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Careers in Market and Social Research Explained

Research is a tool to support and influence decision making. Those working in the sector use their knowledge and expertise to provide organisations with the evidence needed to make informed, confident choices.

It is important for all types of organisations, including businesses, the government and the third sector. Research is used in a range of different ways and it is a crucial part of the marketing cycle. A researcher might try to find out what a brand’s customer thinks of a new product idea or packaging, or assess the impact of a social media campaign. In government, research is instrumental in developing policies, from understanding how to reduce domestic violence to encouraging young people to vote.

Research methods vary; researchers might use anything from online background research to large scale international telephone surveys and sophisticated eye tracking techniques. They employ the latest in games technology, psychology, mathematical and economic theory, and are always mining the creative and scientific worlds for newer and better ways of understanding people and their behaviour.

It is a high-level, professional career with lots of opportunities to develop your skills and progress.  Starting salaries are around £20k; however, this usually rises quickly, particularly if you work your way up the ranks.

Types of research...

Market and social research can be split into two main streams. Qualitative research is used to gain insights into people’s attitudes, behaviours, motivations, cultures or lifestyles. It aims to seek out the ‘whys’. Methods include focus groups, in-depth interviews, content analysis and ethnography.

Quantitative research asks people for their opinions in a structured way, so that hard facts and statistics can be produced. It usually involves surveys or questionnaires carried out by telephone, online, face-to-face or on paper.

Market and social research is becoming increasingly innovative. Advances in technology and social media means that more data has become available in real time. This has opened the doors for new types of research using mobile and digital platforms which help to reach a wider range of people.  Data visualisation is also a growing trend, bringing figures to life by presenting them in a more engaging format.

Myths debunked…

Market and social research is often associated with numbers and graphs which can be off-putting for those with arts backgrounds. However, creativity and people skills are essential. There are some roles, such as quantitative research, where science and mathematics degree subjects come in handy.  For other areas of research, a social science degree might be more relevant. Some employers favour those with language degrees, particularly when international travel is involved in the job role.  

Research employers value people who are curious and ask questions. Many researchers have a background in subjects that might appear to have nothing to do with their career, such as philosophy, theology or politics, but these degrees are of interest to employers looking people with an interest in issues affecting society.

Qualities/skills needed…

Market and social research is a graduate entry profession and most entry-level roles require a 2:1 degree qualification. Market Research Society (MRS) Advanced Certificate and Diploma qualifications are widely recognised and worth considering in the early years of your career. Some of the larger research agencies incorporate these qualifications into their graduate training schemes.

Market and social research are all about finding new angles and different approaches, so they suit those who are inquisitive. Other important qualities include the ability to put forth your own point of view, foster opinions about what’s happening in the world and how it can be improved. Every research project is different, so you will need to learn how to work for a wide range of people with varying needs. Clients are often more engaged by visual presentations than verbose reports, so it is important to be creative and find interesting ways to present findings.

Next steps…

Working in market and social research gives you access to a wide range of industries. One of the first things you’ll need to decide is what area you want to be involved in. Are you interested in helping to shape government policy or working with businesses to inform commercial strategies? Have you always wanted to work in the third sector?

Another consideration is whether you are more suited to agency life or working in-house. Researchers on the “agency side” usually receive a brief from a client and are responsible for designing the research methodology, carrying out the research, analysing and interpreting the results, and delivering the findings back to the client. Using the findings, they offer strategic recommendations which will impact on the bottom line, policy or change something in an organisation.  

One of the motivators for working in an agency is variety; you deal with multiple clients across different sectors and often get to use a range of methods. There is also the opportunity to specialise as you work your way up, working on a single client account, with a particular method or technique, or within a specific sector.

By contrast, “client side” researchers are immersed in their own organisation giving them an in-depth understanding of the business and its markets. They have more opportunities to see how the research is implemented and how it influences the direction of a product or service, or sometimes even the company’s overall strategy. For social research, it might mean working in a government department gathering evidence to help shape public policy.  

Starting your career…

The MRS website is a good place to start if you’d like more information about the sector and the careers available across business, government and the third sector. It also lists market research internships and work placements. Large and medium sized agencies often advertise entry level roles via graduate jobs websites and it’s also worth keeping an eye on dedicated research job websites, such as Research Jobfinder.

The Research Buyers Guide lists all MRS member organisations and you can use it to identify agencies that particularly appeal to you. For example if you want to do research with kids, are attracted by working with big brands in the FMCG sector, or simply want to see which agencies are based near you. Many agencies will post job opportunities on their own website or invite speculative applications. There is no harm in speculatively submitting your CV if you find a company that really interests you.  

Written by Jane Frost, Chief Executive of the Market Research Society