The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

Qual lacks career path

Lucy Devereux and Oliver Murphy were tasked with finding out membersí views on the qual industry -- and their role within it

It started off as a chance remark in an editorial meeting. "Well, what do members think about training and a career in qual research?"

The upshot, via a short questionnaire, is a valuable snapshot of how people feel about the industry, and their role within it, past, present and future. Much of it points to the possibility that qualitative researchers are a distinctive breed, and may not conform easily to ‘industry’ norms.

What are the results based on? An email sent to the brave few (around 125) who have volunteered in recent times to help out with AQR activities (plus a few extra who were press ganged). Those who replied are split fairly evenly between newer/younger and more experienced/older respondents.

Let’s start with training and career path. Is it pat on the back time? Well, mixed signals here.

Did they get a clear career path laid out for them in market research? ‘No’ was the answer for most of the sample, although career paths are becoming more frequent since half of the new recruits had been offered one. Perhaps more interesting is the fact that half those not presented with a clear career path didn’t want one anyway. Maybe us quallies like to hang loose!

How did we do on training? Well it’s mostly ‘On the Job’ (no surprises there) but only half said it was adequate -- even among the newer recruits -- which is disappointing.

The ‘industry’ certainly seems to lack a clear structure for personal development and advancement. Many respondents wanted more guidance as to how to progress and a more precise understanding of the roles and responsibilities at each ‘level’.

This is an area that AQR is keen to pick up on, both from the point of view of educating potential new entrants -- via universities and colleges -- and through training. Maybe there is also a role for a mentoring system.

Qual’s fluidity is one of its key attractions, but it can also mean that there is no clear map for progression. This tends to lead to uncertainty for executives about how to break through into the director level.

So much for career progression, but what about the professionalism of the industry itself? This caused much soul searching, with some respondents even querying the appropriateness of the word ‘professional’ in the question.

Some bemoaned the lack of a common set of accredited qualifications; others -- mainly newer entrants -- described qualitative market research as having a poor public image.

The root of the problem is that the loose structure at company level seems to be reflected at industry level with few seeing any over-arching superstructure and little commonality. As one respondent concluded, we are probably more a ‘profession of individuals’ than a proper industry.

Any claim to being a profession was seen as undermined by some poor quality companies and individuals. The existence of some very well read and qualified individuals did not outweigh the feeling that we have no common standards of mandatory training

Views on greater formalisation were certainly polarised. Those who rejected formalisation saw qual’s positive characteristics as:

  • Flexible, variable and adaptable
  • Multi-disciplinary and open to new influences
  • Based on intuition, not scientific method
  • Creative, not formulaic

while others argued that it needs to grow up and distance itself from its cottage industry roots. They feel that it needs to become more professional since qual market research is

  • Under more public scrutiny than ever
  • Becoming more recognised and valued by business and the wider world
  • Expected by clients to mature and change
  • Capable of adopting ‘business mechanisms’. These merely make it more accountable and professional rather than ‘encroaching on the research itself’

A key factor in making the industry more professional, it was suggested, was training to set standards across the industry and ensure that practitioners are properly qualified to carry out what they sell.

The question is, how easy would it be to implement this -- especially if we are a different breed of individuals? Do we have to find a different way to train our researchers and to safeguard our quality standards? One more question for the industry liaison group, methinks.


Lucy Deveraux
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2003