Marketing Your Research Skills in the Real World

1996-2016 Mark Mitchell and Janina Jolley

Overview

In this course, you have learned how to conduct and evaluate research. In the process, you have refined your ability to think critically, logically, and creatively. Furthermore, you have demonstrated the ability to plan and complete projects. In short, you now possess some highly marketable skills.

Ability to Ask Questions

One of the skills you have refined is the ability to ask concise and cogent questions. Not only have you formulated your own research questions, but you have also learned how to question research findings.

Your mastery of the art of question asking--often called critical thinking--will be respected by researchers and non-researchers alike. On a superficial level, this skill will help you because people frequently will judge you based on the kinds of questions you ask. From your questions, people will decide how educated, informed, and intelligent you are. The key to impressing interviewers is often not what you know, nor who you know, but what you ask.

On a deeper level (and the reason job interviewers like applicants who ask good questions), the ability to question is vital to job success. When people make disastrous decisions, it’s usually because they failed to ask the right questions. Because critical thinking is so vital to success, entrance exams for medical, law, business, and graduate schools incorporate tests of critical thinking.

Ability to Ask Questions of Data

Although most intelligent people can ask intelligent questions, not all intelligent people can ask intelligent questions of data. To most people, data are data. But you know that not all data are created equal. That is, you know that how data are collected affects their validity. Before accepting data at face value, you try to determine what kind of design was used and whether that design was used properly. Thus, in looking at data from an "experiment," you ask how participants were assigned, how independence was achieved, how participant and experimenter bias were reduced, etc. In looking at results from an observational design, you would question anyone who would conclude that cause-effect statements could be made. In addition, you might ask if the results might be due to observer bias. The ability to question and interpret data will become increasingly important in the future: Computers can collect and store data, but they are not experts at interpreting it (Tofßer, 1990).

In addition to questioning how data were collected, you also question how the data were analyzed. Your eyes no longer glaze over when you hear terms like "interaction," and "statistically significant." In fact, you are so familiar with data that you may be able to suggest alternative ways of presenting, interpreting, or analyzing existing information. In short, you are aware of what the analyses say--and what they don’t.

Ability to Get Answers

Although your finesse at scrutinizing, interpreting, and using existing data is very marketable, your most marketable asset may be your ability to create new data. That is, not only do you know how to ask questions, you know how to ask questions to get answers. In short, your experience in turning abstract questions into specific testable hypotheses will be very useful.

In a related way, your experience in generating operational definitions will also be useful. By operationalizing variables, you can turn unanswerable questions into answerable ones. Thus, the question: "Will a diet plan be a financial success?" becomes the question: "Will a diet plan with these features, marketed in this way, get X number of sales at Z price?"

You might be surprised at how rare and how valued the skill of operationalizing variables is. Even very intelligent people are mystified by individuals who can find answers to hard questions. For example, a lawyer was defending a cartoonist in a libel suit. The other side was suing over an allegedly insulting and defamatory cartoon, claiming that everyone knew who the devious cartoon character was supposed to be. The cartoonist’s lawyer was so apprehensive about the case that he hired a psychologist to help him in selecting the jury. However, even with the right jury, the lawyer was concerned: How could he defend his client against such a subjective charge? The psychologist mentioned that one way to answer such a question would be to survey people in the community and ask them who, if anybody, they thought the cartoon looked like. The lawyer’s response: "You mean you could do that?!" This true story shows that although you may tend to undervalue your ability to get answers, others won’t.

Making Logical Arguments

In this course, you have also refined your ability to think logically. You have had to be explicit about your logic and the assumptions you made. In writing introduction and discussion sections, you have practiced spelling out the rationale and assumptions behind your thinking.

Making Logical Arguments Supported by Data

In writing introduction, results, and discussion sections, not only have you argued logically, but you have used data to support your arguments. You have used data to support the assumptions behind your arguments as well as to support your conclusions.

