What’s it like to be a researcher in a commerical agency?


There’s a lot of information out there about the differences between working as a researcher in an academic context compared with an industry one. However, most of these articles (like this recent one) tend to focus on the ‘hard’ sciences and offer insights into the differences between working as a scientist in a university versus an industry lab.

As a result, there is comparably little written about what it’s like to work as a researcher from a social science/humanities background in an industry environment. In this post, I want to address this gap by sharing my experiences of working as a researcher in a commercial communications agency. In pointing out some of the challenges I’ve experienced, I also want to highlight the advantages that academically trained researchers have when working in an industry context.

So, what’s it like to ‘do’ research in a commercial environment with paying clients?

Since graduating with my PhD in 2021, I’ve been fortunate to move straight into an industry role where I get to continue researching the subject matter of my thesis – multicultural communications. The difference is that now I’m actually getting paid beyond a doctoral stipend!

Working as a consultant in a commercial agency, I provide communications research and strategy services to a range of clients in the public and private sectors. I work mainly as a qualitative researcher, although increasingly I’ve had to become adept at mixed methods research design and quantitative analysis.

A normal work week for me includes designing research, running focus groups or conducting interviews, writing up insights and reports as well as pitching for work. Some of the types of research projects I’ve completed for clients include:

  • Identifying the barriers and opportunities to increase fire safety awareness among multicultural communities.
  • Exploring how workplace health and safety campaigns can better reach and engage with multicultural communities.
  • Examining how local governments can use Chinese social media channels to communicate with Chinese-speaking residents.

What are the key challenges shifting from academia to industry?

After surviving the lean years as a PhD student, getting paid a decent income to do research is akin to a miracle! Because, let’s face it, in academia we’re so used to doing it all for free.

One of the main challenges of being paid to do research has been to reconfigure my relationship with time. Put simply, I’ve had to understand that time equals money. As a consultant, you are being paid for your time and that means your expertise is parsed out in billable hours to the client.

This was a big adjustment because time is accounted for in very different ways in an academic context. Previously, when I became impatient, I would be reminded by my supervisor that research ‘takes time’ and that ‘you need time to stew on ideas’. In contrast, in an industry environment, I have to be much more precise with time. At the proposal stage, I need to identify exactly how much time a research project will take from start to finish.  When I win the work, I then have to stick to those agreed-upon hours otherwise the agency loses money.

Also on the subject of time: I am often asked to complete research in an extremely short amount of time. This is because consultants are working to their clients’ deadlines. For example, it is not unusual for a client to expect the whole research process, including design, data collection and insights and recommendations reports, to be completed within four weeks. Managing to do research in such a compressed time means I have to become used to working at a faster pace and also more pragmatic!

Clients may not be interested in the ‘why’ and just want to know the ‘what’

In academic research, the pursuit of the ‘why?’ is what is often most valued. By answering the ‘why’ question, we contribute to new knowledge. My experience so far in industry, however, is that clients are more interested in the ‘what’ questions. They’re thinking ‘what does it mean for me?’, and ‘what should I do next?’.

Put another way, there is the expectation that the research will provide clients with answers and help them decide on priorities.  As a result, most of the research I’ve conducted ends up being synthesised into research reports that provide recommendations about what the client should do in the context of a campaign or strategy.

Needless to say, this can be extremely challenging because my PhD, like many others, trained me to have a laser-like focus on the ‘why’ question. And answering the ‘why’ is what drives many of us to do the research in the first place! Working in the industry context, I’ve often found that I have to park the ‘why’ and move to focus on the ‘what.’ That being said, as I will flag below, one of the strengths of being an academically trained researcher is that you can weave the ‘why’ into your work.

Four advantages of being an academically trained researcher working in an industry context

While I’ve described a few challenges above, I want to end this post on a more positive note by highlighting the advantages that I think academically trained researchers have when working in an industry context.

While there has been much written about the transferable skills you gain from a PhD,  I think that there is a case to be made that PhD graduates also bring a set of distinct research skills that set them apart from others. These are the four advantages I believe that PhD graduates have:

  1. Ability to design research that is rigorous and answers questions. This skill has been critical to my success working in an industry context. It has meant that I can quickly clarify the scope of projects, provide a solid rationale for decisions, and manage expectations about the research outputs.
  2. Identify the gaps in knowledge. I am able to point not only to gaps in knowledge but also to whose voices and perspectives are missing from the context so far – this is invaluable. In a lot of my research reports, I’ve emphasised to clients that what is invisible in the research findings is sometimes just as important as what is explicit.
  3. Situate and contextualise knowledge. This is another critical skill that the PhD instils in you – that knowledge is always situated and should be contextualised. In practical terms, this means that I’ve been able to hook my research findings and insights into broader ideas and concepts, thereby painting a fuller and richer picture for clients about what the research means for them and their organisation.
  4. Adopt a critical perspective. One of the hardest parts of the PhD for me was the constant critique, which was stressful and often debilitating. With the distance of time, I’ve realised that this process trains you to see the world through a critical lens. It means that you are constantly challenging assumptions and can bring a level of self-reflexivity and depth to your analysis.

On this last point, there is always the chance that your client is not particularly interested in a critical perspective. As I mentioned earlier, they may just want some practical recommendations about what they should do next about a campaign. However, I’ve found that I can weave a critical perspective into my work if I make it valuable from a client’s perspective. For example, while my PhD was informed by a social justice lens that continues to shape the way I see the world today, it is not something I explicitly state in my reports to clients. Instead, I emphasise the need to situate the findings of the research within a broader societal context. I’ve often drawn the client’s attention to the need for them to recognise the structural challenges and barriers that people from migrant and refugee backgrounds can face when it comes to accessing information and services. In other contexts, I’ve often situated my research findings within broader conceptual ideas and frameworks. For example, I recently highlighted to a client that the research we conducted for them pointed to the need to shift to a strength-based rather than deficit approach to engaging with multicultural communities.

While the list above is not a definitive one and is largely based on my personal experiences, what I hope it highlights is the ‘extra’ value that academically trained researchers have when it comes to working in an industry context. In my case, I now describe myself as a researcher who works at the intersection between academia and practice in the communications industry. It is a space that I’m finding is full of both intellectual and career possibilities.

Author Bio: Dr. Som Sengmany is Multicultural Insights Director at CultureVerse, a multicultural communications agency