Career Options

Market research as a career after your PhD.

Research is the bread and butter of all PhDs. Being able to apply these skills to market research careers will enable you to stand out, access new career prospects, and thrive in a non-academic setting.

Research research research, not a phrase that PhDs are unfamiliar with. In all honesty, research is going to be one of your strongest skills once you graduate and hand in that thesis. This subsequently means that any research role, not necessarily market research, will align with a lot of your pre-existing skills and give you more than a fighting chance of pursuing this as a career path.

In an academic sense, designing research studies, collecting data, synthesising information, communicating findings, or just reading a lot of written work and consolidating it into a coherent narrative comes naturally, and at some point, you would have done it in your PhD. Even if you come from a non-STEM background, doing research is still one of your core strengths. Leveraging these research skills will therefore open a world of opportunities outside of academia. Thinking about market research, it can be thought of as a role where one must collect and assimilate information (sometimes data) to be able to identify trends and/or develop recommendations.

Depending on the type of organisation you work for, the definition of ‘market’ will change, which subsequently has an impact on the type of research you do. But in short, the skills needed and the general process of ‘good research’ remains relatively consistent. The only nuance of market research is for ones that are more data focused. Sometimes market research roles place more emphasis on quantitative research – which is pretty rudimentary statistics whilst working with numerical information/data. Conversely, some market research roles place more emphasis on qualitative research – which typically refers to ‘language’ or ‘text’. This may include things like, interviews, focus groups, questionnaires (that isn’t captured in numbers), reviews, or anything else that captures people’s opinions – social media is also a good example here. Analysing Twitter or Instagram for a particular topic is a common practice for some market researchers. For those without any stats or data focused PhDs – this qualitative research may be more up your street. It’s also not uncommon for market research roles to have a blend of both quantitative and qualitative research.

So far, much of the focus around market research has been on the analysis part, or at least interpreting data. But that’s not always the responsibilities or only skill needed for a market researcher. In fact, some market research teams have a combination of market researchers and analysts. Analysts oversee the number crunching whereas the researchers manage everything else, from project management to building insights. Therefore, possessing other skills such as being able to manage and organise research projects is necessary. Again, having a PhD makes this feel like an easy box to tick. But for individuals not coming from a background in research, this can be a really hard thing to navigate. As a PhD, you’ll have a better sense of how long research takes, the practical/legal implications with running research, a better sense of how to budget a project, what the key deliverables should be, what the process should look like, who to consult or collaborate with, and how to overcome challenges during the middle of a research project. In essence, we’re talking about your project management skills here. Or ‘research’ management. Being able to apply these to a market research role will help you stand out.

Another core component of market research is the dissemination part. Again, for all PhDs, presenting at conferences, telling interesting stories, and just communicating complex information to lay-audiences is what they do best. In other terms, this is just your presentation and communication skills being applied in a slightly different context. Similarly, documenting the research project, producing reports, or summarising the information in a written format will utilise your writing skills that have been fined tuned during your PhD. As you would have likely written publications, your thesis, or just general PhD work –this part of a market research role will feel more comfortable to you compared to those coming from non-academic backgrounds. In conjunction with this you’ll also have excellent problem-solving skills – a skill you can apply to almost every profession. As we all know, problems occur in research all the time. Having the ability to solve these problems and figure out things you don’t know the answer to is an asset any organisation would be keen to have.

The part where applying for market research positions can be challenging is when PhDs and employers feel as though you aren’t able to hit the ground running. It might take you a bit of time to get up to speed with how research operates in industry compared to academia. Funnily enough, it’s likely to be easier to navigate with less restrictions and obstacles, but this can feel slightly disorienting at first. Furthermore, not understanding the industry or business sector may make it hard to apply your current research skills to a different context. This is also likely to create some doubts during the application and interview process. As discussed elsewhere on this blog, you should speak more around your skills as opposed to your actual PhD. Producing what’s known as a ‘skills CV’ is probably a better way to go. That way you can communicate the skills you do have (analysing data, managing projects, presenting, writing information, and problem solving as discussed) with better conviction. The same applies for your cover letter and during your interview. Helping the employer to understand how you already possess the skills for market research (because you do) is a better approach to take rather than hoping they ‘take a chance’ on you.

Another way to get around this is to remember that there’s nothing wrong with falling back onto your other transferable skill of being able to learn. As a PhD holder, you’re capable of learning new things significantly quicker than others. Here’s a perfect example of why this is important. You may not know the intricacies of an industry, but after a few months you’ll have learnt and understood it by learning ‘on the job’. Then when you combine this new gained understanding to all the pre-existing research skills you have, you’ll offer a better return and be more competent in the role than someone who understands the industry but doesn’t have a PhD.

As with any job or career change, you want to make sure that it provides you with what you need to reach your full potential. Does a market research role align with your life values? Will it enable you to thrive and create a life you want to live? If you’re unsure, or find out too late, remember you can always change your mind. Your life and career are never set in stone, and with a PhD you have the ability to pivot and explore an almost unlimited list of opportunities. Enjoy it.

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