Dr. Stephanie Aston is Senior Research and Evaluation Manager at Samaritans

As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
For most of my childhood I wanted to be a veterinary nurse and used to read books on animals and birds. When I did my work experience at my local vets I soon realised it wasn’t a career I could pursue. Every time there was ever anything slightly gory or any sight of blood I felt faint!

When did you first turn towards a social research career?
When I studied a degree in Social Policy at the University of Plymouth, I knew I wanted to do something that helped improves the lives of people, especially disadvantaged groups, but I’d never considered social research. In my final year I decided to do my dissertation on students in higher education, and I enjoyed it so much that I knew social research was the career for me. That’s when I caught the ‘research bug’, and stayed at the university to do a Masters in Social Research.

What was your first professional job?  And first project there?
My first professional job was as a research consultant at the University of Wolverhampton where I completed my PhD in Education. I carried out a study that explored the educational needs of young offenders in a young offender’s prison. While in prison, they completed a test that helped them focus on their skills and interests so that prison staff could help them develop these skills for future employment. I regularly visited the prison and carried out in-depth life history interviews with the young offenders. I really enjoyed working with the young people, and it was a fascinating project to do.

Where did your career go next?  What motivated that/those moves?
My passion was applied research - I always wanted any research I carried out to have some impact on improving peoples’ lives. So, I decided to enter the charity sector. I worked at a young people’s charity and carried out projects that explored parenting teenagers and young people in foster care. I then joined Samaritans where the research team helps the charity better understand evidence around suicide and emotional wellbeing and develop evidence-based services to provide the best services we can for callers. We also contribute to the wider suicide prevention field through policy and practice and we link as much of our work to research evidence as possible.

What has been your best professional moment?
Besides completing my PhD, my proudest moment was recently completing Samaritans caller outcomes feasibility study with my colleague, Dr Carlie Goldsmith. We proved that we can collect impact data from callers on our helpline without increasing callers distress levels. This was a challenging project to undertake but the findings will change how we collect data from our callers and evaluate Samaritans services in the future.

...and worst?
Many years ago I carried out face-to-face interviews with people in their own homes, and two always stand out in my mind! One had a cat that repeatedly walked across my interview topic guide and the recording equipment. The other shared her home with birds, and they flew around us constantly during the interview. I had to keep ducking to avoid them hitting me!

Do you have a social research hero/heroine?
I don’t have one specific person, but I am always inspired by researchers who want to improve social and health inequalities. It’s important to keep evidencing the impact inequality has on peoples’ lives, and work towards changing that. It’s a difficult thing to achieve but we must keep trying.

Do you have a favourite quote?
There is a quote that applies to everyday life, social research and the charity sector!

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’ (Martin Luther King)

What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?Stay true to yourself, and what your passion is. Think about the difference you want your research to make and for whom. When possible, do the parts of the research process you enjoy the most, for example do you prefer engrossing yourself in literature and data, or do you love being out and about meeting people and collecting the data = what gives you the buzz! Once you know these things, you will hopefully enjoy a career in social research!

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