Considering a career in research?
If you're interested in understanding people, how they act, think and make decisions… then qualitative research might be just the job for you.
Qualitative research (aka "qual") attracts people from all walks of life. What unites them is curiosity: about people, business and the ever-changing world around us.
What attracts people to a career in qualitative research?
You'll spend your time helping clients, big brands, charities, even governments, to solve problems. You'll be working from project to project, so that it never gets boring. You'll always be on the go, meeting people, seeking different points of view. You'll be exposed to life experiences which differ from your own, from ultra-high net worth individuals to asylum seekers, and you'll learn from each one.
You will travel the UK and often abroad to experience unique local perspectives. Ultimately, you'll bring your interpretation of what you have observed, experienced and discussed back to your clients, helping them make important decisions. And they can't make these without your help.
What do new researchers think of the industry?
These are the thoughts and experiences of some new researchers who were asked to reflect on there experiences at the start of their qualitative research careers.
In short, it's a lot of fun.
What exactly is qualitative research?
There are two main types of market research, often complementing one another:
Quantitative research and data science
Quantitative research and data science are all about understanding our world through measurement, using facts and figures to tell a story.
Qualitative research is different. It uses interaction and observation to get to the heart of human behaviour, needs and desires. Typically, qual digs a little bit deeper and is based around flexible, and in-depth conversations between the researcher and participants.
Qual is an essential part of decision making across the world, from government policy to advertising to product development. This can involve exploring cultural trends, human behaviour, attitudes and beliefs. Qual helps inform and inspire new ideas and ensures the public's opinion is involved in the development of businesses.
How does qualitative research work?
Typically, research begins because a client has a particular business challenge to overcome: a question they need to answer, or a hypothesis to prove right or wrong. The researcher will approach the client with a research plan to help answer this business challenge.
There are many methods used by qualitative researchers to answer these challenges. Here are some of the main ones:
both one-on-one and in a group setting with the researcher leading the group as a moderator. These can take place in person and online via video chat.
Watching others to understand behaviour patterns, either in person or remotely, via video.
Getting participants to submit responses and behaviour to the researcher. This could be on an online forum, by mobile, by email, etc.
All these methods are designed to get rich, open-ended responses from the participants. The qual researcher will then analyse and interpret these responses, before delivering the findings to the client.
As a qualitative researcher, what would I be doing?
As a qual researcher your weeks will vary and no two will look the same. Here are some typical tasks and roles that you'll experience:
Work with your team to create the right method to answer the business question. This could involve writing discussion points for your research sessions and brainstorming with colleagues. Research design is a chance to bring out your creative side.
Run research in your chosen method, such as Zoom groups, or meet participants in person.
Meet with clients
This will be a big part of your job as a researcher, both before the research to better understand the business challenge, and at the end of the project to present your findings.
Write up the findings
Create a presentation to feedback to the client.
Where do qualitative researchers work?
You can work for a research agency or in-house as part of a business:
Working at an agency will mean you're likely to work with lots of different businesses and organisations, on a range of research projects. These projects can last from as little as two weeks to more than a year.
Working in-house for a business with its own dedicated qualitative research team will mean working on a specific brand, but could involve a variety of research projects within this context. It allows you to become an expert in one particular brand or sector.
What are the areas of specialisation within qualitative research?
Often, organisations and research agencies specialise in specific areas. For example:
Understanding how people buy Fast Moving Consumer (FMCG) goods you'd see in the supermarket, alcoholic drinks, etc.
Media and tech
Helping design and optimise websites and media owners meet their readers' needs.
Working for financial providers to help design and market their products like current accounts, investments, mortgages, etc.
Exploring experiences of UK citizens and perceptions of government services.
Drug design and marketing, patient experiences, etc.
Anything related to business decision making and purchasing.
Given that research topics are diverse, all backgrounds and interests are relevant. Put another way, what you studied may be of less importance than your hobbies. If your prospective employer works with fashion brands, the fact you write a successful fashion blog in your spare time may be far more relevant to your job interview than a degree in chemistry.
What's great about a career in qual?
As a qualitative researcher, you'll be meeting new people from different backgrounds who you might not otherwise have a chance to talk to. One day you could be talking to business owners, the next doing research with kids.
