Diarmid Campbell-Jack is a Research Director at ScotCen
As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
Excluding my dream as a five year-old of being a farmer, the first job I ever really wanted when I was young was to be a sports journalist. The fact I ended up going down a different route has doubtless saved me from too much melancholic reflection on innumerable Scottish sporting failures…
When did you first turn towards a social research career?
While at Edinburgh University studying theology I found a part-time job doing coding for System Three in Edinburgh. Not only did I find that this was considerably preferable to my other part-time work stacking shelves and working on the tills in the local supermarket, but that it could make for an interesting and varied career.
What was your first professional job? And first project there?
My first professional job was working in market research for Millward Brown with my first project being a global brand image study on children’s toys. The older I have got the more I’ve realised how much this experience shaped my perspectives on research as a whole. It taught me that research at its best is not merely the provision of data but working with clients or other stakeholders to either provide a coherent narrative or question existing narratives.
Where did your career go next? What motivated that/those moves?
My next move was to George Street Research in Edinburgh in order to work more directly on social research. This provided really varied work as part of a great team – a large range of different clients and various methodologies. Prior to my current move to NatCen and ScotCen, the most recent stop on my career was working on research, monitoring and evaluation for Save the Children UK’s domestic programmes. Working for Save really opened my eyes not just to the absolutely fantastic work the organisation does across the UK and abroad but also to the realities of Third Sector organisations – full of intelligent, committed people doing great work at high speed but arguably needing the skills of social researchers to provide not just an evidence-base but the space for reflection and systematic thinking.
What has been your best professional moment?
It is not a single moment as such, but working regularly with the incredibly knowledgeable and helpful staff I currently work alongside at NatCen and ScotCen is something I hugely appreciate. In terms of individual moments, probably being a small part of helping one or two particular new programmes develop and grow at Save the Children and knowing that their evidence-base gives them a good chance of really helping children across the country.
Possibly a large study I worked on years ago where the assumptions about how to work out spend per family were particularly tortuous – as we progressed through the study it became more and more clear that the theory behind the calculations we’d inherited from the agency previously working on the study was questionable. Or, probably more honestly, repeated tussles at presentations trying to set up antiquated projectors and laptops.
Do you have a social research hero/heroine?
Recently I’ve found James Heckman’s work on early intervention incredibly interesting and I also admire the excellent work being done by many writers to explain research and data-related issues to the general population. Also, it’s probably taking a very broad view of what counts as social research, but if you’ve any interest in sports statistics and haven’t read anything by baseball writer Bill James (of “Moneyball” fame) you’re missing out...
Do you have a favourite quote?
Given the baseball reference earlier (and the fact that it is probably the most data-driven sport possible), I’m hoping I can get away with either Yogi Berra’s sage advice that “If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up somewhere else” or his more research-related “You can observe a lot just by watching”.
What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
I’d say that not only does social research offers the possibility of a fantastically interesting and varied career but that it actually provides a genuine opportunity to make a difference. Because we’re often caught up in a daily basis on the nuts and bolts of research work and as we often aren’t able to see first-hand the direct impact our work has it is easy to lose sight of the huge difference that well-constructed and delivered social research can have.