Public opinion researchers help measure public sentiment about various products, services, or social issues by gathering information from a sample of the population through questionnaires and interviews. They collect, analyze, and interpret data and opinions to explore issues and forecast trends. Their poll results help business people, politicians, and other decision makers determine what’s on the public’s mind. It is estimated that there are fewer than 100,000 full-time employees currently in the field, primarily working for the government or private industry in large cities.
Public Opinion Researcher Career History
Public opinion research began in a rudimentary way in the 1830s and 1840s when local newspapers asked their readers to fill out unofficial ballots indicating for whom they had voted in a particular election. Since that time, research on political issues has been conducted with increasing frequency—especially during presidential election years. However, public opinion research is most widely used by businesses to determine what products or services consumers like or dislike.
As questionnaires and interviewing techniques have become more refined, the field of public opinion research has become more accurate at reflecting the individual attitudes and opinions of the sample groups. Companies like the Gallup Organization and Harris Interactive conduct surveys for a wide range of political and economic purposes. Although some people continue to question the accuracy and importance of polls, they have become an integral part of our social fabric.
The Job of Public Opinion Researchers
Public opinion researchers conduct interviews and gather data that accurately reflect public opinions. They do this so that decision makers in the business and politics have a better idea of what people want on a wide range of issues. Public opinion is sometimes gauged by interviewing a small percentage of the population containing a variety of people who closely parallel the larger population in terms of age, race, income, and other factors. At other times, researchers interview people who represent a certain demographic group. Public opinion researchers may help a company implement a new marketing strategy or help a political candidate decide which campaign issues the public considers important.
Researchers use a variety of methods to collect and analyze public opinion. The particular method depends on the target audience and the type of information desired. For example, if the owner of a shopping mall is interested in gauging the opinions of shoppers, the research company will most likely station interviewers in selected areas around the mall so they can question the shoppers. On the other hand, an advertising firm may be interested in the opinions of a particular demographic group, such as working mothers or teenagers. In this case, the research firm would plan a procedure (such as a telephone survey) providing access to that group. Other field collection methods include interviews in the home and at work as well as questionnaires that are filled out by respondents and then returned through the mail.
Planning is an important ingredient in developing an effective survey method. After they receive an assignment, researchers decide what portion of the population they will survey and develop questions that will result in an accurate gauging of opinion. Researchers investigate whether previous surveys have been done on a particular topic, and if so, what the results were.
It is important that exactly the same procedures be used throughout the entire data collection process so that the survey is not influenced by the individual styles of the interviewers. For this reason, the process is closely monitored by supervisory personnel. Research assistants help train survey interviewers, prepare survey questionnaires and related materials, and tabulate and code survey results.
Other specialists within the field include market research analysts, who collect, analyze, and interpret survey results to determine what they mean. They prepare reports and make recommendations on subjects ranging from preferences of prospective customers to future sales trends. They use mathematical and statistical models to analyze research. Research analysts are careful to screen out unimportant or invalid information that could skew their survey results. Some research analysts specialize in one industry or area. For example, agricultural marketing research analysts prepare sales forecasts for food businesses, which use the information in their advertising and sales programs. Survey workers conduct public opinion interviews to determine people’s buying habits or opinions on public issues. Survey workers contact people in their homes, at work, at random in public places, or via the telephone, questioning the person in a specified manner, usually following a questionnaire format.
Public opinion researchers are sometimes mistaken for telemarketers. According to the Council for Marketing and Opinion Research, public opinion researchers are conducting serious research and collecting opinions, whereas telemarketers ultimately are in the business of sales.
Public Opinion Researcher Career Requirements
Because the ability to communicate in both spoken and written form is crucial for this job, you should take courses in English, speech arts, and social studies while in high school. In addition, take mathematics (especially statistics) and any courses in journalism or psychology that are available. Knowledge of a foreign language is also helpful.
A college degree in economics or business administration provides a good background for public opinion researchers. A degree in sociology or psychology will be helpful for those interested in studying consumer demand research or opinion research, while work in statistics or engineering might be more useful for those interested in certain types of industrial or analytical research.
