Alun Humphrey is Director of Household Surveys at NatCen Social Research

As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
Like many of my friends at school, I always assumed I would grow up to become a professional football player; I can’t recall how old I was when the harsh reality finally dawned. Apart from that I never really had any professional ambitions although for some reason, I have always liked the idea of being a weather presenter.

When did you first turn towards a social research career?
Without any firm plans in terms of career direction, I decided to take a degree in business studies as I felt that would prepare me for a range of different options. The final year of the course included a module on Market Research, which I found really interesting and so I decided that was the direction in which I wanted to go.

What was your first professional job?  And first project there?
From University, I joined the graduate trainee programme at what was then called Research Services Ltd (RSL) and is now part of Ipsos MORI. I worked very briefly on a project called Working Lives (affectionately known as ‘Lurking Wives’) but my first role was carrying out research for financial services clients. I think my very first proper project was a customer satisfaction survey for an insurance company. I also spent some time working on RSL’s omnibus survey.

Where did your career go next?  What motivated that/those moves?
I stayed working in commercial market research at Ipsos for a few years but became disillusioned with the nature of the surveys I worked on. I clearly remember presenting a chart showing that the client (an insurance company)’s spontaneous brand awareness had increased from 8% to 15% and being unable to muster the same enthusiasm for this finding as others in the room. I wanted to work on research that would be of wider benefit to society so I actively sought to move into social research and moved to NatCen.

What has been your best professional moment?
Though it may not initially sound too glamorous, one project I really enjoyed working on was a mixed method project (with Cardiff University) for the Law Commission to inform potential changes they were considering to the law in relation to inheritance. The findings from both strands were carefully interwoven in the final report. As very much a quantitative researcher, working on something where qualitative interviews and a survey were used to complement one another was a real eye-opener for me. I also enjoyed the fact that it was specifically commissioned to directly inform potential law changes (even if they didn’t take on board all the recommendations!).

...and worst?
There have been quite a few but you’d have to go a long way to beat being part of a research team that managed to put a survey into the field without any questions on the age or sex of the respondent.

Do you have a social research hero/heroine?
I don’t have any heroes or heroines but I have had the privilege of working with a number of brilliant, committed and genuinely nice people during my social research career and it would be difficult to single any individual out. It is perhaps worth noting that my initial interest in social research was sparked by Professor Martin Collins at City University who taught the market research module mentioned earlier.

Do you have a favourite quote?
I am not particularly into quotes but I would say that the old maxim ‘If it looks interesting, it is probably wrong’, has probably been the most instructive for me over the years.  

What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
If you are interested in understanding people, what they think, what they do and why they do so and if you think it important that social policy is informed by robust evidence then social research might be for you. Even if you don’t want to work in a research agency long-term, I would also definitely advise spending some time early in your career working at one as this will give you hands-on experience of the practicalities of undertaking research, including the actual data collection process.