My career: Martina Vojtkova


Martina Vojtkova is Director of Evaluation at NatCen and a member of the SRA Board.

As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
There was a time when I seriously considered becoming a professional dancer. I have been dancing since I was five, performing on stage and on TV including in the Slovak equivalent of a West End musical, then joined a semi-professional dance theatre at the age of 15. I still maintain a passion for dance and have performed a few times in London, including in a production of my own after having set up a dance company in 2014.

When did you first turn towards a social research career?
I was always interested in understanding human behaviour and society and was accepted to study the BSc Human Sciences degree at UCL where I researched human behaviour across a number of disciplines, including psychology, genetics, antropology, evolutionary studies, and cognitive neuroscience. Unfortunately, I graduated a few years before behavioural economics became a real industry, so I was a bit at a loss as to how to apply my insights. So I pursued a MSc in Public Policy at UCL and became particularly attracted to applied social research. The epiphany moment that comes to mind is a seminar when we discussed whether or not microfinance works to help people out of poverty - here was a question I felt I could tackle!

What was your first professional job?  And first project there?
My first professional job was with the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (also known as 3ie). Although not known as one, 3ie is one of the earliest What Works centres in the UK (after NICE), funding, producing, quality assuring and synthesising rigorous evidence on the effectiveness of policies and programmes in low and middle-income countries. My first project was a systematic review of farmer field schools - an agricultural intervention that uses a participatory approach to teach specialist agricultural knowledge and skills with the aim to reduce pesticide use and increase agricultural yields.

Where did your career go next?  What motivated that/those moves?
Shortly after I joined, 3ie’s London office became associated with the Campbell Collaboration (C2) and I took on the role of managing editor for C2’s newly established International Development Coordinating Group, supporting a large number of international research teams in the production of high quality systematic reviews of development interventions. After taking on more senior roles in both organisations and leading synthesis projects of my own, I became interested in conducting impact evaluation studies myself. I also felt a pull towards evaluating UK policies and programmes where I had a much greater appreciation of the policy and social context. I accepted the role of Research Director in NatCen’s evaluation team in 2015 and was offered my current role of Director of Evaluation shortly after.

What has been your best professional moment?
One was my contribution to the development of the evidence and gap maps with colleagues at 3ie. I produced the first evidence gap map of interventions to prevent and address HIV/AIDS, which led to the development of a methodology  and interactive tool for decision-makers, research commissioners and research producers.

...and worst?
Some of the worst moments of my career were certainly the endless hours spent reviewing literature on the effectiveness of education interventions as part of a 3ie systematic review of interventions for improving learning outcomes and access to education in low- and middle-income countries. The review involved reviewing 78,000 study abstracts, over 2000 full text studies, and synthesis of 420 papers corresponding to 238 different studies! It took over two years and a team of ten people to complete.  

Do you have a social research hero/heroine?
I am not sure he counts as a social researcher but the person that comes to mind is the father of evidence-based medicine - Archie Cochrane. He was a Scottish doctor who advocated the use of randomized control trials to make medicine more effective and efficient. His advocacy eventually led to the establishment of the Cochrane Collaboration.

Do you have a favourite quote?
Yes, though it’s not exactly related to research. “And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.” Friedrich Nietzsche.

What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
It’s one of the most interesting fields I can imagine working in - it’s at the same time incredibly intellectually stimulating, interactive, and rewarding. It is an opportunity to gather genuine insights into how best to shape decisions and services that make a difference to everyone.