CAREERS IN RESEARCH & RESEARCH OPERATIONS REPORT | by The ResearchOps Community | researchops-community

Analysis and primary authorship by Cam Owen, PhD. Supported by Brigette Metzler, and Frederik Bader.

Start here to find out what roles people are doing in UX research and operations — their titles, salary and skills

  1. Experience > Education
    Years of experience seem to matter more than a postgraduate education as an important qualification for a more senior level, but a master’s degree does offer an advantage as one tries to get managerial jobs.
  2. Subject-specific > non-subject-specific studies
    Mostly commonly studied university subjects include Design, Human-Computer Interactions or Human Factors, and Behavioral Sciences (specifically Psychology and Anthropology), though this broadens considerably when looking at the findings from the cohort included as being research operations professionals.
  3. Five important university subjects for a research career
    Survey respondents from the research cohort believe university subjects that teach research methodologies, data analysis, critical thinking, presentation of data, and business operations provide the necessary skills for a career in research
  4. Technical and soft skills are valued
    They valued technical and “soft” skills focusing on: research methods, data analysis, project management, teamwork, relationship-building, and cultural sensitivity.
  5. Research Ops needs a wide range of skills
    Research operations respondents have a wide range of skills across many disciplines, which is consistent with the current discourse and understanding of the field of research operations.
  6. Operations specialists seemed to value ‘on the job’ learning, but the cohort that indicated they did operations roles tended towards being highly educated and also more senior than the research cohort of respondents. There was a broad range of skills found in this cohort, including mathematicians, philosophers, computer scientists and librarians.

Research and research operations have become a recent growing career path. From private insurance companies to government healthcare programs or from small nonprofits to large tech firms, the increasing desire of organizations to make data-driven decisions comes with jobs available in many industries and settings. But not much is known of the people who make up this growing career path, their educational backgrounds, salary, qualifications, skills, and day-to-day tasks.

Motivated by this gap, the ResearchOps professional community conducted a census from March to July of 2020 through a survey. Data analyses were performed to provide a broad view of salary distribution by educational level, years of experience, gender, seniority, and country.

Building from the warm reception of this publication, analyses were further performed for insights into:

  • common job titles
  • seniority level and educational qualifications
  • common fields of study
  • valued technical and “soft” skills

We hope that this report would help the emergent ResearchOps field to know what job titles are around, what people are being paid and the sorts of skills that might be required to do the many types of roles involved in the discipline.* We also hope young students who are exploring different options, individuals who are looking for guidance as they make a career change, or people who simply wish to know more about their work and professional community.

Of the 242 respondents, 147 identified as leading, or doing research operations, or a combination of research and operations. One person included in this selection stated they were a team of one, and so we have taken them to be included in this cohort. Our findings are as follows.

JOB TITLES

Of the people with ‘operations’ in their title (28), 21 were ‘Managers’ or ‘Leads’. Two were Design Operations Managers. Two were Design and Research Operations Managers. Others (7) were just ‘Research Operations’, ‘specialists’, ‘practitioners’ and one analyst.

25 of the 147 respondents that identified as working in the field of Research Operations had the job title of UX Researcher, or Senior UX Researcher/Lead UX Researcher.

Specialisation in Operations

ResearchOps is a nascent field, and the job titles reflect that there has not been sufficient time for much specialisation to occur. Of those who identified as doing research operations, there was one ‘Community Manager’ and two ‘Knowledge Managers’. Some were listed as ‘Program’ managers/leaders while others ‘Project’ Managers. Three people had a job role that listed them as working in Strategy (‘Program Manager, Strategy Execution’, ‘Corporate Strategy’, ‘Director, Research and Strategy’).

WHERE ARE THE RESEARCH OPERATIONS PROFESSIONALS IN THE SURVEY WORKING?

Top 5 countries: 72 of the 147 people identifying as working in operations work in the United States (US), 25 in the United Kingdom (UK), 9 in Germany (GER), 8 in Canada (CAN) and 7 in Australia (AUS). This is also reflective of the demographics of the ResearchOps Community itself, and so the implicit bias in the data means that this particular piece of data may not mean that research operations is more or less prevalent in the US.

EDUCATION AND YEARS OF WORK EXPERIENCE

Of the 147 ‘Ops’ respondents, 41 were intermediate or junior/associate level roles. This means there was a heavy bias towards seniority in the respondents who reported working in operations, with 106 respondents being at senior level or above. The ResearchOps Community is biased towards senior leaders when it comes to operations, and so this may be reflective only of the fact that the survey was conducted primarily within the community. The average number of years of work experience in their current field was 7.12 years, with 15 having had more than 15 years experience in the field.

