The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

MR keeps its light hidden

Lucy Baldwin, like many of her peers, happened into market research rather than seeking it out as a career. That, she says, is something that needs to be addressed.

At the Careers Session at this year's MRS Conference most of us agreed that we had fallen into market research as opposed to actively seeking it out. Funnily enough, few of us had known from a young age that we wanted to be market researchers — or at least if we did, we didn't admit to it! Despite this, we researchers seem to be a pretty content bunch. When Robert Bain asked for a show of hands of those who "loved their job", I don't think I saw a single hand remain down. If most of us really do love our jobs, then that is a sure sign that we have an industry of which to be proud.

During the discussion, there was one particular line of thought which seemed to resonate with many and which really got me thinking. It went like this: "It doesn't matter that most people simply fall into a career in market research rather than aspiring to work in the industry, because there are plenty of talented researchers who find their way here all the same".

Missing a trick

Personally I think it is a real shame that there aren't more graduates aspiring to work in market research, rather than simply falling into it. There are lots of talented people working in market research, but there is always room for more. We are missing a trick by not shouting more about the industry which a lot of us would say we love.

During university, I knew plenty of people who wanted to work in law, advertising, public affairs and journalism. I also knew plenty who weren't really sure, but who went along to careers fairs for inspiration. I did not know anyone who wanted to work in market research.

My strong suspicion is that at the bottom of this is a lack of awareness of the career among most graduates. This resonates with the findings Mark Hirst and Naomi Stoll of Opinion Leader presented at the MRS Conference.

When friends ask me what I do for a living, I'd say it takes on average half an hour before they have even the slightest understanding. The nice thing is that, invariably once I do explain what it is I do, the mood goes from total disinterest to genuine intrigue and often an utterance of "actually, I think I'd quite like to do that". I suppose I sort of fell into a career in market research.

Having enjoyed the political and ethical aspects of my degree, I thought I wanted to work in policy. I made a few speculative applications to do internships and was fortunate enough to be given a placement at Ipsos MORI's Social Research Institute. I sat with the qual team, so most of the work I did was qualitative, though there was also some quant. I realised quite quickly from then that I wanted to work in market research.

For me, there were two things that tipped the balance in favour of market research over other careers. The first, and I won't be unusual in this respect, was a fascination with people, the way they behave and why. The second was that, though a degree in philosophy is not directly related to market research, the analytical rigour required for it — both quantitative (there are many paths in philosophy!) and qualitative — is a skill that is central to a career in market research. I liked the idea that I could use the skills I had honed in a subject that I love in my career too.

One of the key things I've learnt since working in the industry is that it is incredibly diverse. This brings with it a huge number of advantages, but for me it also meant a bit of a struggle at first to find my "niche". Initially I found myself working mainly on quantitative trackers and realised very quickly that this wasn't for me.

I wanted the interaction with consumers that qual brings, and I wanted to do the varied analysis that ad hoc projects allow. Had I not been in the fortunate position of knowing (from my internship) that both were possible within the industry, I might have strongly considered a career change. Instead, I'm now happily working as a qual and quant researcher on mostly ad hoc projects at Voodoo.

Market research has a lot going for it, and ought to attract some of the brightest graduates. The industry does get some of the talented newcomers it deserves, but in a very roundabout way. We ought to be doing more to raise awareness of both the industry as a whole and the varied roles within it. This would spark more interest in the industry, but also get graduates to think about the types of roles within research that might suit their skills and interests.

I think we could go some way to achieving this by having a presence at university careers fairs. It will be pointed out that while this may be worthwhile for the four or five large research agencies, for the remaining much smaller agencies who perhaps only take on one or two graduates a year, it just isn't practical.

Possible solution?

I wonder then whether a good solution would be for the many smaller agencies out there to join forces on this. In my experience, smaller agencies — often specialising in qual — are really quite different from very large agencies. I think it is really important that their voices are heard too.

A couple of other ideas also spring to mind. After attending the MRS Conference and seeing so many brilliant presentations, I felt truly inspired. If a few of us researchers got together, I wonder whether we could instil a similar sense of inspiration in graduates by delivering a few presentations like these at universities.

Other industries already deliver their own one or two hour "careers sessions" at universities, and if we did this too I think it would really help to give a tangible sense of what it is we get up to in everyday life.

Finally — and this one is slightly off the wall — I wonder whether it would be possible to set up a live focus group so that graduates could see research in action. It might be a small organisational feat but it would surely put an end to the myth that research is all surveys and data.

I'm sure some of you reading this will be brimming with ideas to add to the list. It would be great if we could put them into practice and increase the level of awareness in our wonderful industry.

Editor's Footnote: AQR provides around 40 graduates a month with its gradpack about qualitative research.


Lucy Baldwin
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2012