Methodological skills are the best type of skills!

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For my third blog post I thought I’d focus on the specific methodological research skills that I’ve learnt whilst studying at Bath University and on placement in a government department. Over my first two years at uni I had four modules specifically on social research methods, two quantitative and two qualitative.

For my first year quant project I analysed ONS data comparing economic deprivation across Layer Super Output Areas (LSOAs) in Bath. I used the number of families claiming tax credits in LSOAs as an indicator of economic deprivation. This project involved fairly basic statistics and quantitative skills such as presenting data clearly in different formats and calculating measures of central tendency and standard deviations.

For my first year qualitative group project we focussed on how students settle into university. We looked at fresher’s week and how/whether this helps students feel comfortable adapting to university life. We developed a list of interview questions and each conducted four interviews with freshers across a range of departments, so we had an overall sample of 16. We analysed the interviews through close reading and finding themes, we didn’t use any software to help us.

In second year the projects were a bit more elaborate. In the quant module we had SPSS workshops and an exam on some basic statistical tests and how to interpret them. For the qualitative module, I completed a group report about student experiences of binge drinking behaviour – we thought a participant observation would be pretty fun, but went with interviews instead. We completed an extensive literature review and some short semi-structured interviews to understand student experiences of binge drinking. We grouped the data into themes and wrote a report outlining our findings and conclusions.

As you can see from the above, at university I studied and put into practice a range of methodical research skills. These modules prepared me very well for my placement in social research at the Welsh Government. However these are the type of skills that if you don’t practice them, they can fade away (particularly the stats). I think doing a placement in an area that is so linked to my course will be incredibly helpful when I go back to uni for my final year in September. Being in social research has meant I’ve kept my methodological skills up to scratch and learnt about their practical application.

In my first week on placement I completed a literature review on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). At uni, literature reviews sometimes seemed like a bit of an extra, time-consuming task. However having completed several whilst on placement, I have managed to hone my skills and figure out efficient ways to complete them to a high standard.

Early on in my placement I was also involved with sending out a housing survey to local authorities. First, I was asked to comment on the questions, then I saw re-drafting in action and this meant I have a much better understanding of the process of survey question development. A few weeks ago I was able to go on a Social Research Association (SRA) course on questionnaire design which has also helped develop these skills further.

I’ve been involved in quantitative analysis of survey data, which has kept my stats skills up to speed. I’m also going to be completing some qualitative analysis using some specific qualitative software (MAXQDA) – this is something I’ve never experienced before, it will speed up the process and allow large volumes of qualitative data to be analysed – very exciting!

When I first joined the Welsh Government I didn’t realise quite how much of the research was commissioned out to external contractors. I have completed some small scale primary projects, but many of the larger scale projects that my colleagues work on, are procured out to external researchers and consultancies. This makes it difficult for researchers working here to keep their methodological skills in practice. They have a large input into the research specification and comment heavily on the final report, however they are rarely involved with the collection of data and the actual research.

I found this surprising when I first arrived, I thought we would have a more hands on role. Having worked here for about 8 months now, I can see that it makes much more sense that specialised research consultancies or academics carry out the primary research on behalf of the Welsh Government. It is much more cost and time effective and means we can manage several projects of different sizes at once.

Developing the practical application of my research skills was something I really hoped to gain whilst on placement. Even though there isn’t as much primary research as I’d first thought, I have definitely managed to practice and improve my skills. As well as formal training, feedback and encouragement from my manager and other colleagues on a regular basis, has kept me learning. This means not only have my skills been maintained, but the quality and standard of my understanding of a range of different methodologies has improved. Having the Government Social Research (GSR) badge means all our research adheres to a set of published quality standards, and I am now familiar with these professional level principles too.

Hopefully I’ll get a decent mark in my dissertation as a result…

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