entry-level role. 

To get the interview you’ll need to be able to demonstrate that you have an analytical nature.  Being interested in people and why they say what they say and do what they do.  Being nosy, basically.  And having a practical and focused head for multi-tasking and getting things done.  If you’ve done any allied vacation or casual work (fieldwork such as telephone or in-street interviewing, survey data entry, interview transcription, research admin) that might also help you get the interview.

You’ll also need to demonstrate that you have the right educational background.  Back in the day you didn’t need a degree to be a research consultant, but then that was the case with many jobs.  When I started in 2002 you needed a good undergraduate degree, but there was plenty of competition from candidates with Masters degrees or PhDs.  These days a Masters degree may well be expected.  It doesn’t really matter what flavour of higher education you have, but numerate or analytical degrees are probably most relevant.  Perhaps something like maths, or business, or a social science.  At postgraduate level you’d want to be demonstrating practical research skills, so a PhD or a Masters by Research or a Masters in research methods would be ideal.

Once you’re in, there’s all sorts of training to be had in all aspects of the research consultancy process.  You’ll need to learn how to plan, design, undertake and analyse qualitative and/or quantitative research projects.  Everything from selecting the right methodologies through to writing a report.  But the role is as much about business as it is about research methods.  You’ll need to learn project management, account management and finance stuff.  And very importantly in research consultancy there’s client management – finding, working with and delighting the people who commission you (and pay you!) to do research projects.  This training can take the form of graduate schemes, additional education or formal training from recognised professional bodies, or it can be on-the-job training from other senior researchers.

Here’s how I’ve done it….

  • Sociology degree
  • Graduate scheme / Trainee Research Executive / Research Executive (at a market research agency)
  • Research Manager (at a not-for-profit research consultancy)
  • Research Consultant (at a market research agency)
  • Head of Research (at a not-for-profit research consultancy)
  • Owner / Research Consultant (self employment)
  • Business degree (part time, concurrent with self employment)

Drop me an email if you’d like to chat about getting into the research biz.

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