Career change ideas for an applied social science researcher/evaluator?
December 17, 2018 5:29 AM   Subscribe

A few years ago, I earned a master's degree in applied educational research and evaluation. Based on my work experiences so far, I doubt this field will be a good long-term fit for me. What careers should I consider instead?

My current job involves conducting applied educational research and evaluation for non-profits, educational institutions, foundations, and government agencies. I collect, prepare, analyze, and report on quantitative and qualitative data related to program goals and clients' questions.

For the following reasons, I don't think this type of work will be a good long-term fit for me:

*I loathe extended writing projects. A low-grade sense of dread and anxiety creeps up every time I'm asked to write something longer than five or so pages. This happens pretty frequently, since writing 25+ page reports and literature reviews is a core function of the work. I've never really enjoyed writing, but hoped this might change as an adult. (It hasn't). I think I'm a decent writer, but I simply don't like it. I earned top marks on papers as a graduate and undergraduate student, and have received positive feedback on my writing from supervisors in the workplace. But the process just feels like pulling teeth and I am dreadfully slow at it. Often it almost feels like I'm back in grad school, where I couldn't fully enjoy weekends or evenings with a writing project hanging over my head. I know most careers will involve some level of writing, and I'm fine writing memos or executive summaries that are a five-ish pages or less. But I would be thrilled if I never had to write a 20-40 page report again.

*I'm skeptical about the usefulness of the work. Many of the evaluation projects in my field are driven by external accountability, program politics, and vague buzzwords. I have yet to see the findings of my work impact decisions or result in change. Oftentimes the people in the communities I work with are already aware of what is or is not working in their programs. As such, I feel like I'm just checking off an accountability box instead of contributing to learning and improvement.

*The day-to-day work is socially isolating. At first, I thought this was just my current office culture. But thinking back, it's been similar at all the other offices where I've done this type of work. There isn't much informal collaboration, and I rarely talk with other team members outside of established meeting times. It's not unusual for me to go an entire day without interacting with colleagues beyond a hello as we pass each other in the kitchen. As an introvert, I've been surprised at how much the social isolation bothers me. I don't necessarily want to be in a role where I'm giving presentations or attending large meetings all day, but I do miss working with people one-on-one or in small groups.

Reflecting on my past work experiences, I think my ideal career would involve at least some of the following:
  • Practical activities that have a clear impact.
  • Requires logical, anlalytical thinking with a healthy dose of skepticism.
  • More short-term tasks or projects, fewer long-term projects.
  • Analyzing data to answer specific, answerable questions to inform decision-making.
  • Designing data visualizations. I love thinking about and developing ways to communicate findings in a user-friendly, visual format.
  • Working with people one-on-one, or in small groups, especially if it involves mentoring or teaching.
Here are some of the career change possibilities I've considered. (I am very open to other suggestions; this is just my own brainstorming):

*Data science/big data analysis. I took a handful of statistics classes in grad school, and am comfortable with multiple regression, logistic regression, factor analysis, and inferential tests like t-tests and ANOVA. I'm not sure how applicable these skills would be to data science. I also don't know how to program in R or Python, having primarily used SPSS for analyses.

*User experience research. This field sounds super interesting. I really like the idea of working on a tangible product with the goal of making digital experiences easier for users. I imagine that my skills in research design, writing interview protocols, conducting interviews/focus groups, and qualitative analysis would be applicable. But I wonder if I'd be back to writing the long reports that I'm trying to avoid.

*Librarianship/library science. I thought about earning an MLIS several years ago but was scared away by the poor job prospects. Aspects that appealed to me included working with people one-on-one or in small groups, creating user-friendly experiences, and answering reference questions.

*Health care. This would be a complete career change for me but sounds like it would allow me to work on practical, short-term tasks that involve helping people on an individual or small-group basis.

Other possibly relevant factors:
  • I'm in my early thirties with no debt or dependents. I do have about $40,000 in savings and would be willing to put about half of that towards more education or training if needed.
  • I'm more of a work-to-live person. While I want to do the best I can and stretch my skills from 9-5, I primarily see work as a way to make enough money to fund the non-work parts of my life.
  • I'm willing to go back to school or gain additional training, but only if it doesn’t leave me with insurmountable debt.
Specific questions: Given everything above, do you have any recommendations for careers that might be a good fit? Are there specific job titles I should look for? What types of additional training or education would be helpful?

Thanks so much!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (12 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a librarian myself. Yes, the job prospects are not the best ... however, if you can get your foot in the door by landing a job as a library assistant, sometimes the library will pay for your MLS. Also, there is more need for librarians with some tech skills (database management, systems management) so any of those skills would give you an advantage above other job candidates.

If you're really interested in becoming a librarian, I would suggest that you talk to some librarians at places that you think that you could see yourself working, and see what they have to say. Good luck!
posted by silverandlilac at 5:58 AM on December 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

I think there may be opportunities for you to tweak what you do without radically changing it - get into a nicer environment and get an opportunity to work a bit more in the areas that interest you. I think there's a lot of overlap in what you do and a lot of other social sciences, and in a lot of practice areas ranging from direct service up to policy - it's just a matter of finding what places are doing things the way you want to do them, and figuring out how to get that job.

