Emily Sumner is Senior Social Researcher at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).
As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
Probably a job that allowed me to spend my day with dogs, whether it be grooming, training or dog walking…
When did you first turn towards a social research career?
I’ve always been interested in behaviour, from my very first psychology class, learning about a number of infamous experiments (e.g. Milgram’s controversial experiment on conformity). I went on to study Experimental Psychology, at the University of Bristol; after graduating I knew what my interests were, but I didn’t know what that would ‘look like’ as a career. I decided there were three things I wanted; (1) a job that I’m genuinely interested in and passionate about, (2) a job that challenged me, helped me develop research skills and gave me the space to progress and (3) being able to produce research that has real world impacts, to better society. Social research seemed like a good way to apply my interests in behaviour, and achieve these three aims.
What was your first professional job? And first project there?
After leaving Bristol, I was unsure of what career path to follow, or whether to stay on a do a master’s degree. I started by volunteering as a Research Assistant at the University of Birmingham on a few research projects, ranging from testing cognition in older people, to researching the role of social norms in influencing healthy eating. I secured a job in the Psychology department working on a randomised control trial testing the efficacy of using assistive technology to rehabilitate stroke patients. I really enjoyed this role, and learnt so much about implementing a complex project, and working with vulnerable participants.
Where did your career go next? What motivated that/those moves?
My contract was coming to an end, so I was looking for the next challenge. It was by chance that an email about Government Social Research’s turned up in my inbox. After reading the job description, it seemed to fit all of my career criteria perfectly, and I was keen to know more. I eventually secured a job working as a social researcher in the former Department for Energy and & Climate Change. Two years, and a promotion later, I’m working as an evaluation advisor, assessing the impact and delivery of policies aiming to reduce energy use and carbon emissions in businesses.
What has been your best professional moment?
Being still quite early in my career, I’m still waiting for my moment of glory (and probably moment of shame also…). However, I do really enjoy showcasing the research we do at BEIS, whether it’s at internal seminars, or conferences and away days to other research institutes. We try to implement new and innovative methods of analysing complex policy areas, which always makes for a good presentation.
A moment of embarrassment was probably at a demonstration event, where I was showcasing the technology we had developed for rehabilitating stroke patients. However the technology had decided to spontaneously crash, making it very difficult to promote how good it was!
Do you have a social research hero/heroine?
There are many social researchers that have inspired and peaked my interest. One of the more unexpected ones – who may not fit the category of ‘social researcher’ - is Darren Brown. He doesn’t claim to be a magician, but instead researches how the mind works, and uses his knowledge of how the mind works to manipulate people’s behaviour. Not as easily done for policy delivery…
What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
Having been there not that long ago, consider what career path to go down is a very daunting situation. I thought long and hard about what I really liked from my degree, what my interests were, and what I could see myself doing every day. I can honestly say a career in social research is diverse, relevant and challenging on a daily basis. I always find people asking me to tell them more when I tell them what I do for a living.