I began work as an independent researcher 20 years ago. The first project I took on was an evaluation of a county-wide substance misuse training strategy, in my home county of Staffordshire, for the Drug Action Team. Drug Action Teams were partnerships at local authority level set up by the Labour government to bring agencies together to address substance misuse of all kinds: illegal drugs of course, but also alcohol, pharmaceutical drugs, and other substances such as solvents. The Drug Action Team worked with staff from nightclubs and prisons, schools and hospitals, magistrates’ courts and housing providers – the remit was broad and training was a central part of that work. My previous experience, of working for four years as a training administrator in blue-chip City of London companies in the late 1980s, was very helpful.
My records show that the first meeting I attended was on 8 March 1999. I followed this up with a memo which I emailed to some colleagues and printed and posted for those who didn’t have email. Yes you read that right: in 1999 not all professionals had email, and I was lucky that I did. However, I didn’t have a laptop or a mobile phone. I knew a few people with mobile phones but I didn’t want one – in fact, I didn’t get one until my clients switched from saying “Do you have a mobile?” to asking “What’s your mobile number?” I got a laptop first, a Hewlett-Packard Jornada 690 ‘Pocket PC’ that ran Windows. But in 1999 I took meeting notes by hand and typed them up later on my desktop computer.
I did semi-structured interviews with interesting people all around the county, and also took notes for those by hand. And I had no data analysis software so I did that by hand too. The interview notes are long gone but I still have the analysed data in Word documents.
I thought that project would be a one-off. At the time I was earning my living as a freelance proof-reader and copy editor for academic publishers which was paying £10-£20 per hour. The project appealed to me as a chance to use my research skills once more and to earn a chunk of money – the budget was £5,000 and I charged £15 per hour for my time. But the people I worked with liked what I did, and word got round, and before I knew it I had a whole new career. I did a part-time MSc in Social Research Methods at Staffordshire University from 1999-2001 to improve my skills.
I worked at a desk in the corner of my small dining room, sometimes spreading out onto the dining table. It was a quiet place to work apart from the intermittent sound of my external dial-up modem. By the summer of 2001 I was too busy to cope alone so I started my limited company, We Research It Ltd, and took on another researcher to help with the workload. The two of us were quite cramped in my little dining room and it soon became apparent that we needed an admin assistant as well. I ended up moving to a place nearby, that I’d spotted while out on a bike ride, which had an office in the garden.
The three of us worked there together for a couple of years until I decided that I didn’t really want to go the employment/expansion route and made them redundant. They were nice people and good workers but I was struggling to bring in enough work to keep all three of us afloat and none of us were really happy with the situation. I continued to work with the researcher through sub-contracting until the recession hit in 2010.
The MSc was a huge help and I went on to do a PhD which I was awarded in 2006. But there was much I had to learn from experience, because the qualifications didn’t teach me how to work effectively with clients, or manage my company finances, or promote my business. Nobody told me that as an external team member I could become a scapegoat for events beyond my control; I had to learn that the hard way. No lesson explained that sticking to your ethical principles can become more difficult when you really need to earn some money. Nothing taught me how to combine being professional with being humane in a wide range of complex situations.
The period between gaining my PhD in 2006 and the change of Government in 2010 was a golden time. I rarely had to bid for work; I had good statutory and third sector networks across the Midlands and beyond, and most of my work simply arrived in my inbox. Then the new coalition Government brought in austerity measures and my networks imploded. I hadn’t seen that coming at all because I didn’t believe any UK Government could decimate public services (I do now). In 2011-12 my income plummeted. That year my company turned over less than £11,000 and I couldn’t pay myself anything out of that so I had to get a part-time job for a couple of years to make ends meet. But less work meant more time. I could finally write the book I’d been thinking about writing for the previous five years and start networking with academia. Fortunately for me, the writing and networking paid off, and I got my career back.
It took a few years to recover from the recession but I think I’m there now though there’s still a dent in my savings. I’m pretty good at my job these days, even if I do say so myself, though I know I can still make mistakes. But I’ve learned such a lot over the last two decades. I have been, and am, so lucky to be able to keep doing the work I love.
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Hi Helen, was your PhD in Social Research Methods? I think I’ve just had an epiphany about my doctoral future. I failed my first PhD as I couldn’t focus on a subject — I couldn’t bring myself to narrow down my research into one question that needed to be answered. It was the toughest three years of my life. That was 10 years ago and I still want to do research and don’t know what topic would be best. I’ve done some MSc courses in Social Research Methods and after reading your post, I realise that I would love to do it as a PhD as well. I just never really thought it was an option. But why wouldn’t it be, I guess? I’ll go research.
Thank you so much!
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Hi Joanna, it wasn’t specifically in social research methods but it had a strong methodological component. I’m sure you could do a PhD in research methods – people do – it’s just a case of finding the right supervisor and research question. Good luck!
Helen, I really enjoy reading your articles. I completed a B. Teach (Primary) with Hons I and have toyed eith the idea of going down the route you have as an independent researcher as I enjoy the research process but do not want to necessarily be tied to an individual institution.
One question I’ve been pondering is how do you manage reliable access to Journal articles/databases as an independent researcher?
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Hi Brendan and thanks for your kind comment. I have two routes here in the UK; first, I’m a visiting fellow at a couple of universities; it’s an honorary post but one of the benefits is access to literature (there are others too). However, here you need a PhD for that. Second, I’m a member of the UK and Ireland Social Research Association and one of the member benefits is access to literature through EBSCO. I don’t know if ASMRS offer a similar member benefit; it might be worth checking. Good luck!
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