When it comes to seniority, years of experience and education seem to go hand in hand with advancement.

A master’s degree seems to offer an advantage as one moves from junior to mid- or late-career positions: Someone who holds only a bachelor’s degree is less likely to have a job that involves the management of other employees (such as Team Lead, Principal, or Director). Below is a table that demonstrates this point.

Seniority
 Average Years of Experience
 Minimum Years of Experience
 Maximum Years of Experience
 Median Highest Education
 SVP/Chief of (1)
 
 
 11
 n/a
 n/a
 No record
 Director/Head of (19)
 13.3
 3
 21
 Masters
 Lead/Principal (27)
 9.38
 3
 25
 Masters
 Manager/Team Lead (24)
 8.58
 0
 21
 Masters
 Senior (35)
 6.61
 1
 19
 Masters/Bachelors (15 and 14 records respectively)
 Intermediate (30)
 2.77
 0
 6
 Bachelors
 Junior/Associate (11)
 0.68
 0
 2.5
 Bachelors

There seems to be almost no regional or organizational differences as these insights apply to the United States, Europe, Australia, Canada, Brazil etc. Only in the United Kingdom, does the trend vary, as Directors/Heads of were less likely than the other levels to repost having a PhD. In every other instance, the greater the seniority, the higher the level of education.

This quantitative breakdown of seniority, years of experience, and highest education should be further understood in a broader context, where some of the surveyed research operation professionals were proud to report that they “learned on the job”. Where some indicated qualifications were not necessary, or expressed hesitation in naming any one field of study, they tended to indicate the broad range of skills required.

For example, when asked about the qualifications that a person might need for their current role, an associate-level Research Operations Analyst based in the United Kingdom in an organization of 1001–10,000 employees responded:

“I think experience here is more valid than qualifications, especially if you’re doing a generalist role like me, it’s so varied, it’s hard to see how one thing would help.” — Research Operations Analyst (associate level), company of 1001–10,000 employees, UK.

SALARY

The smallest ResearchOps salary (not including bonuses) was USD$25,000 (residing in Mexico with 5 years experience). The largest was USD$300,000 (residing in the US with 20 years experience). The average salary was USD$52,713 per annum with the median being USD$94,250.

The average salary of the respondents residing in the US within the Operations cohort was USD$125,832 p.a and the median was almost the same. In the US, the average years of experience in the field was 6.9 years.

In the UK, the average salary for a ReOps professional was USD$75,465, with the median approximately the same (USD$74,500).

As will be shown below, this means that operations professionals in this group of survey respondents were more highly paid than respondents who were researchers. There is insufficient data to show why this may be the case. Two possible reasons might be that the ReOps respondents happened to be more senior. Another might be that lead operations roles may be more prevalent due to the nascence of the field — there may have been insufficient time to see the kind of specialisation that allows for junior operations roles. In order to provide an answer to this question, in depth interviews would need to be completed across the industry, and there would need to be a higher response rate to the survey.

HOW ARE REOPS PROFESSIONALS WORKING?

Almost every research operations specialist is working in-house, with 102 of the 147 respondents working in-house in the private sector. Eight identified as working in government, and 10 in agencies.

JOB TITLES

Research and research operation professionals tend to have very

similar job titles across different countries and organization sizes.

Two categories stand out in the data in this survey:

  • User Experience (UX) Researcher
  • Design or Product Researcher

Specifically, the word “research” and “researcher” appear 69 and 105 times respectively (out of 242 job titles).

Of the 94 respondents who did not have any aspect of operations in their job area, 79 identified as being in research, 9 being in a combination of research and design, and 4 being in product (design and/or research). One identified as being an academic doing research into the field of interaction discovery.

WHERE ARE THE RESEARCHERS IN THE SURVEY WORKING?

Top 5 countries: 44 of the 94 people identified as working in research work in the United States, 13 in Germany, 9 in the United Kingdom, and 4 each in Portugal and Spain. This is also reflective of the demographics of the ResearchOps Community itself, and so the implicit bias in the data means that this particular piece of data may not mean that research is more or less prevalent in the US. It is notable perhaps, that Australia had more operations specialists respond to this survey then researchers (7 as opposed to 2).

