It’s been just over a year since I was selected as the winner of the AQR’s first Bursary — designed to encourage aspiring qualitative researchers in their efforts to get on the first rung of the career ladder — an event that effectively changed the course of my working life. The Bursary entitled me to attend AQR’s Foundation course, in this instance the residential version, at the Robinson College Executive Centre in Bedfordshire, in November 2005.

The course was a valuable experience and its impact on my professional life cannot be overestimated. Its biggest value was definitely the practical knowledge passed on to us by the foremost qualitative researchers, but I also appreciated the insights it gave me into the industry itself in the UK.

First, though, I’d better start by saying I was probably not a typical candidate. I am Polish, a graduate of the University of Warsaw, and had been attracted to London by the prospect of getting my Masters from the University of Westminster (in Marketing Communications, with a distinction, in August 2006). At the time I was working in ‘Risk Management’.

My interest in qualitative research started at the Westminster Business School, where I was involved in conducting a group project involving several professional in-depth interviews and focus groups in ‘Buyer Behaviour’.

Thirst for learning

I applied for the bursary because I wanted to understand not only qualitative research methodology but also the industry as a whole. The first hurdle to overcome was the completion of the application form, particularly since English is not my first language. It led to a few sleepless nights but the result was rather fulfilling. The news that I’d won, and my attendance at the course, was quickly followed by an interview, then a job offer at a marketing agency and I was thrilled at this new turn in my professional life.

At the course, apart from being treated to three-course meals three times a day (quite a luxury for a working student), I gained an insight into the day-to-day life of a qualitative researcher, a package that includes late nights, frequent stints away from home, tough interviewing sessions and lonely hotel rooms with appalling room service.

The four days passed in a blur in between lectures, seminars and workshops leaving little time for meals and sleep. The fact that it was an AQR course meant that it attracted the best-qualified tutors and we were lucky to be introduced to the most up-to-date industry trends and practices.

The carefully prepared knowledge package opened my eyes to a full range of methodologies and techniques applied by qualitative researchers. We were also challenged to conduct professional focus groups and to present the research findings together with a marketing strategy.

The afterlife

So, how has the course contributed to my professional life? Well, beforehand I had applied to several research agencies but was not considered even for an interview. No one except the AQR bursary panel believed that — although I had no previous industry experience — I would work damn hard to do a good job.

In the end, given my marketing degree and background, I decided to apply for a job in a marketing agency. The job offer arrived after the course. So did the bursary change my plans?

The answer is yes and no. I was convinced that I was taking the right road in order to gain more general marketing experience, yet the lack of qualitative research in my daily professional life started to haunt me.

I entered the marketing agency word empowered with a deeper understanding of qual than previously, but this turned out to be both a blessing and a burden. At the foundation course I became aware of the importance of research and its role in any marketing communication strategy.

Much to my disappointment I realised that, although many marketing people like to mention the consumer research in their proposal to clients, they forget to conduct it according to the set rules. In addition, because these same marketers often fail to understand the role of qualitative research fully, they tend to avoid it.

This attitude is apparent not just among agency people but also on the client side of the marketing business. After several months at my client services job I realised the sad truth that the holistic approach towards the brand marketing communications, preached by both the marketing and research industry gurus, is not really applied in daily life. My experience made me understand just how much work needs to be done by the qualitative research industry in order to popularise and temper the subject among the marketing community.

Since I had no opportunity to apply my qualitative research knowledge fully at work, I decided to impress my university tutors by including professional qualitative research in my dissertation. I therefore spent a large chunk of the last summer preparing, conducting, and analysing in-depth interviews and focus groups for my IMC project (designed to re-brand the BA Connect brand).

This exercise gave me both a feeling of fulfillment and much needed experience as a hands-on researcher while challenging and increasing my knowledge of qual. The project was not only a perfect vehicle for applying qualitative research instead of quantitative (as I needed all the ‘whys’and ‘hows’) but it also proved that no branding strategy should take place without previous careful and well-thought investigation of the customer insight.

After London

After graduation, I received a job offer from a leading UK engineering and environmental consultancy as a marketing manager in its Warsaw office. Seeing this as a once in a lifetime opportunity (in reality I was happy to be reunited with my fiancé after two years apart), I decided to take my knowledge and ‘academic’ qualitative research experience into the business-to-business construction sector — really niche, but what a challenge.

My experience of this sector to date shows that — in the UK and elsewhere — it is completely unaware of the value of primary research, let alone that of any qualitative study. That’s why I’m currently planning to conduct a series of telephone interviews shortly to investigate the most important factors of brand equity in the construction market, taking into consideration all the industry decision makers and stakeholders.

I must admit that this situation fills me with missionary zeal. After all, I have a reputation as someone who likes to make life difficult for herself and I feel that if I worked in an environment where everyone was converted to the practice of qualitative research and had a full understanding of it my days would be too easy and uninspiring.

The prospect of mounting a crusade in the dark lands of research ignorance is much more challenging and appealing. I hope, nevertheless, that the qualitative side of the marketing industry will treat me kindly, appreciating my holistic experience, and that it will at least consider me for an interview when I decide finally to stop my daily suffering and to try — at long last — to become a full-time qualitative researcher.