In addition to using data to support your conclusions, you can challenge questionable conclusions, even if those conclusions appear to be supported by data. For example, because you are aware of the limits of correlational data, you know that the statement, "Profits have increased since Jim took over. Therefore, Jim is a good manager" is not necessarily true. In short, you are well aware of the uses and abuses of data.

Communicating Complex or Technical Information

In this course, you have not only learned to think creatively, critically, and logically, but you have also articulated your reasoning. You have spelled out the rationale behind: (1) your hypothesis, (2) the procedures you used, (3) the analyses you chose, and (4) the conclusions you made. In addition, you have summarized the results of other studies, some of which contained complex and technical information. Your ability to present complex information in an understandable manner should be an asset, no matter what profession you enter.

Planning and Completing Projects

Thus far, we have mentioned that, by carrying out a research project, you demonstrated an ability to:

1. collect data,

2. think logically,

3. articulate both your logic and your assumptions,

4. ask questions, and

5. analyze and interpret data.

However, these are only some of the skills you used in carrying out your research project. As is the case in designing and implementing any kind of project, you had to take initiative, map out all your steps, anticipate potential ßaws and problems, challenge your basic assumptions, choose from among several alternative courses of action, prepare a timeline, overcome inevitable obstacles to your progress, aggregate all the information, come to a conclusion, and compile the final report. We can’t imagine a more strenuous test of your planning and problem-solving abilities.

Selling Yourself

Clearly, you have much to offer a prospective employer. To get a good job, however, you must convince your employer that you have these skills. Your initial efforts to convince an employer of your value will involve sending a resume and cover letter. To help you, we have prepared a sample resume (please see Box D-1).

Prospective employers will want you to be able to back up your claims about your abilities. To convince employers that you have the skills you claim, use your skills at constructing operational definitions to describe yourself in objective and quantifiable terms. For example, don’t say, "I am a good student"; instead, say "I have a 3.7 grade point average." To help convince employers of your abilities, you may want to send them copies of your final research report. The report demonstrates your ability to write reports and finish projects.

Once you have convinced your prospective employers of your skills, you will have to convince them that these skills will generalize to the job. That is, your prospective employer might say, "Sure, you’re a good student and had a rigorous class, but how do I know you will do well at our company?" To show the value of your skills to their company, you should give specific examples of how your skills would apply to the job.

Although Table D-1 should give you a general idea of how research skills might apply to business, you will want your examples to be so specific and relevant that the interviewer could visualize you succeeding on the job. Of course, to generate these specific examples, you must learn as much about the job as possible before the interview. (As we’ve implied all along, everything boils down to having done your research.)

Table D-1: Similarities between Executives and Researchers
Executive Researcher
Identifies problem Identifies problem
Collects background data on problem Collects background data on problem
Makes proposals to collect other needed information Makes proposals to collect other needed information
Establishes timeline Establishes timeline
Attends to detail Attends to detail
Analyzes data Analyzes data
Reports findings Reports findings

Despite your best efforts, some interviewers may not feel that your skills will generalize to their business. Some may say, "If you were a business major, I’d hire you without reservation. But you’re not." At this point, it may be tempting to give up. After all, the interviewer is judging you on the basis of a superficial criterion--face validity. Although you may be sorely tempted to quit, don’t.

Instead, try to see whether you can make a case for yourself on the basis of face validity. Mention any courses or internships you have had in business.

Because face validity has a big impact in the real world, you may want to acquire experiences that will improve the face validity of your candidacy. Fortunately, because face validity is superficial, it’s often easy to acquire. For example, you can improve the face validity of your candidacy by:

1. picking up the jargon of business by subscribing to business-related publications such as the Wall Street Journal;

2. doing a survey for a company (even free of charge), so you can put it on your resume;

3. doing research in the area in which you want a job. For example, one of our students wanted a job in personnel, so she did a research project on productivity and sent it to a prospective employer. She got the job and is now a director of personnel.