Whether you're creating innovative new research methods or thinking up interesting ways to present your findings to clients, in qualitative research there is always a chance to apply your creative side to the role.
You'll get a chance to travel
This isn't your typical nine to five. You won't be sitting at a desk 24/7. You'll be travelling to conduct research fieldwork and meeting clients. This could include travel overseas on international projects.
No two days are the same
Every project is different. Chances are you'll be working across a range of business sectors including charities and government projects. Not only does this keep the job interesting, it gives you an insight into different industries which makes you more employable in future.
What would my career prospects be in qualitative research?
The industry allows you to progress quickly. Agencies like their junior staff to take on responsibility and work directly with clients as soon as possible. Promotions often happen every 18-24 months depending on circumstances. Researchers also have opportunities to work for client organisations and take sideways moves within the marketing industry.
Typically, agencies take on new entrants into the industry and train them up. With a few years of experience, young researchers are valuable to client organisations who need staff to manage their research programmes. Customer insight manager roles within client firms are many and varied, and allow you to develop your career within a sector, for example fashion, FMCG or financial services.
Alternatively, researchers are able to take a sideways career move within the marketing industry, for example working as a planner within an advertising agency.
Am I suited to a career in qualitative research? What skills are needed?
A researcher needs to be skilled in many areas, given how multi-faceted the job is. Here are some of the important skills all great researchers possess:
The first part of your job is to understand people, markets and buying situations: it requires objectivity. The second is to guide clients to meaningful action: this requires charisma, using your personal influence to ensure clients make the right decisions.
Great communication skills
Market research lives and dies by how it is communicated. Inspiring presentations, video and infographics are in; 200 slides of synapse-wilting data are out. Adapt your approach to your audience.
Or, in other words, being nosy. You'll probably spend a lot of time wondering why, and you may have your own research interests beyond client work. Develop these instincts.
You've got to deliver bad news ("your employees are unhappy and the majority are looking for other roles") and good news ("the campaign delivered record-breaking ROI") but more often it's a mix of both. You'll have to arrive in a room, understand quickly whose agenda is where, and flex your approach accordingly.
When the first CV19 lockdown hit, all of our research moved online, and researchers had to learn fresh skills as they worked with new platforms, tools and methods. Industry thinking evolves constantly as approaches like semiotics and behavioural science gain momentum. This keeps things exciting!
Being able to build rapport quickly
In qualitative research, relaxed respondents are good respondents. You may be speaking to a parent about washing powder or an oil rigger about health and safety: the start of any interview is for listening, understanding and making a connection. Once you've made that connection the rest will fall into place.
If you're at an agency you'll work with a huge range of clients. Monday might be a charity, Tuesday a bank, Wednesday a B2B online start-up. Embrace each one with vigour; fake it if necessary.
In summary? If you are interested in the world, how people act and why, qual could be the right place for you.
What are the entry requirements for qualitative researchers?
Fifteen years ago, the standard answer to this question would have been go to University, get a 2:1, then apply to a graduate scheme. There is a great deal more flexibility in 2021, driven by the fact that industry leaders recognise rigid entry criteria and a university entry pathway can overlook talented people who can help research businesses thrive.
Diverse research teams are desirable because they produce better research. A good example is that the research industry, like the media, did not see Brexit coming. This prompted a great deal of reflection about who works in the industry and their backgrounds. Some argued the industry suffers from a collective blind spot, that so many research teams are based in the South of England and have similar backgrounds. Diverse research teams are better able to understand the communities they research.
Broadly speaking, there are four routes into the industry:
Work experience and internships
Many companies offer paid work experience or structured internship programmes. The former should last a couple of weeks and give the person exposure to different parts of the job. The latter should last 1-3 months, allowing a deeper involvement across the research project cycle. All should be paid.
New in 2021 is an industry apprenticeship scheme, organised by the Market Research Society. It is quantitative rather than qualitative in focus, but the syllabus is detailed and covers all parts of the research project cycle. Apprenticeships offer organised learning support and assessment for your development over an 18-month period.
Some senior researchers started their career in a related job, developed an understanding of an organisation, then switched to a research role. Some started as office administrators, recruiters, or telephone interviewers within a telephone unit, for example.
