Social research is, in many ways, a misunderstood field of expertise. Any member of the public can witness the skill with which a medical doctor performs his work, and the importance of his role, but the application of social research is not something that can be viewed so directly. Dr. Evelyn Mahon, Course Director for the Trinity College MSc in Social Research, acknowledges that it is an area that is not always fully appreciated by those in positions of power and authority.
‘I think the recognition of social science research is growing, but it’s still not fully established here (in Ireland),’ Mahon explains. ‘When you look at Ireland and its development, what we most need now is an understanding of social issues; whether it’s organising a health service, or how best to manage and find cohesion. These are all social questions, and you need social science skills to answer them. I don’t think that’s fully recognised by governments and politicians.’
To redress this imbalance, Mahon set about designing a postgraduate course that would provide the best possible instruction in social research. Indeed, the quickest way to receive greater political support for the occupation may be to convince as many young Irish people as possible to pursue a career in the field; and the most efficient way of pursuing this aim is to provide graduates with a stimulating, informative postgraduate option, which can facilitate their development.
‘I actually designed the course having finished a very large study myself, within Crisis Pregnancy Ireland,’ Mahon explains. ‘Having trained up research assistants for that project – and a number of other ones over the years – I thought “there must be another way to do this, rather than having to train up people once you’ve landed a big contract”.’
In keeping with this original goal, Mahon strived (and continues to strive) to make the postgraduate course as practical and hands-on as possible.
‘I sometimes say to students that doing research is like driving a car,’ Mahon elaborates. ‘You can read the books, and read the rules of the road, but you have to get into the car and drive it – then you really learn what it’s about. So, that’s the whole orientation of the course: it’s very much hands-on and about getting stuff done. There’s no passive regurgitation of any description!’
A key aspect of this applied approach is Mahon’s insistence on students taking up a work placement during their two-year postgraduate course. This serves as both an opportunity to put their skills to some serious practical use, and also pave the way for a future career in the field.
‘I had worked in the University of Limerick until 1991, and they have a co-operative placement programme there, in their undergraduate programme,’ Mahon explains. ‘I thought that getting some placement work experience would be good for students. So, I contacted a number of organisations, and they were very supportive. So the students now go on placements, for about 12 weeks in April, in organisations that are primarily research-based. It’s a way of integrating the course with the broad research community of the country.’
Of course, there are a number of other notable postgraduate options in social research, in Ireland.
The University Of Limerick’s School Of Humanities offers an MA in Applied Social Research, which can be pursued as either a part-time (2 year) or full-time (1 year) course. Like the UCD postgraduate option, it takes pride in its provision of instruction in both qualitative and quantitative research. These are the two major approaches to research methodology in social sciences; simply put, qualitative research seeks an understanding of human behaviour and the reasoning that governs it, while quantitative research is a more systematic and empirical approach to investigating natural phenomena.
NUI Maynooth offers an MA in Sociology, which is entitled ‘Understanding Social Change: Politics, Culture, Community’. It is a one-year course, which takes an in-depth look at significant recent changes in Irish society: the rising influence of globalisation and the growth of immigration among many others. However, the course is not solely centred on Irish culture, as the investigation of these social issues is employed as a ‘laboratory’ for studying broader patterns of global change.
But, what subsequent options do students have, upon completion of their postgraduate course in Social Research? It is an area that is growing in significance, within Ireland, so the opportunities to secure employment in the field are increasing. As such, most postgraduate students will go on to take up a position directly related to their career, although – as Dr. Evelyn Mahon explains – there are a number of other options available to them.
‘Most of them go on to a research career, though some of them would also go into media work, as that might require research,’ she elaborates. ‘Quite a number of them return later on to do PhDs.
The masters is also now an absolutely perfect base for pursuing postgraduate studies, even though it wasn’t designed primarily with that in mind. But, it does provide students with an excellent foundation, and quite a number of them have gone abroad to do PhDs.’
So, social research is a perfect postgraduate option for ambitious young students, as it opens up excellent career opportunities, in a progressive industry. And, given the growing range of challenging and interesting courses in the field, now may be the ideal time to pursue it.