Professor David Parsons is a Principal Consultant at P&A Research and Consulting, Visiting Professor at Leeds Beckett University and course leader on SRAs evaluation programme.
As a child what did you want to be when you grew up? My father was a policeman; I toyed with following in his footsteps but later assumed I would go into teaching. I would have been a lousy copper; too much questioning of ‘the rules’.
When did you first turn towards a social research career? I was blind to the opportunity and did not see it as a career until I found myself becoming established in it. I was always a “… but why” kid with an inquiring mind but the demands of the Sussex Constabulary saw five school changes by the time I was 13 and well short of top of the class. I scraped into university, but economic geography nurtured that inquisitiveness and produced an over-the-top undergrad dissertation which probably opened the door to my Ph.D. at Nottingham. There, I spent three years unravelling the local economic impacts of development control policies, nursing a battered mini between case study areas in Nottinghamshire and North Norfolk but I saw it as a gateway into a lectureship not a research career apprenticeship.
What was your first professional job? And first project there?
I joined the Institute of Manpower Studies at Sussex (later sensibly rebadged ‘Employment Studies’) as a junior Research Associate to design and analyse a large-scale survey of doctor’s career choices. In those days SPSS experience was a 1st class ticket into academic research, and within two years I was directing my first policy research study (apprentice recruitment in Northern Ireland). I thought that was rapid progress but later found out everyone else had turned it down for fear of ‘the Troubles’ in Belfast.
Where did your career go next? What motivated that/those moves?
IMS built my breadth and confidence, and I learnt a lot from some great colleagues, getting my first publications and some funding successes and ending up a Research Fellow, I was there nine years and moved only when a ‘chance of a lifetime’ job came up in the National Economic Development Office in Westminster as a principal analyst and advisor. In my mid 30s I was pretty young for the job, but I had a boss who handed me the great chance by leading the cross-governmental ‘Demographic Timebomb’ initiative. I hated the commuting but that programme was a talking point for years after, and I got to work with some brilliant brains. After five years I moved on to my first senior management role but it was NEDO that was my proving ground. It taught me more than I realised at the time about tackling the barriers to getting research and evaluation evidence listened to by policymakers and influencers. The social researchers’ toolkit has changed radically in the years since NEDO, but those barriers have not; I daily draw on those lessons.
What has been your best professional moment?
I have had the good fortune to work with some great colleagues on both sides of the academic/research and policy making fence; and on some very timely projects and programmes. I would not want to pick any one out as ‘my’ career high point; they have always been a team effort and luck has played a part in more than a few. But a recent high point was SRA proposing me as a Fellow to the Academy of Social Science; at this ‘grey’ stage in my career its rather fun to be referred to as an Academician.
I am a perfectionist, which I had felt was an asset but found it could be a curse. Early in my career I was wrapping up some final comments on a government commissioned draft research report which was about to go to a cross-departmental Working Group. I felt it could be enhanced well beyond the revisions sought and my ill-placed perfectionism went down like a lead brick. Sometimes it’s the knocks that provide the most learning.
Do you have a social research hero/heroine?
Oddly it’s my father who left school at 14 and would not have known a stratified sample from a sandwich, but he taught me the value of an open mind: “Always look for an alternative explanation”. It’s proven to be sage advice in making sense of evidence.
Do you have a favourite quote?
“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”; this from an eminent archaeologist. It’s a useful caution for the social researcher in not over stressing what can be said from the evidence when dealing with complex causation and a plethora of confounds.
What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
Go for it, but remember evidence cannot speak for itself; a successful career as a researcher is going to be more and more about not only shaping, collecting and analysing evidence but providing it with a clear voice.