Graduate recruitment schemes
The traditional route in still applies, especially for larger firms who have a regular cycle of graduate recruitment once or twice a year. These tend to be structured programmes with on-the-job training and internal certification.
Typical career paths as a qualitative researcher
Research Executive (0-2 years experience)
When starting out, research executives will typically receive formal and informal training to help them develop their skills. Research executives will be taking on parts of a project, from set up to final report and presentation, under the supervision of a project manager and getting feedback. As they become more proficient they'll operate with greater independence.
Senior Research Executive (2-4 years experience)
Senior research executives will be taking on more responsibility and running projects more independently, acting as a day-to-day point of contact for clients where appropriate.
Research Manager (3-5 years experience)
By this stage of their careers, research managers are running projects with no supervision and confidently project managing all stages of a project. These range from proposal, research design, discussion guide creation, fieldwork, analysing and interpreting final data through to crafting and delivering impactful client presentations.
Associate Director (5+ years experience)
The role of associate director is to lead client accounts and manage teams of researchers.
Director (8+ years)
Directors are in charge of key agency accounts, a department within the company, or leading the research agency itself.
Typical career paths in fieldwork agencies
Fieldwork agencies specialise in organising qualitative and quantitative research on behalf of clients across the UK and internationally. The agency is fundamentally responsible for the recruitment of participants, where participants are screened and selected against certain project criteria, to take part in market research. The agency interacts with participants, suppliers, and research agencies, as well as all areas of the business. Communication, organisational, written skills, attention to detail, and working in a fast-paced environment are the five key skills required.
Recruiter (0-2 years experience)
Some fieldwork agencies have full time in-house recruiters but mostly recruiters tend to work part time or ad hoc, depending on demand, and are able to fit work around their other commitments. Recruiters are usually given full training about recruiting participants for market research.
Project Manager (2-4 years experience)
Project Managers are responsible for the preparation of all project-related paperwork and documentation, specifically screeners, schedules and other documents as required. Ensures recruitment standards are met in line with the company's accreditations and internal processes and policies. The project manager takes responsibility for their own projects and ensuring clients are satisfied throughout.
Senior Project Manager (3-5 years experience)
In addition to a project manager's responsibilities, senior project managers have further accountability plus account and client management engagement, including preparation of cost quotations to clients, managing and developing key client accounts and communicating client-specific needs across the company.
Business Developer (5+ years experience)
Business Developers build and maintain relations with clients and research agencies and increase their business and revenue.
Director (7+ years experience)
The role of director involves staff development as well as leading client accounts and reviews. Directors set strategic and operational company and team goals and share industry guidance with clients and colleagues.
Typical career paths in viewing facilities
A viewing facility is a location that's designed specifically to host face-to-face market research interviews and group discussions. Viewing facility rooms are equipped with AV recording and streaming equipment and have a one-way mirror that enables client observers to watch the research session live. Working in viewing facilities requires a high level of customer service skills, proactiveness, multitasking, attention to detail, keeping calm under pressure, as well as teamwork and a can-do attitude.
Host or Co-ordinator (0-2 years experience)
Coordinators tend to work part-time or ad hoc depending on studio demand and can fit work around their other commitments. Coordinators will usually be given training on all aspects of the viewing facility, from studio preparation, meeting and greeting clients and participants to AudioVisual and IT tech support.
Team Leader (1-3 years experience)
Team Leaders are the main point of contact at reception, supervising coordinators and assisting the studio manager.
Studio Manager (3+ years experience)
Studio Managers handle all aspects of day-to-day studio protocol and projects, from taking provisional bookings to invoicing, meeting specific client requests, negotiating deals with vendors, coordinating studio set-up and managing and scheduling a team of coordinators and team leaders.
Operations Director (5+ years)
Operations Directors run the viewing facility operations, support and manageg the team, oversee GDPR, develop relationships with agencies, raise viewing facility brand awareness, and lead on marketing.
Other sites with more information about careers in market research?
MRS Work Placement [mrs.org.uk]
The market research society's resource for work placements and internships
Significant Insights [significantinsigtsmedia.com]
New website outlining how people from a range of backgrounds started out in research
Some basic information and stats on research as a career