Helen Kara is Director of We Research It Ltd, Associate Research Fellow of the Third Sector Research Centre at the University of Birmingham, and author of Research and Evaluation for Busy Practitioners: A Time-Saving Guide (Policy Press, 2012) and the forthcoming Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide (Policy Press, 2015).
As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
Happy. And, luckily for me, I am.
When did you first turn towards a social research career?
1999, though it wasn't exactly a turn, more of an accident! After my first degree, a BSc in Social Psychology from LSE, I'd had various jobs, including: training administrator, residential social worker, volunteer bureau co-ordinator. Some people I met through the volunteer bureau, knowing I had a research-based degree, asked if I could tender for a piece of work to avoid them only having one research organisation to interview. I agreed, to help them out, with no expectation of getting the work. And indeed that was the outcome.
But I did get a surprise, because on the interview panel was a woman I'd worked with some years before. We were pleased to see each other, had a brief chat, and I thought no more about it. Then about six weeks later she rang me. 'You know that piece of work you didn't get,' she said, 'we've got another piece of work, which we're not putting out to tender because we know you can do it. Are you interested?' I was. I did the work, the commissioners liked it, they told their colleagues, and I haven't looked back since.
Where did your career go next? What motivated that/those moves?
I decided I needed to do an MSc in Social Research Methods, partly to refresh my knowledge, and partly because my first degree had been entirely quantitative whereas now commissioners were asking for qualitative or mixed methods research. I found I loved postgraduate study, and went on to do a PhD. I was sure, before I started, that I didn't want to become an academic, though I enjoy working in partnership with academic colleagues. I have now been an independent researcher for over 15 years, and love my work and my independent life. I work mainly for public and third sector organisations and partnerships, from small local charities to national organisations and Government departments. Projects are very varied, from local service evaluations which I can do single-handed, to big national knowledge-gathering projects where I am part of a research team.
What has been your best professional moment?
The launch of my last book at the British Library. My illustrator had an exhibition, my publisher brought books, and I was on a panel with SRA Board member Simon Haslam and Karl Wilding from NCVO, chaired by Jane Lewis AcSS. Around 70 people came, and after the panel discussion, we all had wine and nibbles and mingled and chatted while a string quartet played. It was a wonderful event.
Sticky moments with commissioners, as I held fast to my ethical position while wondering whether, as a result, they would withhold payment for the work I had done. Also the years after the Coalition came to power, when my networks imploded and I struggled to find enough work – although that did mean I had time to write my book, which led to my best professional moment: a real silver lining.
What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
I wouldn't say, I would ask. I've done a fair amount of work with young people – for example, as a residential social worker I spent five years working with teenagers – and I can encourage them more effectively if I know what they think social research consists of and why they're considering such a career. I might use my questions to point out that there are various options: do they want to work in academia, in practice, in government, independently? Why? What are their areas of interest? And so on. In fact, I often find that, when I'm talking to people, I ask questions more than anything else. I guess I'm a natural researcher.