Andrew Phelps is a Principal Research Officer at ONS and is commissioning editor of the quarterly SRA magazine ‘Research Matters’.
As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
I don’t remember anything specific!
When did you first turn towards a social research career?
I studied Economics and Statistics at Exeter University as I had a vague idea that I wanted a job in the social sciences but had no idea what specifically. Careers fairs came and went packed with accountants, actuaries, bankers, etc. - none of these inspired! At last a careers fair featured someone working in market research for Readers Digest who did inspire, so I started applying for graduate trainee programmes in large market research companies.
What was your first professional job? And first project there?
I joined the graduate trainee programme at RSGB, which was part of Taylor Nelson AGB (which is now within Kantar). After 12 months working on the commercial omnibus survey I joined the Social Research team. My first social survey project was working on the Youth Cohort Series for DfE.
Where did your career go next? What motivated that/those moves?
It was a great start in social research at RSGB, but I wanted experience working on a large-scale random probability face to face survey. I moved to BMRB (now also within Kantar!) to work on the British Crime Survey and worked on a number of other random probability surveys. After 7 years I moved to NatCen Social Research where I had the opportunity to be the survey manager on some pretty amazing health surveys over the next 6 years. For the last 6 years I’ve been at ONS, focussing mainly on social survey redesign methods.
What has been your best professional moment?
Up until recently I would say delivering the 3rd National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (NATSAL) at NatCen, which was so interesting and challenging in so many different ways. But as researchers we’re always looking for big impact so being responsible for setting up and delivering the ONS survey measuring the social impacts on Great Britain of the coronavirus in March of this year has got to be my best professional moment. We had to set up the survey in a little over a week! The survey results still regularly feature in the daily Number 10 press conferences and were part of the evidence base to inform lockdown in March.
I once ran an employee satisfaction survey for a large organisation where I didn’t check properly the reminder letter spreadsheet. The first name field was missing, which only became apparent when I got a call from the confused mailroom at the organisation “Which of the 12 Mr Jones’s should this be delivered to…?”
Do you have a social research hero/heroine?
There are so many it’s hard to choose! I find the work of people like Beatrice Webb and Charles Booth fascinating to read about. There are also a lot of unsung heroes and heroines out there who I’m worked with over the years.
Do you have a favourite quote?
Based on my worst professional moment ‘the devil is in the detail’ and similarly, ‘the plan is nothing, planning is everything’.
What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
When I started, I thought surveys was all there was to social research! There are so many different methods and types of organisations, spend some time to learn about the breadth of the industry to help decide where you might want to work. And don’t worry if your first job/post isn’t what you hoped it would be, there’s always somewhere else you can try.