In addition to marketing your general problem-solving skills, you may want to market your specific research skills. These skills might be especially attractive to a small firm. Small companies may find that your ability to do research will save them from paying large fees to outside research consulting firms.

There are many ways in which a small firm might be able to use your research skills. For example, you might conduct research relating to the company’s workers. In this capacity, you might design surveys to assess workers’ attitudes and opinions toward the company. Alternatively, you could assess the impact of training programs and/or policy changes on productivity.

You might also do some research to get feedback from customers. This could be as simple as designing questionnaires to find out who your customers are and what they like about your company or it could be more complex. For instance, you might do research that would pretest the effectiveness of the ads your company is designing. Or, you might evaluate the effectiveness of a new advertising campaign. You may end up saving the company a lot of money by telling them where not to spend their advertising dollars.

Another avenue would be to use consumer input to develop a new product or service. For example, you might question customers regarding features they desire in a product, the cost they are willing to tolerate, where they would buy such a product, etc. Such advance planning could save your company from creating another Edsel.

If you want a job in which you are constantly involved in research, there are several careers you should consider. If you enjoy the hands-on, interpersonal part of research, but don’t like the writing, planning, and statistical aspects, you could become a field interviewer or a telephone interviewer for the government or for a survey research organization. Or you might be able to get a job at a mental hospital as a psychological test administrator.

If you desire a job that would fully immerse you in research, you should consider market research and research assistant jobs. Market research is one of the fastest growing fields in the country. Primarily, you would conduct and analyze consumer surveys, but you might be able to do some laboratory research. Market researchers are hired not only by market research firms, but also by advertising agencies and by large companies.

Research assistant jobs are not as common, but they can be found. Many of these jobs focus on evaluation research. The purpose of evaluation research is to determine whether a program (job training program) or treatment (wellness center) is working. Thus, large hospitals and the federal government do a substantial amount of evaluation research.

Other jobs involve analyzing data the government has collected. The federal government collects data about almost anything you can imagine--from people’s attitudes toward life to how much meat they buy. The government needs research assistants to help analyze the data collected from the census and from numerous other surveys.

There are also jobs working for institutions who do research for the federal government. For example, universities and large research companies (Rand Company, Battelle) that receive government money to do research often have research assistant jobs. In addition, some universities also have jobs for laboratory assistants. Usually, lab assistants maintain the university’s animal laboratory.

Conclusions

As you know, conducting research requires the ability to define problems clearly, propose solutions to those problems, and implement those solutions on time. In performing your projects, you demonstrated initiative in problem-solving, attention to detail, logical thought, and the ability to write clearly. In short, you are able to ask questions and get answers. Virtually all employers need people with your skills.

Certain employers (research firms) will immediately recognize that they need your skills. Other employers, equally desperate for your skills, may not recognize that they need you. You will need to convince them by using your persuasive ability and the strategies we suggested earlier. In addition, you may want to improve the appearance of your application by taking courses or taking on jobs that will improve its face validity (please see Table D-2 below). Good luck!

 

Table D-2: Specific Jobs That Would Be Available to a Good Research Design Student and Courses That Would Help in Obtaining That Job
JOB TITLE SUPPLEMENTARY COURSE(S)
Business person Accounting/Economics
Interviewer Public Speaking/Theater
Laboratory Assistant Neuropsychology w/lab
Marketing Researcher Marketing
Newspaper Reporter English/Journalism
Personnel Administrator Personnel Psychology
Public Health Statistician Biology
Public Opinion Researcher Computer Science
Research Assistant--Company Computer Science
Research Assistant--Government Computer Science
Research Assistant--Hospital Biology w/lab
Research Assistant--Mental Health Psychological testing
Technical Writer English/Journalism
Professional Psychologist Graduate degree necessary. Advanced courses in statistics and research methods increase chances of acceptance into graduate school.