My career: Nicola Power

Nicola Power is Research Manager at the Bar Council

As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?

I had very little career ambition as a child. The typical options for girls in convent schools in Ireland were to become a nurse, teacher, nun or housewife. Of those options, becoming a nun was most attractive as my two grand-aunts were nuns in the convent school that I attended. They were dance and piano teachers and seemed very happy. Apart from that, I would have quite liked to have become a professional ballroom dancer.

When did you first turn towards a social research career?

I completed my BA in Social Sciences at Westminster University as a single mother and mature student at the ripe old age of 25. My favourite module was social research methods; I was fascinated by the concept of being able to predict outcomes and even individual behaviour from survey data and it really satisfied my natural nosiness about people in general. However I had to combine parenthood and work and so it wasn’t practical for me to pursue a career in social research. About five years later I was working for a software company analysing sales and marketing data and realised that I enjoyed the process but had little interest in the topic. I decided to do an MSc in Advanced Social Research Methods and Statistics at City University so I could make the career change.

What was your first professional job? 

My first social research job was as a research officer at ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) head office. My favourite piece of work there was interviewing bus drivers and workplace representatives for a case study on attendance management at Lothian buses. It was the first time I got out and met real people to do some qualitative face to face work, which made me feel like I was a proper social researcher. Between working at ACAS and my current job, I worked in the Employment Relations department of the Royal College of Nursing for about five years.

What has been your best professional moment?

Having my work cited as instrumental in achieving an above inflation three year pay deal for nurses working in the NHS. This was when I worked at the RCN, where all policy decisions needed to be backed up by sound evidence. I didn’t realise then that this would be a short-lived golden moment in time for professional social researchers.

…and worst?

Seeing the impact of the public sector cuts on the social research profession. Many of my good friends and colleagues have lost jobs or been made redundant and a lot of excellent skills and knowledge are being lost to social research.

Do you have a social research hero/heroine?

I was a bit of a Max Weber groupee at college but I would also say that Joseph Rowntree is also hero of mine. The legacy of his commitment to raising awareness of poverty and the impact of poverty on society is still alive and kicking today.

Do you have a favourite quote?

This above all: to thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Hamlet, William Shakespeare

What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. You may not be able to rely upon a career solely in academia or policy research so try to get as much experience as you can in both early on in your career. You also may need to diversify into social policy or market research to progress in your career, or even to have an alternative career up your sleeve in case you need to work part-time as a researcher. Depressing advice I know, but probably realistic at least for the foreseeable future.  Having a topic area that really interests you is another good tip I think.


Interviewed by William Solesbury 


ACSS Policy Monitor – February 2012

The SRA is now a member of the Academy of Social Sciences, so we have access to the monthly Policy Monitor. Read the latest one here.

Academy for Social Research – Policy Monitor February 2012

My career: David Silke

David Silke is Director of Research and Policy at The Housing Agency in Dublin. He is also Chair of SRA Ireland.

How did you come to social research as a career?

As the third son of a farmer, primogeniture was going to deny me that career option. So I read social science at University College, Dublin. At that stage I had social work in mind as a career. But I got more interested in research and policy, an interest confirmed by taking a Masters in Social Policy at LSE.

What was your first professional job?

This was in the Analytical Services Division at what was then the Department of Social Security in London, working chiefly on disability welfare issues.  It was a good training in research commissioning and management, and experience of the policy impact of social research.  After three years I returned to Dublin (and marriage) and freelanced for some years. Then took a job with the Irish Combat Poverty Agency, and later with the National Economic and Social Forum (an in-house think tank in the Prime Minister’s department) and then the Centre for Housing Research that merged into The Housing Agency where I now work.

What do you enjoy most in your work?

I take great pleasure and pride in bringing a project to completion. I think that this satisfaction relates to my need to be under pressure to work well.

A favourite quote?

Knowledge is power – Francis Bacon.

What would you advise a social researcher at the start of their career?

To get as diverse experience as possible – researching different topics, using the full range of methods, experiencing the roles of designing, conducting, managing and communicating research.  That way you’ll find your strengths and  have more opportunities to advance your career.