Because of the increasingly sophisticated techniques used in public opinion research, most employers expect researchers to be familiar with computer applications, and many require a master’s degree in business administration, sociology, educational psychology, or political science. While a doctorate is not necessary for most researchers, it is highly desirable for those who plan to become involved with complex research studies or work in an academic environment.
Public opinion researchers who conduct interviews must be outgoing and enjoy interacting with a wide variety of people. Because much of the work involves getting people to reveal their personal opinions and beliefs, you must be a good listener and as nonjudgmental as possible. You must be patient and be able to handle rejection, as some people may be uncooperative during the interviewing process.
If you choose to work in data analysis, you should be able to pay close attention to detail and spend long hours analyzing complex data. You may experience some pressure when required to collect data or solve a problem within a specified period of time. If you intend to plan questionnaires, you will need good analytical skills and a strong command of the English language.
Exploring Public Opinion Researcher Career
High school students can often work as survey workers for a telemarketing firm or other consumer research company. Work opportunities may also be available through which you can learn about the coding and tabulation of survey data. Actual participation in a consumer survey may also offer insight into the type of work involved in the field. You should also try to talk with professionals already working in the field to learn more about the profession.
Fewer than 100,000 full-time public opinion researchers are employed in the field. Public opinion workers are primarily employed by private companies, such as public and private research firms and advertising agencies. They also work for the government and for various colleges and universities, often in research and teaching capacities. As is usually the case, those with the most experience and education should find the greatest number of job opportunities. Gaining experience in a specific area (such as food products) can give prospective researchers an edge.
Many people enter the field in a support position such as a survey worker, and with experience become interviewers or work as data analysts. Those with applicable education, training, and experience may begin as interviewers or data analysts. College placement counselors can often help qualified students find an appropriate position in public opinion research. Contacts can also be made through summer employment or by locating public and private research companies in the phone book.
Advancement opportunities are numerous in the public opinion research field. Often a research assistant will be promoted to a position as an interviewer or data analyst and, after sufficient experience in these or other aspects of research project development, become involved in a supervisory or planning capacity.
With a master’s degree or doctorate, a person can become a manager of a large private research organization or marketing research director for an industrial or business firm. Those with extended work experience in public opinion research and with sufficient credentials may choose to start their own companies. Opportunities also exist in university teaching or research and development.
Starting salaries vary according to the skill and experience of the applicant, the nature of the position, and the size of the company. The U.S. Department of Labor does not offer salary information for public opinion researchers. It does report that market research analysts (a type of public opinion researcher) earned a median salary of $56,140 in 2004. Earnings ranged from less than $30,890 to $105,870 or more. The department also reports that survey workers earned salaries in 2004 that ranged from less than $15,330 to more than $56,740. The median annual salary for survey workers was $26,490 as of 2004. Those in academic positions may earn somewhat less than their counterparts in the business community, but federal government salaries are competitive with those in the private sector.
Most full-time public opinion researchers receive the usual medical, pension, vacation, and other benefits that other professional workers do. Managers may also receive bonuses based on their company’s performance.
Public opinion researchers usually work a standard 40-hour week, although they may have to work overtime occasionally if a project has a tight deadline. Those in supervisory positions may work especially long hours overseeing the collection and interpretation of information.
When conducting telephone interviews or organizing or analyzing data, researchers work in comfortable offices, with computers, calculators, and data processing equipment close at hand. When collecting information via personal interviews or questionnaires, it is not unusual to spend time outside in shopping malls, on the street, or in private homes. Some evening and weekend work may be involved because people are most readily available to be interviewed at those times. Some research positions may include assignments that involve travel, but these are generally short assignments.
Public Opinion Researcher Career Outlook
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, employment of market and survey research workers is expected to grow faster than the average through 2014. Job opportunities should be ample for those trained in public opinion research, particularly those with graduate degrees. Those who specialize in marketing, mathematics, and statistics will have the best opportunities. Marketing research firms, financial services organizations, health care institutions, advertising firms, and insurance firms are potential employers.