Friday, July 18, 2008

A Career in Social Research

If you have natural curiosity and enjoy studying social behavior and societal trends using logic and empirical observations, a career in social research may be right for you.

Social research is carried out by social scientists predominantly in the fields of social psychology and sociology along with the branches of political science, human geography, education, social anthropology, and social policy. Social scientists understand social life through research methods that are either quantitative, collecting and studying numerical data, or qualitative, examining personal experiences and interpreting them as they relate to social phenomena. Quantitative researchers often use questionnaires, statistical data, and surveys, while qualitative researchers rely on such methods as participant observation, interviews, and focus groups.

According to the Social Research Association, the principal areas of employment for social researchers are in the academic community, government, independent research institutes, and commercial market research organizations.

Many market research organizations have specialist social research divisions and employ graduate trainees along with more experienced social researchers. The Market Research Society, the world’s largest association dealing with market, opinion, and social research, along with market analysis, business intelligence, consultancy, and customer insight, offers much information concerning research news and jobs in research.

''There are various entry points to the industry; however, it is primarily a graduate-led industry, and the majority of applicants for research executive positions will be expected to hold a degree, although the particular degree subject is of less importance. In addition to an educational qualification, a number of personal qualities are essential, e.g. strong interpersonal skills, interest in people and their behavior, analytical ability, and organizational skills,'' according to MRS’s website.

Though the majority of social scientists are anthropologists, political scientists, sociologists, geographers, and historians, there are opportunities within research for non-graduates, such as a career as a field manager or research assistant.

One can start out in market research by joining an agency (agencies range from smaller consultancies to large international companies) or ''by working client-side, as a market research specialist within a client organization, where you are likely to be one of a small number of in-house specialists, responsible for conducting a certain amount of your own research and for commissioning external agencies to conduct larger projects,'' according to MRS.

See MRS’s webpage on becoming a market researcher for more information on starting out, training, important personal attributes, and the everyday work associated with being a market researcher.

In terms of conducting social research for academic organizations, researchers often work for large, well-recognized research facilities that have charitable funding or endowment funding. Such research centers typically conduct research for local authorities or the government.

Many trade unions, charities, independent organizations, and lobby groups employ their own researchers for short periods of time to conduct single studies.

According to the US Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, ''social scientists need excellent written and oral communication skills to report research findings and to collaborate on research. Successful social scientists also need intellectual curiosity and creativity because they constantly seek new information about people, things, and ideas. The ability to think logically and methodically is also essential to analyze complicated issues, such as the relative merits of various forms of government.'' Social researchers also need objectivity, systematic work habits, open minds, patience, and perseverance.

The demand for political science research is increasing due to growing interest in foreign affairs and politics, particularly immigration and environmental and social policy issues. Social researchers may also find work carrying out policy research for nonprofit organizations and consulting firms, and expertise in society and social behavior is also valuable to companies in marketing, advertising, and product development.

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A Career as a Training Specialist

Training and development specialists are pivotal in planning and conducting employee training and development programs. As technological and economic shifts affect the workplace, training specialists have become vital in maintaining a strong and productive staff.

Management has increasingly recognized the need for employees to develop skills, enhance productivity and quality, and build company loyalty. Training specialists develop programs that provide all three. As the work environment has become increasingly complex and the pace of technological change is so rapid, training has become an essential tool for helping employees stay abreast of the myriad changes.

In addition to assessing employee needs and arranging training, a training specialist may also deal with corporate requests, conduct employee surveys, or run orientation sessions. Training managers can also be critical during times of transition due to technological advances or company mergers.

Training specialists usually fill a variety of positions, and they may be called upon to run corporate training schools or apprenticeship programs. In some instances training specialists work within companies to help identify employees with the potential to hold leadership positions, ensuring that replacements are equipped with enough knowledge and skills when an executive leaves the company or retires. A training specialist may also work with upper management to help them hone their skills in dealing with employees.