EDUCATION AND YEARS OF WORK EXPERIENCE

When it comes to seniority, years of experience appear to outweigh high education as an important qualification. If you have more than 3 years of work in the industry, you can move out of junior positions with just a bachelor’s degree.

But a master’s degree does offer an advantage as one moves from junior to mid- or late-career positions: Someone who holds only a bachelor’s degree is less likely to have a job that involves the management of other employees (such as Team Lead, Principal, or Director). Below is a table that demonstrates this point.

Seniority
 Average Years of Experience
 Minimum Years of Experience
 Maximum Years of Experience
 Median Highest Education
 Director/Head of (3)
 15.3
 7
 20
 Masters
 Lead/Principal (14)
 9.2
 1
 20
 Masters
 Manager/Team Lead (10)
 9.9
 1
 20
 Masters
 Senior (30)
 6
 0 (but has a PhD)
 17
 Masters
 Intermediate (21)
 3.5
 1
 10
 Masters and Bachelors
 Junior/Associate (10)
 0.5
 0
 2
 Bachelors

There seems to be no regional or organizational differences as these insights apply to the United States, United Kingdom, or any other country as well as small or large companies.

This quantitative breakdown of seniority, years of experience, and highest education should be further understood in a broader context, where some of the surveyed research and research operation professionals were proud to report that they “learned on the job” and made a point to emphasize that they cared about what prospective employees might bring to the table through their relevant past work more than formal qualifications.

For example, when asked about the qualifications that a person might need for their current role, an intermediate-level User Experience Researcher based in the United States and an organization of 501–1,000 employees responded:

“I don’t know of any. If folks can get a basic crash course on interviewing technique, the other 90% of the job is just wrangling people.”

At the same time, many emphasized that they wouldn’t have gotten the necessary job experiences without a formal education in research-related fields. This point is illustrated by a Director based in the United States:

“Experience is far more meaningful than education at this level, but education is what unlocks the important experiences earlier in my career — I wouldn’t have been a successful researcher earlier in my career if I didn’t have my education.”

SALARY

The smallest Research salary (not including bonuses)was USD$17,000 (a Senior User Researcher residing in Brazil with 6 years experience). The largest was USD$178,000 (a Senior User Researcher residing in the US with 7 years experience). The average salary was USD$84,139 per annum with the median being USD$80,000.

The average salary of the respondents residing in the US within the Research cohort was USD$104,005 p.a and the median was USD$97,100 p.a. In the US, the average years of experience in the field was 6.8 years.

In the UK, the average salary for a research professional was USD$75,333, with the median USD$66,000. The sample size was small however, as not every respondent in the UK provided a salary figure.

HOW ARE RESEARCH PROFESSIONALS WORKING?

Almost every respondent in the research cohort is working in-house, with 58 of the 90 respondents working in-house in the private sector. Fourteen identified as working in agencies.

WHAT DID PEOPLE STUDY IN SCHOOL? (Research and Operations specialists)

Note from Cam Owen, principal analyst and author of this report: Personally, I found this part of the data analysis to be most exciting as it appears that research and research operation professionals come from a diverse range of backgrounds that include international relations, visual arts, journalism, and English literature.

Interestingly, and perhaps predictably given the diversity of skills and roles within the field of research operations, the instance of individual fields of study was much higher amongst the operations cohort than amongst the research cohort. Within the research cohort, there were 31 fields of study listed from the 71 people who responded with some information about their studies. Within the Operations cohort, of the 113 people who provided information about their studies, there were 59 unique responses. The fields were as diverse as criminal justice, archives, library sciences, film, communication sciences, and mathematics. Both fields displayed a high frequency of people with specialist skills in Design, Human Computer Interaction or Human Factors, Social/Behavioral Sciences (especially Psychology and Anthropology) and Information Technology. Library Science, and Business Management were also common fields that survey respondents for the Operations profession studied for their undergraduate and graduate degrees. Below are graphics of the combined fields of research and operations that were generated from Nineteen, an online data visualization platform, to showcase how the top three fields are distributed across different seniorities.

Prevalence of a psychology or anthropology field of academic qualification by level of seniority
Prevalence of a human factors field of academic qualification by level of seniority
Prevalence of a design field of academic qualification by level of seniority

A look at job postings from the same time corroborates these trends. Here are two examples from Google and MarketCast.

A posting from Google for Quantitative User Experience Researcher focuses on Computer Science, Human-Computer Interaction, Statistics, and Psychology as the field of study.
A posting for a Research Analyst with MarketCast emphasizes experiences in research and a graduate degree in the social sciences (particularly, Psychology and Anthropology).

