Michelle Monkman is a Senior Social Researcher at the Office for National Statistics (ONS)
As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
As a youngster I think I wanted to be a hairdresser. In my early teens I remember doing a careers questionnaire at school which identified social worker, probation officer and researcher as roles which would suit me. I didn’t consciously follow the path to being a researcher but here I am today!
What was your first professional job? And first project there?
After completing my Masters in Social Psychology at the University of Surrey I gained a research post there. I worked on a project exploring public attitudes towards the governance of biomedical research, which was funded by the Wellcome Trust. As part of a team I was involved in designing the research, developing short films and documents to be used as stimulus materials, recruiting participants, undertaking focus groups, analysing the data and writing up findings. I learned a lot about the whole research process as a result. I also learned about biomedical research governance procedures to boot!
When did you first turn towards a social research career?
I joined the Office for National Statistics in 2006. My first post was as a survey methodologist, designing the 2011 Census questionnaire for England and Wales. I spent a lot of time cognitively testing the questionnaire with members of the public, reviewing findings, developing the questions and re-testing, so they were easy to understand and complete, whilst ensuring the information collected met user needs. It’s a great privilege to work on the census, knowing that the data informs policy decisions and the allocation of billions of pounds of public money to provide services like education, transport and health.
Where did your career go next? What motivated that/those moves?
I’m lucky that at ONS researchers get the opportunity to move around the organisation. I’ve held 8 posts so far! The work has been varied and has included questionnaire design, moderating focus groups, data visualisation (developing and delivering a training course and producing interactive graphics), design and harmonisation of the 2011 Census outputs, exploring and analysing population data, writing statistical bulletins, designing research projects and evaluation research on response rates to a social survey. I have been able to utilise both quantitative and qualitative skills and knowledge. Being able to rotate keeps the work fresh and exciting, offering new challenges and development opportunities. I’ve been able to build knowledge and expertise in different topics and experience the different stages of the survey process.
What has been your best professional moment?
That’s a hard question, as I’ve enjoyed all my research posts. I’m currently leading work in response to the request for ONS to collect gender identity information. Various work, research and testing will inform whether and how ONS could collect this data. I’m really enjoying the work, which feels like it’s at the forefront of current changes in society, as we move away from binary definition of sex/gender (male, female) to wider conceptualisations. Without any official statistics currently available I can see how the collection of such information would be beneficial in informing service provision, health and discrimination inequalities for those with trans and non-binary identities. However there are lots of challenges to collecting this information which we need to take into account.
As a career young researcher having to deliver a presentation on a piece of qualitative research to an audience of mainly statisticians!
What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
Go for it! Social research posts within government offer a wide variety of work across many different topics. It can be very rewarding to know that the research and statistics you helped produce inform the public about social and economic matters and provide a firm evidence base for decision-making both inside and outside of government. You may even find the research or statistics you work on being mentioned in the media!