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Incurably reflective?

Then perhaps education research is what you are looking for, says Kate Myers. Education researchers come in all shapes and sizes. Though few aspire to the job from childhood, some decide this is their intended profession after their first degree. Others start their careers as teachers, perhaps with the intention of moving into research within a few years, or move into education from other disciplines such as the social sciences.

Many though, drift into research. They are the reflective practitioners who may be interested, enthused and influenced by doing a higher degree, reading research or meeting researchers. There are no set courses or mandatory qualifications, though most researchers have a masters degree and either have, or are working towards, a doctorate.

A masters degree with a research methods component is a good starting point. There is an apparent divide between qualitative and quantitative research and although it is not unusual to specialise in one, it is useful to know about both. If possible, choose a course that is taught by experienced researchers. Make contact with someone working in the field you are interested in. Get experience of writing joint papers. You can contact people directly. Addresses are usually given at the end of articles in professional journals and you can talk to researchers at conferences. The best one for networking and checking out current issues is the British Educational Research Association conference held every year. The next one is from September 11 to 14 next year at the University of York. For details telephone 01904 432940.

Many researchers, mainly women, survive the uncertainty of short-term contracts or projects. They often have to juggle workloads because a new contract starts before an old one is finished. This is not as problematic as the prospect of not having any work when a current project finishes.

Short-term research, for example surveys, tends to provide information rather than explanation. Sometimes funders want immediate answers. More difficult is when they want simplistic answers and are not prepared to deal with complex results.

Longer-term projects are really investment research. Funders realise that there will not always be immediate benefits. A good example is the National Child Development Study which started in 1958 with a cohort of 17,000 children. It continues to yield important information about the original cohort; now their children are being studied too. Researchers on projects like these can grow up and old with their projects.

Researchers have to have the skills to inspire confidence and encourage confidences. Successful ones have the capacity to talk to, interact with and empathise with people in different situations and at different levels. One researcher I know used to have a change of clothes in his car so that he could wear jeans when interviewing pupils and get into the suit for interviewing the head.

Writing skills can be learned. An analytical mind is an asset and it is important not to be frightened by numbers, put off by obscure jargon, or dazzled by technology.

Entrepreneurial skills are increasingly useful. Accomplished researchers are good communicators, self-motivated, able to meet deadlines and, above all, they must have a desire to make schools better places for pupils and teachers.

Established researchers are supportive and welcoming to "incomers", but don't expect any favours as far as the quality of your work is concerned. Commenting on each other's work is the norm. This can be inspiring but criticism can be devastating. Some eminent researchers have gained their reputations through demolishing others.

It is helpful to have a handy "sugar parent" as the pay is not wonderful and there is no career structure. The starting salary for contract researchers is about Pounds 14,000, but beginners with some teaching experience would start at about Pounds 18,000. Many established researchers on permanent contracts with university education departments, combine their research with teaching. Wages here are more generous, but in general school teachers are now better paid than university lecturers.

So what are the benefits? You will be doing a rewarding, intellectually-challenging, and sometimes exciting job. You will largely be in charge of your own diary. You will be meeting stimulating people and may have opportunities to travel, although not always to the places you'd like to travel to. It's a job in which you could actually make a difference. Research can change the way people see and do things and can affect policy.

You may become well known, at least in the education community, but are unlikely to make a fortune. Would you advise one of your children to be one? Seven years ago Ted Wragg's daughter Caroline decided to leave a secure, well-paid job in banking and enter the precarious world of short-term contracts in education research. In spite of the drawbacks, he's delighted that she is doing a satisfying, worthwhile and enjoyable job. And so is she.

* Dr Kate Myers is an associate director of the International School Effectiveness and Improvement Centre, (ISEIC) Institute of Education, University of London, and is course leader for the doctor of education programme.She would like to thank Professors John Gray, Homerton College, and Harvey Goldstein, Institute of Education, for their help in preparing this article.

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