Professor Jane Elliott is Chief Executive of the Economic and Social Research Council
As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
I loved reading as a child, and wanted to be a children’s author. Like many girls of my generation I also often thought about becoming a teacher. However, my father was a French teacher in a big Secondary School and was quick to advise me against it. There was a brief time when I was around eight or nine when I remember wanting to write maths books!
When did you first turn towards a social research career?
I really enjoyed doing my dissertation (on the impact of parental divorce on attitudes to marriage) in my third year at Cambridge University. It was this, and the experience of doing a practical group project on attitudes to unemployment, led by the late Cathie Marsh, that first got me interested in the craft of social research. In the summer of 1986, with unemployment at over three million a small team of students conducted a face to face survey with a stratified sample of local residents by knocking on doors across Cambridge and carrying out interviews. Cathie then showed us how to code and input our data and carry out simple analyses using Minitab and SPSS.
What was your first professional job? And first project there?
Towards the end of my third year as an undergraduate in 1987 I saw an advert on a notice board for a research assistant to work on a project analysing data from the Health and Lifestyle Survey. I remember that my starting salary was £7,400. The focus of the research was on mental health and cognitive capabilities. I was struck by the results of analyses that showed that older people with high levels of qualifications had much better reaction times, and better memories than those who were younger but lacked qualifications.
Where did your career go next? What motivated that/those moves?
In the first five years after graduating I did a series of temporary research jobs, but in order to bring in enough money I also did some undergraduate teaching and helped with the analysis on additional research projects. I enjoyed using my data analysis skills but I was also completely skint and trying to make money in as many ways as possible. At one stage I was getting to work early in order to do an hour or so on a project before my day job started and then working in the evenings as well. It gave me very varied experience, and my data analysis skills always seemed to be in demand, but I sometimes wished I’d followed a more conventional path into research. I eventually took my PhD part-time in my early 30s while working with Professor Angela Dale at the Cathie Marsh Centre for Census and Survey Research in Manchester.
I then spent five years as a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Liverpool, including a year on sabbatical in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And in 2004 I moved to be the Principal Investigator of the 1958 and 1970 cohort studies based in the Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS) at the Institute of Education in London. I very much enjoyed my time at CLS and in 2009 became its Director.
What has been your best professional moment?
Becoming Chief Executive at ESRC.
Difficult to say, but possibly occasionally also ….becoming Chief Executive at ESRC.
Do you have a social research hero/heroine?
My social research heroine would have to be Cathie Marsh because she taught me so much about the practicalities of robust survey work. She knew that students were most likely to be inspired to have a career in social research if they gained experience of collecting and analysing data on topical social issues.
Do you have a favourite quote?
Not quite a quote but I love Twyman’s Law…‘Any piece of evidence or data that looks unusual or interesting is probably wrong’. It has been a very helpful reminder all through my career.
What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
This is a great time to become a social researcher, but also a very challenging one. The nature of data, and our relationship with data as individuals, is changing radically. It’s important to learn a basic toolkit of methods at the beginning of your career, but then remain open to learning about new approaches to collecting and analysing evidence of all kinds about the social world. There are many new opportunities provided by big data and the development of algorithms and machine learning as a way to help with the analysis of large corpuses of unstructured data. Interdisciplinary teamwork is likely to become even more important than it has been in the past.
Professor Jane Elliott
Did you know- The ESRC has enhanced its support for social scientists in the early stages of their career.