Interview by William Solesbury

December 2011

SRA Conference: Putting Social Research in the Spotlight

This year’s SRA conference drew together the UK’s leading practitioners across a range of methodologies and approaches, both familiar and new. While Jude England reminded us that research conducted even thirty years ago was still very relevant today, other contributors demonstrated that today’s research thinking was fresh and vital as ever.

The challenge of claiming causality was the focus of a discussion led by Professor Patrick Sturgis (National Centre for Research Methods), asking us to consider ways in which researchers could go beyond correlations and make causal inferences from data. Using natural experiments and working with economists were some of his suggestions.

William O’Connor (NatCen) presented an optimistic picture for qualitative research, with many projects still standing despite the cuts, and exciting opportunities offered by neuroscience, ethnography, gamification and online reporting. In his view, the old tools were still good ones, but today’s toolkit was both bigger and bolder.

Darren Bhattachary (BMRB) gave us a whistle-stop tour of the complex area of behaviour change research. This was a world which was moving from straightforward qualitative research to experimental design and evaluation. Lorraine Dearden (IFS) also explained the pleasures and pains of evaluation, and, rounding off the day, Debrah Harding (MRS) and David Johnson (HM Treasury) told us what we needed to know about new directions in research commissioning.

Inspiring, confident and engaging throughout, this year’s conference drew together the best of the year.
Review by Isabella Pereira

My career: Jude England

Jude England is Head of Social Science at the British Library.

As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?

Three things: a forensic scientist, a vet, an air hostess.

When did you first turn towards a social research career?

I was drawn to sociology at school. My North London comprehensive was pretty unique at that time in offering Sociology at GSE as well as A level. Then on to Sociology at university.

What was your first professional job? 

In the Social Survey Division at OPCS (Office of Population Censuses and Surveys for younger readers, now ONS) working on survey design, checking returned questionnaires and primary analysis.

What followed before you came to the BL?

Many jobs – as a Research Assistant at LSE (on a project on the profile of National Front supporters), five years or so at SCPR, now NatCen (on a wide variety of projects – my formative experience), in a succession of research consultancies in the employee relations and communications fields, a period of freelancing, then five years at ECOTEC Research and Consulting (doing social policy research and consultancy, latterly leading on children and young people). Then the BL beckoned.

What does your BL role involve?

I came in 2006 to a new post with a new department, the response to a conviction that the awareness and usefulness of the Library to the broad social science community wasn’t as strong as it could be.  Now we work on three priorities:  developing the collection, increasingly with digital material; improving access and services for social science users; and helping to build capacity – for PhD students, for researchers in general and for the public, for whom our exhibitions and lectures are important.

In your work what has given you the most satisfaction?

I’ve always welcomed breadth of experience.  The range of research I’ve done has been enormous, from investigating benefit take-up, to visits to coalmines and breweries, to views on surgical footwear, focus groups in pubs looking at the working conditions of pub staff and work with children as researchers.  It’s not just the variety per se that pleases; it’s that all these experiences provide lessons transferable to other work.

Do you have a social research hero/heroine?

I have to name Jane Richie. She was my boss and mentor at SCPR who taught me so much about how to design, conduct and manage research and clients – and have lots of fun in the process.

What would your advice be to new social researchers?

You must do fieldwork.  You can’t be a real social researcher until you’ve walked up a path to a front door wondering what you’re going to hear and find out about when the door opens…


Interview by William Solesbury, November 2011

London evening seminar – ‘Understanding the social impacts of policy and their effects on wellbeing’

The SRA brings you a monthly series of relaxed and informal evening seminars, hosted by the Department for Education at Sanctuary Buildings, Great Smith Street, London SW1P 3BT. Seminars are from 5pm – 6.30pm.

Our series continues on Tuesday 29 November, when Dr Gemma Harper, Chief Social Researcher, DEFRA will be talking on:

“Understanding the social impacts of policy and their effects on wellbeing”

The Prime Minister and Government have emphasised the importance of social impacts and wellbeing. For example, The Prime Minister has emphasised the importance of the new independent measures of wellbeing that ONS is developing, and the importance of understanding how all policies contribute to creating social value. His view is that taken together, initiatives such as these ‘may be the most quietly radical things this government is doing’.

