Nicola Singleton is an independent researcher specialising in substance misuse and mental health.
As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
Once I’d got past being a cowboy or one of the Knights of the Roundtable, I decided I wanted to be a scientist, complete with white coat, bunsen burners, test tubes etc.
When did you first turn towards a social research career?
I don’t think I ever made a conscious decision to do so; I sort of meandered into it. I briefly lived my dream as a biochemist but wanted to travel overseas. I therefore volunteered in Bangladesh, which whetted my appetite for working in developing countries but made me realise that I needed more useful skills than a first degree in biochemistry to do so. I did an MSc in Nutrition which was followed by many happy years working in Papua New Guinea, Ethiopia and Vanuatu doing a wide range of activities, such as running feeding programmes, providing nutrition education and training but also a lot of survey research.
Coming back to the UK to ‘settle down’ I went into public health in a local health authority where I did a wide range of projects, for example surveys of the health needs of the elderly people living in the area, women’s satisfaction with maternity services and a study of breast cancer services in the area. I also did a part-time MSc in Social Research Methods & Statistics while working there, which I suppose marked the completion of my metamorphosis into a social researcher.
What was your first professional job? And first project there?
Perhaps my first job which was ‘officially ‘social research’ was when I joined the Social Survey Division of what was then the Office for Population Censuses and Surveys (OPCS) as a Senior Survey Researcher in 1995. I started out, as most ‘newbies’, did with a short stint on the General Household Survey before moving to take responsibility for the Survey of Psychiatric Morbidity among Prisoners.
Where did your career go next? What motivated that/those moves?
I stayed in SSD for eight years. An increasing focus on drugs research combined with moves in SSD away from specialisation led to a move to the Home Office to join the Drugs Analysis and Research Unit there. This allowed me to continue to work in the field of drugs research while also providing the novelty of working directly with policy makers. After several years there I moved on secondment to the independent, charitably funded UK Drug Policy Commission (UKDPC) which was created to demonstrate the value of objective analysis of the evidence to inform better drug policy. Once the six years of funding for UKDPC came to an end, I decided to go freelance as a researcher - I had developed a taste for freedom and the cutbacks make research in government more difficult. But I am still a civil servant at heart deep-down!
What has been your best professional moment?
I find it very hard to identify one, but instead have a lot of quiet satisfactions when I see findings and data I have generated being used in policy and practice. For example, the 1997 survey of psychiatric morbidity in prisons which I managed really raised the profile of the issue of mental health among prisoners and is still used. Similarly, the work I did at the UKDPC on stigma among people with drug problems has also contributed to a widespread acknowledgement of the issue. I have not changed the world but I think I’ve managed to make one or two things a bit better.
Having visited a remote village to conduct a nutrition survey, struggling down a steep, rainforest covered mountain side carrying a length board and a backpack in the pouring rain and knowing that if we didn’t get to the road before dark the vehicle we were meeting would have gone back to base and we would be stuck for the night. Exhausted, wet, constantly slipping over, encumbered by the accursed length board, which needed to be kept in one piece for the next bit of field work – not such a tropical idyll that day!
Do you have a social research hero/heroine?
Margaret Mead – reading her books on the culture of the Pacific islands contributed significantly to my itchy feet, interest in other cultures and the consequent fantastic experiences I had on my travels.
Do you have a favourite quote?
‘The plural of anecdote is not data’– variously attributed, often disputed, but it has frequently appeared apposite in my work in the area of drug policy.
What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
Go for it – the variety of opportunities is immense, there are so many facets to it that the work and skills utilised constantly change. I can honestly say I have never had a dull moment (well, perhaps one or two meetings from hell!).