Expectations versus Reality: Embarking on a new career in market research

Ed Graham, who joined Mustard in 2021 as part of its new graduate intake programme, shares his thoughts on the realities of navigating the first 6 months of a career in market research.

I joined Mustard as a Research Executive in August 2021 after graduating from university. My knowledge about the market research industry was admittedly quite limited. I know I’m not the first person to have “fallen into” the career to some extent, although I was familiar with the principles having studied Marketing for my degree.

Since starting, I’m shocked at how fast the first few months have passed, but even in this short period there is so much I have learned. For anyone reading this blog who is perhaps contemplating the career move to market research and customer insights, hopefully these thoughts and experiences will help in your decision!

Embarking on a new career in market research
  1. 6 months in, and there’s been no sign of a clipboard or hi-vis jacket

People do have preconceptions (and misconceptions) about the market research industry. Funnily enough, this was confirmed to me when visiting a local independent retailer to buy a new jacket, while contemplating this blog. In conversation with the shop assistant, he asked what I did for a living – I responded, “I work in Market Research”, as you do. His immediate retort “So you’re one of these people who stand in the street asking people questions?” highlights the common underlying (and probably negative) association with intercept surveys, rather than something more positive (such as insight = knowledge = power!).

While this field interviewing technique is one element of market research, it’s become very clear from day one that there is a LOT more to it, and not just from a data capture perspective. During my early days at Mustard, I’ve not had the opportunity to chase anyone down the street to find out their favourite flavour of crisp (yet). That said, I’m not sure whether chasing people is actually good practice, or mentioned in the Code of Conduct.

The first few months have allowed me to soak up a lot of new information about both research and our clients’ sectors. I’ve been able to learn a lot from the people around me. I’ve been given time to immerse myself in projects, which has been essential in my understanding of how different practices contribute to the overall research process and the goal of insight. I’ve been surprised by the variety of different solutions to business challenges that market research can resolve, and how the insights Mustard delivers can make the difference for clients.

So far, I’ve been involved in many parts of the research process. This has included coding, script checking, analysis and reporting, qualitative logistics and in-depth interviews, all components of the research process, and all making a difference.  Admittedly, I’m still only just scratching the surface, but I have to say, it’s been a lot more than clipboards and hi-vis jackets!

  1. Prepare to juggle

On occasions, it can be a challenge managing time and juggling multiple projects, and at first it might come as a shock. If you’re reading this as a student, you will be used to having months to work on projects, but working hands-on in the market research industry is very different. There is meticulous planning and time management required to ensure deadlines are met, while also jumping from project to project. I can admit I found this a little tricky at first, but with practice and some helpful advice from people who have worked in the industry for years, you soon get into the flow of it. Adapting to life in the industry as a recent graduate has been challenging, but very rewarding.

Six months in, the fast pace of working at Mustard is one of the things I enjoy the most. One morning you could be working on a project for a theme park, and in the afternoon it could be chemicals. This variety of projects makes the job interesting – it’s so satisfying seeing how insight is valued across so many industries, whilst personally being able to learn new skills and then apply them so broadly is fantastic.

  1. I’ve spent a lot of time coding open-ended questions, but learnt a lot from doing so

Having done some coding at university for my dissertation, I was familiar with the process and the value of thematic analysis. I’ve since done a lot of it at Mustard, and learned more about the commercial application.

Practicing coding, and having been encouraged to interrogate the data, has helped me to see how new insights can emerge when you dig deep enough into what people are saying – and why. It has helped me to see the value it can add to a project in terms of layering a story to the data… while also directly addressing the business objectives and business challenges.

Something that I hadn’t picked up on before joining Mustard was how important it was for a human to perform the coding process, opposed to a machine. It’s essential to have an open mind in this career. Allow yourself to take in the context, meaning and sentiment, identify themes and bring sense to the story. The true feelings and emotions of the respondent in the open-ended comments are often missed by computers, as they will not pick up on the sentiment, due to software not acknowledging inferred meaning. The classic example being the tone of sarcastic responses.

My colleague, Anthony, wrote a blog recently going into detail about coding, providing an insightful overview of the process. A brilliant resource to check in with every now and then, especially useful for those new to research like myself.

Embarking on a new career in market research
  1. I’ve also immersed myself in many data sets

My experience with quantitative data was more limited in comparison to qual, particularly in conducting deep-analysis of data. My advice for any new starter, or anyone with a fear of data, is to roll up your sleeves and get stuck in. I was initially a bit scared of the prospect of analysing and interpreting cross-tabs (cross-tabs – or cross-tabulations – are a method to quantitatively analyse the relationship between multiple variables). The more you do, the better you’ll get. The more I looked (and properly looked) at them, the more I began to understand.

During my short time here, I have learned to identify significant differences, similarities and differences between populations, highlighting trends and making connections within datasets to produce deeper insight. Working through projects, learning how others approach their work and tell stories through data has been extremely beneficial for my learning. For me, getting this hands-on experience has been brilliant, and is often the best way to develop new skills.

Embarking on a new career in market research
  1.  I’m learning on the go and there is a constant feedback loop to help me progress

The team at Mustard have helped me, and the other new starters, by allowing us to get stuck into projects from the very start. It is quite easy for anyone of any level to sit in on Teams and Zoom meetings, be them with clients, with partners and suppliers, or just internal planning or wash-up meetings. I have been able to soak up the debates and information through some screen meetings which might not have been possible before the pandemic. At Mustard, a lack of “miles on the clock” doesn’t stop you from getting the exposure that helps put the jigsaw pieces together (excuse the mixed metaphors).

My best advice for anyone new to this career is to be open and ask questions of those people around you who have been through the same learning process. Learn from their experiences, if you are unsure. Six months in and I still can’t recall an occasion where I’ve been stuck with a task, that someone hasn’t been able to quickly help by sharing their wisdom and advice.

Getting feedback in-the-moment is also invaluable, and it is helping me to identify my strengths and weaknesses, highlighting the areas for improvement, and ultimately helping me to grow as a researcher. Taking 5 minutes of reflection time here and there to look back at the feedback has helped massively. I’m making a list of my learnings to use as a reference point, always striving for “insight” (not findings) and right-first-time.

These are the five headlines from the career journey so far. Perhaps they will resonate with other people new to the market research sector. There is no doubt I’ve chosen an interesting and rewarding career, and there will be much more to learn in the coming weeks, months and years!

If you want to talk about being a graduate in a market research agency, or life as a graduate in general, contact ed.graham@mustard-research.com.