The Green Book highlights the importance of trying to identify all costs and benefits in appraisal. While there is a focus on presenting these impacts in monetary terms, the Green Book recognises that this may not always be appropriate or feasible and highlights the importance of using non-monetary evidence approaches alongside economic valuation approaches. However, there is little detailed guidance on appropriate approaches for integrating non-monetary evidence in different contexts.

Where monetisation is possible, at least to some degree, significant uncertainty may remain. Uncertainty may be inevitable due to the nature of the impacts (eg climate change impacts), or may result from difficulty in designing research methods and instruments that enable impacts to be identified and monetised with confidence. In these cases, non-monetary evidence can complement monetary approaches, to give a broader, more comprehensive valuation.

The seminars begins at 5pm and runs till 6.30pm. Please arrive in time to clear DFE security. Places are limited and we need to know who will be attending and give names to DFE in advance.

Book your place

To book a place on this seminar, please email (or use our temporary email address, stating ‘29 November seminar‘ in the subject line.

My career: Malcolm Rigg

Malcolm Rigg is Director of the Policy Studies Institute (PSI) at the University of Westminster, and also leads the Masters course in Applied Social and Market Research there.

As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?

I didn’t want to be a teacher mainly because both my parents were. It’s an irony that I’m now teaching and thoroughly enjoying it.

When did you first turn towards a social research career?

I worked as an interviewer on a large Oxford Transportation study as a holiday job when I was 16. My first interview was with someone who said he was coming from his home and going to his home. He turned out to be a hereditary peer coming from the Lords to his estate. I began to think that there was something rather interesting about research.

What was your first professional job? And first project there?

On my Business Studies degree, I did a sandwich year at IFF Research. Business Studies then was studying the core social sciences: economics, sociology, psychology, social psychology, law and politics. The first project that I ran myself (there were only half a dozen staff) was a very sexy study of awareness and use of plastic dustbins within local authorities. It marked the beginning of the end for the clattering and clanging of metal bins.

How did your career go after that?

I spent six years at PSI as a Senior Research Fellow, focusing on employment and training issues. I was Head of Public Interest Research at the Consumers’ Association, publishers of ‘Which?’. After that a spell in government as Director of Research at the Central Office of Information. I joined BMRB International as Director of Social Research in 1997, and became Managing Director in 2002.  I returned to PSI as Director in 2004.

What has been your best professional moment?

The best was probably the intense times working with a team on the evaluation of schemes like the Sports Council’s community sport initiative, Action Sport. It required getting immersed in a complex array of neighbourhood projects and working collectively, using a wide range of methods to tease out the essence of the schemes, the models they were premised on, and the dynamics that unfolded.

In your work what gives you the most satisfaction?

I’ve always enjoyed the hunt, so to speak, in winning new projects, but I’m just as interested in supporting researchers to develop and grow. It’s always great to meet researchers who learnt their research through the BMRB graduate scheme. That’s one of the main reasons why I have taken over running the Masters in Applied Social and Market Research at the University of Westminster which is now based within PSI.

Do you have a favourite quote?

“All that is solid melts into air…”  Karl Marx, Communist Manifesto

Who is you social research hero/heroine?

Several! I’d have to include Andrew McIntosh (who owned and ran IFF) and Michael White (at PSI) who mentored me in the art and craft of survey design, analysis and reporting. However, my real life research heroine is my wife, Lesley Saunders, formerly of NFER, more recently at the General Teaching Council and now a freelance researcher – she has a deep understanding of research and we spend endless hours debating and arguing about research and politics. She writes wonderful poetry too!  We have lived next door to each other for 30 years!

What would your advice be to new social researchers?

I think that research is a calling. I would say if you’re deeply curious and caring about society then social policy may be for you, but think carefully before labelling yourself as one kind of researcher or another. Research requires an open mind, and too many researchers define their interests and position too narrowly. When PSI was set up as PEP in 1931, the job spec merely called for people who were highly intelligent and could write: these would still be near the top of my list. Ensure that you place ethics at the heart of your practice. Seek out a mentor. And listen to the Today Programme every morning so that you know and think about what’s happening in the world.


Interview by William Solesbury, October 2011