Tom Anderson is Head of Research and Statistics at Qualifications Wales, the regulator of non-degree qualifications in Wales.
As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
I believe the usual candidates came up, including professional footballer (delusional) and astronaut (also delusional, not least because I hate heights!). I did go through a spell of wanting to be a Maths teacher, which was more realistic but still not realised!
When did you first turn towards a social research career?
I cannot remember ever having a clear view of what career I wanted. After I finished my Masters in Sociology in 2002 I was somewhat at a loss. The experience of chain smoking my way through my dissertation had put me off a Phd and academia. I spent some time working as a teaching assistant and then in market research. I realised then that a career in social research outside of academia was possible and an option that I might be suited to. Well, it’s just applied Sociology after all.
What was your first professional job? And first project there?
I worked on the target group index at BMRB International.
Where did your career go next? What motivated that/those moves?
I joined the National Centre for Social Research as a Research Officer in 2003. After Natcen, I joined the ONS as a Senior Research Officer in 2007. It was at the time when ONS were locating jobs outside of London. My future wife and I had become disillusioned with commuting into London and of ever being able to afford a house there (yes – even in 2007!) and we fancied a move West. I haven’t regretted it – although I do miss the social life around working in London! In 2016, I made another change and moved into Qualifications Wales to work in regulating qualifications. Qualifications Wales had just been set up and I wanted to develop the new research and statistics function. After 13 years of national surveys, I wanted to get experience of working in a different but similar field of research. There are a lot of parallels between estimating population parameters via survey questions and measuring educational outcomes via test questions!
What has been your best professional moment?
Joint first place for a) publishing the national statistics from the 2013 Children’s Dental Health Survey, which I had run from tender to output stage, and b) seeing educational policy in Wales change to disincentivise wholesale early entry into GCSE. That decision was informed by some qualitative research delivered by my team.
There have been a few moments. Everyone has made a few mistakes over the years…
Do you have a social research hero/heroine?
Not really. Although since starting work in education and seeing the impact on behaviour of high stakes performance measurement, I have felt an increasing respect for Max Weber’s work on rationality.
Do you have a favourite quote?
Recently I have found myself returning to a piece of writing from Charles Sanders Peirce on probability (in ‘The Doctrine of Chances’). Peirce was trying to understand how to reconcile the frequentist interpretation of probability with a single case in which the outcome of an incorrect decision is catastrophic:
“It seems to me that we are driven to this, that logicality inexorably requires that our interests shall not be limited. They must not stop at our own fate, but must embrace the whole community. This community, again, must not be limited, but must extend to all races of beings with whom we can come into immediate or mediate intellectual relation. It must reach, however vaguely, beyond this geological epoch, beyond all bounds. He who would not sacrifice his own soul to save the whole world, is, as it seems to me, illogical in all his inferences, collectively. Logic is rooted in the social principle.”
Perhaps the sentiment expressed in this quote is increasingly moving to me in the current political context!
What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
I would always encourage their interest. We are fortunate to be able to have such intellectually stimulating ways to earn a living! But I would also encourage them to try different paths through their career. It keeps you sharp and helps build broader knowledge and skills. And given that we’re all be working into our 70s, we might as well move around a bit!