Update: It's been a year since this post and I'm updating it because I was asked back today (1 October 2014) to speak again about how social research methods got me my jobs and I wanted to reflect some additional advice I'd thought about since the last event.
Last week (Friday 4 October) I gave a short talk to second year undergraduates in the Department of Sociology at the University of York. The talk was part of a day-long event to introduce social research methods as they start their year-long training in SRM.
Social Research Methods at Undergraduate Level
First, I think it's brilliant that current students get a year-long module and training in social research methods. As an undergraduate I didn't get this opportunity, as the methods module was only short and introductory. Things have since changed, but it did mean that I needed to return to study for an MA in social research to get the methods training that I needed.
Current undergraduates get a much better coverage of social research methods and I think this is only a good thing because it develops skills that are essential outside academia. You wouldn't want to attend a course like plumbing and only learn theoretical knowledge without any practical skills and I think this is analogous.
My Social Research Career
Without going into masses of unnecessary detail, I graduated with a BA in Sociology (2:i, if you care) in 2005. This was just before the course was changed to include social research methods, so I graduated with no empirical training, just theoretical and scholarly training. This was fine: I learned masses and I think sociology as a discipline equips you with a way of looking at and questioning the world that other subjects don't provide. Having said that, I didn't have a marketable skill besides the generic transferable skills that all degrees provide, so I didn't take up jobs in social or market research following my first degree.
After about four years of being, frankly, bored not doing what I wanted to be doing (empirical social research), I went back and studied for an MA in social research (distinction, if you're keeping track). This was the best decision I think I ever made because this gave me experience and training in research methods; I was able to do my own social research. If you need further convincing, even before I'd graduated I started work at Lancashire County Council as a senior research officer. I carried out my own projects, including quantitative surveys, focus groups, and interviews, which were projects I enjoyed getting my teeth stuck in to. After my fixed-term contract came to an end, I applied for and got another twelve month contract, again at Lancashire County Council, and again because of my knowledge and experience of social research methods. Knowledge of research methods does make applying for posts easier, and unfortunately I think fixed-term positions are becoming more common.
To the important stuff: advice I would offer to anyone beginning social research methods training based on my experience. My experience is predominantly in the public sector – specifically local government – with some commercial, market research work. Based on discussions with other presenters I see no reason why academia is any different, but nevertheless I don't much experience in this sector myself.
Qualitative and Quantitative
Try to learn and be able to use both qualitative and quantitative methods. Many students seem to find quantitative methods daunting, but there is really no reason to fear it; it's just another way of collecting information about human beings and their social interactions. At the minimum it is important to be able to appraise other's work, and it's especially true of quantitative research where there is more mediocre work being passed into peer-reviewed journals. You should be able to look at a piece of work and decide for yourself if it's reasonable.
In addition to this, many sociologists and social researchers outside academia I have spoken to use quantitative methods, including myself, and wouldn't be able to carry out their jobs without this knowledge. Not only is knowledge of quantitative methods useful in role, but it's also advantageous because relatively few social researchers specialise in them so there's less competition for quantitative-based roles.
Focus on knowing how to conduct interviews, focus groups, and surveys. These are the core methods used in the public sector, and to some extent in industry as well. The public sector in particular is conservative with the methods it expects to use, so it's worth being able to use these methods. This is not to say that in the public sector knowledge of other methods isn't useful, but that these three will be your bread and butter.
It's frustrating, but market research in particular requires you to have experience to get a job, but you can't get a job to get experience. Don't worry about this too much now, but it may be worth thinking about getting some experience with an agency. I organised my own work experience and found it a very useful experience, and very useful to be able to refer to.
Broad Subject Knowledge
In academia it is more common to specialise in a very specific subject area. Outside academia this is less common, and actually a general understanding of numerous topics, as well as an ability to quickly assimilate knowledge of a new area, are more advantageous. For example, you might work on projects that last a month before moving on to a new project, and often new topic. You get a good broad understanding but not specialist or detailed knowledge of a particular area, so plan for this and be aware that this is where your career might take you.
This is more straightforward for quantitative research, but applies just as much to qualitative work. Think about how representative the research you're reading is. Typically it's not possible or feasible to ask everyone (unless it's the census) so you sample a small number of people and ask them, and apply their answers to everyone. Here's the crucial bit:
How the sample was chosen is more important than the size of the sample (number of respondents) when it comes to being representative.
A good – representative – sample of 100 people is better than a poor sample of 1,000, or probably even 10,000. For qualitative work, think about what claims the researchers are making, and who they're stating that these claims apply to. Is this reasonable? Can you say that everyone visits the park at 6am when the researchers only asked dog walkers?
Be able to present your ideas to appropriate audiences. I find pitching reports and presentations to an educated, but not specialist, audience is about right.
Take the Opportunity!
Finally, jump at the chance to learn methods because it's the ability to carry out methods that is going to get you a job or a contract. You're no use to an employer in any sector if you can't apply your theoretical knowledge, and it took me a few years after I graduated to realise this. But don't worry; have fun! This is your opportunity to learn how to do your own research about your own research, so go for it.