Because I have a lot of time on my hands (joke), I’ve spent two and a half years of weekends studying towards an MSc in research methods. I’m hardly the first person to draw attention to the different worlds that academic and commercial researchers inhabit. But since I live in both of them, here’s how I’d summarise the main differences:
Academic research: Use the first month of whatever time you have available to write the proposal.
Commercial research: Write the proposal in a few days.
Academic research: Full-blown literature review.
Commercial research: The client tells you what they want, and you propose research to address that. Or, you tell them why, really, they want something different. (Unless the client wants a literature review, obviously).
Academic research: Discuss the philosophical underpinnings of the approach you’ve taken. This should include your epistemological assumptions and whether you think knowledge exists to be discovered (positivism) or is constructed by people as they experience life and culture (social constructivism).
Commercial research: Are you doing, qual, quant or both, and why is the data collection method you’re proposing the right one?
Academic research: Microscopic, line-by-line and word-by-word analysis of qualitative data. Actually using the word ‘microscopic’ about what you’re doing.
Commercial research: Thematic analysis, or whatever approach fits, until you’re happy all the themes have been identified. Rigour, clarity – obviously – but no microscopes.
Academic research: Scrutinise, dismantle and comment on the possible implications of every decision you make as you go along.
Commercial research: Do rigorous research; deliver what you said you would; add value.
I’m finding academic research a bit like a trip through the looking glass. There’s a whole new vocabulary to learn, there are surprises around some corners, and time doesn’t seem to work at the same speed as it does here in agency-land. Sometimes it feels like I’m meant to be over-thinking and/ or over-complicating a project that, when you come down to it, is based on 15 depth interviews with people who aren’t especially hard to find or recruit.
But it’s worth it. I’m re-learning things I now realise I’ve never questioned, and seeing research from two different perspectives. I like being able to show clients that I’m committed to research. And I liked choosing the subject area, without the client doing that for me!
And of course, there are important similarities. Both sides of the mirror, I aim to produce research that is concise, carefully thought through, and rigorous to the core.
It doesn’t take an MSc to work out that my loyalties lie with the day job, though.