What do pro researchers do?

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March 21, 2017 by Kate Bowles

Research methods training has been a staple of university undergraduate degrees in the humanities and social sciences. There’s an expectation that university graduates can be asked to undertake research in professional settings, so we’ve trained students in the methods and traditions of research.

But in reality, the research skills that are taught are very often those that suit graduates who go on to become university researchers. We say less about the kinds of careers outside that suit graduates with research skills. And we say even less about the qualities that professional researchers bring to their work.

Here’s a description from a current job search for a research project lead, to lead a small team in projects designed to understand the emerging landscape of media manipulation.

You know how to manage a team of researchers working on multiple trajectories and implement project management practices that lead to successful outcomes. You enjoy thinking strategically about what is needed for research to be useful, relevant, and accessible, and are adept at deploying resources effectively to achieve these ends. You are analytical and skilled at spotting connections across bodies of research, as well as understanding the real-world implications and possibilities emerging from research findings. You are comfortable with research from a variety of traditions including qualitative, field research, ethnographic and survey methods.

You have a contrarian mindset and know how to question the assumptions and frameworks presented to you. You believe in the importance of evidence and data, but also have an appreciation for why people might be incentivized to manipulate data-driven systems or use technical tools to achieve ideological, economic, or personal goals. The idea of better understanding and broadly communicating conflicting perspectives on controversial topics greatly appeals to you, and you have experience using research in ways that may take discussants into uncomfortable socio-political terrain. You believe that understanding all sides of a seemingly one-sided situation is crucial for devising solutions. You have no problem challenging sacred cows and enjoy shifting frames to help drive a conversation in more productive directions.

You may not yet be able to take on a team leadership role as a researcher, but take a careful look at these qualities and think about whether you’d like to imagine doing this kind of work in the future.

If so, what can you do now to start strengthening your capabilities in these areas?

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