Further, certain certificate programs can be helpful as qualifications. The Nielsen Norman Group (NN/g) UX Certification and General Assembly 12-Week UX Design Immersive were mentioned most often. The following are a sample of the certifications mentioned:

  • Nielsen Norman Group (NN/g) UX Certification
  • General Assembly 12-Week UX Design Immersive
  • Emerging Methodologies Certification
  • Certificate in Interaction Design & Social Entrepreneurship from Austin Center for Design)
  • Pragmatic Institute Certificate Level II in Product Management
  • Google Analytics and Google Tag Manager Certification
  • Business Thinking Certification
  • UX Design Certificate from DevMountain
  • Certificate in Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation

RECOMMEND QUALIFICATIONS: Field of study

The list of recommended fields of study is similar to the list of subjects that research and research operation professionals studied. Both research and operations specialists tend to favour experience over qualifications (stating this 13 times out of 63 suggestions for research and 23 times out of 108 suggestions). These are some of the fields suggested:

There is a marked difference between the research professionals suggestions and the operations professionals suggestions. For researchers, the studies suggested are: Masters or PhDs with fields in Psychology, Social Sciences, Behavioural Sciences.

The operations cohort made suggestions such as Business Administration, Human Computer Interaction, Masters of Business Administration, Project Management, Psychology and Research Methods. They also included Product Management, Computer Sciences, Change Management, Library Sciences and one notable suggestion of Hospitality.

This is also qualitatively highlighted through what a senior UX researcher (Finland) and a Design research coordinator (United States) wrote when they were asked “What qualifications do you think would be beneficial for someone in a role like yours?”:

“Any degree with focus in human behavior. Tech, economics, design, social sciences. Anything that gives some basis for understanding how people tick” — Senior UX Researcher, company of between 501–1000 employees, Finland.

“I think anyone who works well with people can work in Research Operations. There aren’t any hard skills you can’t develop on the job. I feel like people who have had customer facing experience would do especially well since this job requires frequently interfacing with others.” — solo ‘Design Research Coordinator (Ops team of one), company of between 501–1000, US.

In both fields, a bias towards social sciences and research are clearly present. Even where other fields are suggested for operations professionals, experience is also frequently suggested alongside other specialty fields. In short, subjects that teach students research methodologies, data analysis and synthesis, critical thinking, presentation of data, and business operations can provide the necessary foundation for a career in research and research operations.

If you are a job applicant, you could emphasize previous work experiences in a way that shows you are able to have the above skills.

TECHNICAL AND “SOFT” SKILLS YOU SHOULD HAVE

The technical and “soft” skills that current research and research operation professionals recommended often focus on research (particularly interview skills and data analysis), project management, teamwork, and relationship-building. The following hierarchy list provides a broad look that, hopefully, can help individuals recognize what they can already bring to the table and highlight these contributions in job applications.

While not a systematic finding, R, Excel, and Matlab were mentioned as desirable software platforms.

Technical 
 Software: SQL, Excel, PowerPoint, R, Matlab 
 Research: survey 
 design, usability test 
 design, inclusive and 
 accessible design, data modeling, qualitative 
 and quantitative 
 methods, interviewing 
 Management: project and product 
 management, vendor management 
 “Soft” 
 Curiosity, ability to see patterns, adaptability, creativity, organization 
 Relationship building, public speaking, 
 empathy, cultural 
 sensitivity, group 
 moderation and 
 facilitation,

We hope that this short post can provide you with more insights into research and research operations as a career path. Many trends did emerge, which can offer guidance as to which degree a student can pursue or the technical and “soft” skills that job applicants can emphasize in a cover letter and résumé.

But, above all, it is interesting to see that as a professional community, the field of research and operations holds a lot of promise as they synthesize different kinds of knowledge that comes from different types of background. As a first ‘deep dive’ into the field of research operations, this survey helps to validate some aspects of the profession long suspected — that while knowledge of research is highly regarded, operations professionals come from many and varied fields, reflective of the sheer breadth of the field. It is interesting to see that this is not yet reflected in much diversity in job titles, and this is reflective of the emergent nature of the field. As the field matures, we expect to see many more specialist librarians, participant recruitment specialists, procurement specialists and perhaps communications job titles. Until then, one can be assured that research operations professionals themselves are highly educated, possess significant, diverse skills, and are pleasingly occupying senior positions in the industry.

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