If you work in health, education, social care or other fields where companies are involved with providing a service to the public, opportunities abound for conducting research directly for service providers. It’s a great way to marketise your academic expertise or make a career switch, but there are a few things you should know first.
Your academic CV may impress when applying for university posts, but you’ll need to accentuate practical experience and people skills when selling your skills to service providers. Highlight research projects that have involved working directly with service users or working professionals, as well as your involvement in Continuing Professional Development workshops, conferences or courses.
Be sure to provide examples (and samples, if appropriate) of past research that has been used as the basis for policy or service change, or that has resulted in a practical product for use in the workplace—such as a staff training programme, video, pamphlet or device.
Be ready for cooperation.
There is a huge amount of practical knowledge in almost every service provider. Both staff and clients have experiences that can enrich your perspective—and sometimes challenge your assumptions. Service provider-based research works best when outsiders bring fresh perspectives and skills, but spend time observing and listening before weighing in with suggestions.
Accordingly, build this into your project plan. Individual interviews, focus groups, case reviews and observations are all good techniques to try. Every programme has its own culture, and how you engage with it will determine how effective your research is in effecting change.
Project plans should be written in clear language, avoiding “academicese,” with sensible, workable objectives that map onto the service provider’s stated goals. These can often be found in their mission statement or key policies; alternatively, it may be a good idea to map onto appropriate government frameworks or directives for the sector.
A few key cautions.
Service providers are competitive businesses, and this applies equally to charities that have service-provision arms. Confidentiality is therefore important to them. Often there is a hope that commissioning research will boost their market position, and that means you may not be able to tell the world about your findings. You may need to sign a confidentiality agreement, and you must consult before publicising your work in any way, including on a personal Web site or in academic publications or conferences.
Most service providers do not run year-round research programmes, so your contribution will usually be on a project basis. For that reason, don’t expect to rely on any one form for a stable income.
Finally, the larger and more established the service provider is, the harder it can be to effect change. Positive contacts with front-line staff, and practical outputs they can use, can often make more of a difference than policy recommendations. For that reason, always try to build bridges between your research and everyday practice within the organisation while you are carrying out your research project. It will leave you with a good feeling to know that even if your policy ideas were not taken on board, you’ve had a bit of impact where it really counts.