Sarah Butt, is a European Social Survey Research Fellow, City University London
What did you want to be when you grew up?
A doctor. Growing up I had a gruesome fascination with all the medical programmes on TV. I’ve got quite squeamish as time has gone on though so I’m no great loss to the medical profession.
When did you turn towards a social research career?
I took a GCSE option in Economics to avoid having to study Design and Technology. Through studying economics I gradually discovered you could apply the same sorts of analytic rigour and evidence based decision making that first attracted me to “proper” science to understanding people and society. From economics I moved on to do a PhD in political science. After years spent analysing data in my own little world I was keen to get out and see how data were collected and used in the real world.
What was your first professional job?
I went to work at NatCen Social Research as part of the education team on a project about ICT in schools. After a couple of years in the education team, I moved over to work on the British Social Attitude Survey. It was the perfect first job – I got lots of training in survey methods and learnt a lot very quickly through working with great people on a huge variety of projects.
Where did your career go next?
After four years at NatCen I took a job as a researcher in the Department for Education. It was fascinating to be on the other side of the client/research supplier fence and working with non-researchers on a day to day basis taught me a lot about how to break down and explain research – and the importance of being able to justify the key role it plays.
Then government cut backs in research, plus the realisation that I enjoyed doing research more than managing other people doing it, led me to a job on the European Social Survey (ESS) and all the opportunities that working on a cross-national project provides.
What has been your best professional moment?
Whilst at DfE I got the chance to visit Number 10 to brief one of David Cameron’s Special Advisors on the Big Society about an evaluation of the National Citizen Service programme that I was involved in. That was quite a surreal morning.
On a more day to day basis, one of the best parts of my current job on the ESS is the opportunities it has given me to travel, meet new people and find out more about the way people think and societies work in different countries.
… and worst?
There are times when I’ve come away from discussions with policy colleagues or other collaborators on a project having failed to get my point across and convince them why the research as a whole or investment in a particular methodology matters. All the more reason to keep trying.
Do you have a social research hero/heroine?
I have three. Anthony Heath, emeritus professor of Sociology, University of Oxford; Roger Jowell, who founded NatCen and set up BSA and the ESS; and John Curtice, Research Consultant at ScotCen. Their research using the British Election Study in the 1980s and 1990s led me into research as a PhD student and I’ve since been lucky enough to work with all of them at different times. Each time I’ve been inspired not only by their commitment to producing high quality research but also their ability and enthusiasm for making research accessible to a wide audience and their generosity towards less experienced researchers. Three goals to which I think any researcher should aspire.
What would you say today to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
Go for it! Social research provides fantastic and varied opportunities to learn about the world around you. Make the most of any opportunities your given – you’ll learn something from every project – and take every opportunity to get out of the office, get your hands dirty doing research and meet the people for whom the research matters.