I have an MPH and while I've bounced around a lot of different program work, I've figured out how to incorporate UX research, user-centered design, and data vis/communication in my work - even though my title is "research scientist." Feel free to get in touch with me if you want to talk more about some of those things, how to possibly shift from your specialty to that stuff, and what places are doing good work in those areas.
posted by entropone at 6:03 AM on December 17, 2018

If you live in or are interested in relocating to Washington, DC, MeMail me.
posted by capricorn at 6:22 AM on December 17, 2018

Designing data visualizations. I love thinking about and developing ways to communicate findings in a user-friendly, visual format.

Data and visualization is a huge trend right now in academic libraries. My own library just created a Data & Visualization Department. It's true that a lot of libraries will require an MLIS for any librarian position, but I would start looking right away for library positions that don't require it (or are willing to accept some combination of education and experience in lieu of it).
posted by Rock Steady at 6:24 AM on December 17, 2018

You might want to look into healthcare data analytics. Hospital systems like to hire analytical people to analyze EMR and claims data. You will be working with big data, creating visualizations, making small presentations, and projects can vary from individual efforts to larger group projects. Technology wise, most places will use SQL or some sort of GUI interface to the EMR to export data and you can use any tool you are comfortable with (I mainly use R) to clean and process the data.
posted by source.decay at 7:09 AM on December 17, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'm in market research, and our skills and interests are very similar. I think the field hits most of your ideal criteria, although it obviously varies from job to job.

- No long reports, just long PPT decks (which I find *much* easier and more enjoyable to write than long Word docs). No literature reviews!
- Many people are bad putting together nice looking PPT slides, so your data visualization skills could be a real selling point
- It depends on what "useful" means to you, but I generally feel like my clients learn new things from our research and that our reports help them make better business decisions
- My colleagues and I work together throughout the research process, so no social isolation; lots of opportunities for mentorship within each project as you get higher up the chain
- Lots of short term projects. A typical project takes 2-4 months, depending on what we're doing

MeMail me if you want to talk more.
posted by pear at 8:04 AM on December 17, 2018

If you were in the UK, I would say look into becoming a government analyst. I work in the Department for Education here in London and you would fit right in alongside the motley crew of social researchers, statisticians, economists and data scientists.

Are there state or federal equivalents in the US, where I get the impression you're based?
posted by knapah at 8:05 AM on December 17, 2018

You are in almost the exact space my spouse works in and her biggest complaint right now is that there are almost no analysts available in the industry since everyone else in the world has gobbled them up for more money. If you can do MLM and are comfortable with R ans SPSS, which it sounds like you are, you might try to shift focus to an analyst position whis involves more project oriented work and much less writing.

If you are in the Portland, OR area (or want to be) PM me and I can pass you the job postings.
posted by Dr. Twist at 8:47 AM on December 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

About 10 years ago I left my applied research role doing much of the kinds of things you're doing now to work in health care analytics/data science, and especially at the nexus of analytics and the process improvement, quality improvement, and clinical program development work. Even when I'm doing more "data sciencey" stuff along this spectrum, my evaluation and qualitative expertise have absolutely been the gifts that keep on giving.

Boxes checked:
Practical activities that have a clear impact? Yes, for the most part.
Requires logical, analytical thinking with a healthy dose of skepticism. This is generally rewarded, standard skills in framing one's skepticism and managing up required.
More short-term tasks or projects, fewer long-term projects. I'm not sure what your definition of short-term is. Most projects are either finite, or they have a definite cycle/rhythm, which does allow a certain feeling of pacing and "done"-ness in the work.
Analyzing data to answer specific, answerable questions to inform decision-making. Yes, yes, yes. And if you are able to explain things in clear and practical terms (as an applied person usually can) then you will be treasured like gold.
Designing data visualizations. Absolutely and all the time.
Working with people one-on-one, or in small groups, especially if it involves mentoring or teaching. Yes, a lot of work involves small project teams, or work groups needing support. I've never lacked for opportunities to mentor people.

Health care has its own industry quirks and areas where you have to shake off/shield from cynicism. And you wouldn't get to avoid buzzwords (I'm not sure where you can nowadays). But all in all: it's an endlessly fascinating area with great growth opportunities, often really good pay (and definitely better than what one gets in the academic/nonprofit world most of the time), and executives who want the bottom line in a powerpoint or very short write-up (and will almost never read anything longer). I've had many roles since making the leap, and I would be more than happy to tell you about any aspect of it or give you advice more specific to your situation if you feel like MeMailing me.
posted by shelbaroo at 11:06 AM on December 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

MeMail me — I have some thoughts about how your background could fit into some applied health communication research.
posted by pants at 11:56 AM on December 17, 2018

The need for user researchers in the healthcare space is exploding. This is my corner of the world. There are more jobs to fill than qualified people to fill them. If I had a job open for a user researcher (and I may soonish), you'd be at the top of my list of interviewees with your background in research analysis. Bonus: Long reports are out; atomic research is in. Feel free to memail me.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 12:03 PM on December 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

Check out design firms like IDEO, where the work is grounded in user experience research and collaboration. They're hiring data scientists right now.
posted by pinochiette at 12:20 PM on December 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

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