Kevin Pickering is Head of Statistics (Public Affairs) @ Ipsos MORI
As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
I genuinely could never answer this question. I remember when I was eleven years old boldly stating that I didn’t want to work at all. (Two years later I started doing a paper round so that aspiration was rather short lived.) Through school and then university, I still had no idea. Rather than having any plan, it was more the case that over time most other options were eliminated as I studied first maths and then probability and statistics because they were the subjects I enjoyed and was good at.
When did you first turn towards a social research career?
Rather appropriately for a statistician, it was really just a series of random events – opportunities presenting themselves unexpectedly and the right job coming along at the right time. Once I started working as a survey statistician, it felt like the right job for me and I suspected that I would do it for a long time.
What was your first professional job? And first project there?
I had done a few jobs previously, but my first related job was working on a project funded by the ESRC’s Analysis of Large and Complex Datasets research programme at the Institute of Psychiatry. I remember the head of the programme Professor Fred Smith saying that one of his hopes for the programme was to steer graduates towards a career in social research. Judging by the number of people I’ve met since who also were part of that programme, it seems that he was successful.
Where did your career go next? What motivated that/those moves?
I moved within the Institute of Psychiatry to work as a statistician on a research project about stepfamilies that included a component of data collection. Even though it was relatively small scale, the steps required were similar to that of a large survey. Over time I ended up managing parts of the project by default when colleagues left, so gained first-hand experience of a lot of the elements involved in running a survey. When that project and hence my contract was coming to an end, I came into work one morning and someone had cut out a job advert from the paper for a survey statistician at SCPR (now NatCen) and left it on my desk for me. It seemed to be the perfect job for me, so it was quite fortuitous that they were recruiting when I was looking for a job. I ended up working there for fifteen years and have now been at Ipsos MORI doing a similar job for five.
What has been your best professional moment?
It was the first big social research contract that we won after I had joined Ipsos MORI. I was pleased with the sampling design – it was a neat and novel approach. Also, I felt that I had repaid some of the faith that they had shown in me by recruiting me.
Discovering a mistake that I had made with the weighting for a survey just before it was due to be published. It meant that all the analyses needed to be re-run and the report re-written, which required the project team to work all weekend to get it done. It was quite early on in my career, and I felt awful, but I did learn a very important lesson.
Do you have a social research hero/heroine?
No one in particular, but I have been very lucky to have worked with many brilliant and inspiring people, and continue to do so.
Do you have a favourite quote?
I was asked for my opinion on a specification for a project and declared that it was impossible. One of my brilliant and inspiring colleagues replied that everything was possible if you threw enough resources at it. It was a very subtle way of telling me that I tended to be too negative.
What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
I consider myself very lucky that this was the career that I haphazardly stumbled into. The work is intellectually fulfilling and is often fun. If you seize the opportunities, you will learn a lot, and continue to learn throughout your career. Also, it really is true that most of the people who work in social research are lovely.