How many people prefer premium brand toilet paper to generic toilet paper? How many twenty-one-year olds voted in the last election? How many politicians does it take to screw in a light bulb? If you’re curious about what people think and how they make decisions, you may want to become a researcher. Researchers collect, organize, analyze, and interpret data and opinions to explore issues, solve problems, and predict trends. Most researchers measure public opinion. Social science researchers gauge the public’s opinion regarding social issues, services, political campaigns, parties, and personalities. Market researchers design and administer surveys to find out what people are most likely to buy. Their results influence policy and decision makers, and help businesses, advertising agencies, and politicians have a better idea of what is important to their customers and constituents.
A four-step approach forms the core of the researcher’s methodology: Objective descriptions; problem analysis and classification; comparative studies; and historical review or development. Objectivity is critical to research work as prejudices and biases may distort the fact-gathering effort and the conclusions drawn. Researchers analyze and classify data in terms of responses and inclinations and compare studies on the same subject. They also investigate previous surveys to compare results. While researchers often conduct interviews and administer questionnaires, they also use information sources including libraries, newspaper clippings, encyclopedias, magazines and periodicals, case laws, legislative records, historical documents, and public opinion polls. Computers now play a pivotal role in the collection and organization of data, and in the statistical methods of analysis. Public opinion researchers work a standard forty-hour work week, sometimes with tight deadlines, but those in supervisory or management positions often work longer hours overseeing particular projects.
Carefully worded interviews or questionnaires are the most significant of the methods researchers use to collect data. Target audience and the specific type of information desired affect the choice of data collection methods. Researchers interested in buying trends during the Christmas shopping season might station interviewers at shopping malls. Market researchers often use telephone surveys to reach a particular demographic. Questionnaires may be administered to a carefully selected group or sample of people called a focus group. This group corresponds to the pollster’s or marketer’s target audience, who may be concerned about a certain issue, may shop at a certain location, or buy certain brands of food or clothing items. For example, this book cover and several possible options for it were shown to groups of college students, their parents, and professionals thinking about switching jobs. They led us to the one that made you (or the person who gave it to you) buy it.
A bachelor’s degree in business administration or economics provides a good foundation for those interested in public opinion research. A degree in sociology or psychology is best for those interested in exploring consumer demand or opinion research. Those with a strong basis in statistics or engineering may find opportunities in industrial or analytical research. But increasingly, employers are looking to hire individuals with strong computer skills and higher degrees, such as a master’s degree in business administration. A master’s degree in sociology or political science will greatly improve employment and advancement opportunities. In addition, researchers must have strong people skills, be able to relate to people in a variety of social and cultural contexts, be good listeners, and be able to command the attention of the interviewee. Patience and objectivity are critical.
Whereas entrants with the requisite education, training and experience may start out as interviewers and data analysts, most applicants to the field of public opinion research enter as survey workers, research assistants or coders and tabulators, and move up to become interviewers or data analysts as they gain experience. Since starting salaries are commensurate with the training and experience of the applicant and the professional capacity, and size of the company, entrants should try to gain experience and carefully explore salary levels and advancement potential of prospective companies.
Researchers with doctoral degrees often become instructors or professors at colleges and universities, while others become writers and pundits, publishing articles and books on survey techniques, studies conducted, and forecasting trends. Those with political science degrees sometimes become public opinion pollsters, making a name for themselves by predicting voting trends in presidential campaign years. Still others move on to work for the various political groups, organizations, and government agencies they once surveyed. Consumer pollsters find ready employment with advertising agencies and industries. Urban and regional planners, demographers and statisticians all call for research skills in their various fields.