Training and development specialists must be able to work well with individuals as well as work toward the goals of the organization. A number of different skills come into play to be an effective training specialist. Training specialists must be good communicators, both verbal and written. They must be comfortable working with people from a broad range of cultural backgrounds as the workforce has become increasingly diverse. They must be good mediators in reconciling conflicting ideas and opinions and generally work under high pressure. A training specialist must also have the ability to maintain fair-mindedness and possess an affable and persuasive personality.

Training and development specialists can have a wide range of educational backgrounds. For entry-level positions employers usually look for candidates with bachelor’s degrees in human resources, personnel administration, or industrial and labor relations. Other employers prefer candidates with bachelor’s degrees in technical or business fields, while still others favor a well-rounded liberal arts education. There are many college courses geared to a career as a training and development specialist in the departments of business administration, education, instructional technology, organizational development, human services, communications, and public administration.

A broad assortment of courses is recommended in the social sciences, business, and behavioral sciences, although some jobs require a specialized background in engineering, science, finance, or law. If you’re seeking advancement to top management positions, a master’s degree in human resources, labor relations, or business administration might help you achieve your goal.

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A Guide to Smooth and Effective Operations

Noted American author and philosopher Henry David Thoreau said more than a century ago, “Things do not change, we do.” The underlying meaning of this sentence clearly reflects the solution to smoother operations within an organization. I would like to present some ideas which might prove helpful to operations managers and directors tasked with handling company operations smoothly and effectively:

  • Identifying oneself as an authority is very important to a top operations executive. The ideas put forth by you may not always be the best ones, but your contributions and opinions play an important role in reaching the best solution. Dozens and dozens of potential solutions must be considered before arriving at a plan. Being creative and outgoing is more important than supplying the best idea every time.

  • To think of better strategies, allocate some time to think about operational problems amidst your busy schedule. Allocating time to think about certain topics results in innovative strategies and inventive tactics.

  • Persuasion drives leadership. Successful operations managers and COOs have to convince their staffs of the benefits of their points of view in order to get things done.

  • Make your operations staff feel important by asking for their support and delegating important tasks to relevant professionals in the group.

  • Most of the time, “fear-of-failure syndrome” is vastly exaggerated. Operations managers sometimes feel that the risk involved in a particular project is too great given the potential rewards. A “risk-versus-reward” mindset can prove to be detrimental to company ambitions. Instead, focus should be diverted to the process rather than the result for smooth functioning of a venture.

  • Risks usually are imaginable, and they can be managed by using the “untying-the-rope” approach: loosening the strands by diving right in and observing how the problem will permeate the company. By getting to the crux of a risk, one can solve any problem effectively. Rather than worrying about the worst, start expecting the worst, and then plan steps to nullify the potential impact.

  • Always be enthusiastic. As a leader, take the initiative to pep things up if the work is bogging everyone down.

  • If certain company operations are preventing the company from focusing on its objectives, it may be wise to outsource the non-core sections of the company to independent companies that specialize in outsourcing activities. It is cost-effective and saves substantial money to divert to fulfilling more useful tasks.

  • It has rightly been said that when cooperation is at work, communities prosper. Patricia Cumbie, a writer and consultant for Cooperative Development Services (CDS), claims that for 90% of the problems in today’s businesses, poor operations are responsible. The best indicator of successful operational tactics is employee and customer satisfaction. Cumbie also quotes Mel Braverman, another consultant and team leader at CDS, who says “operations are like a jigsaw puzzle for your organization. You don’t put it together all at once, and there are logical steps to follow by looking at labor, margin, and expenses.”

  • Promote a culture of accountability in the company, with you as an operations manager setting an example by taking the blame for anything that goes wrong. This will help others to be more proactive and responsible.

According to experts, company operations should be managed like a ship — always balance the cargo on board equally on all sides so that the ship does not tilt on one side. Operations managers can handle company operations effectively and smoothly if they are willing to cooperate, be receptive to suggestions, and put the company’s interests above their own interests.

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