Why Consider a Career in Survey Methodology?

Graduates at the Masters and PhD levels are in high demand in the job market. Government agencies, such as those in the U. S. federal statistical system (e.g., Bureau of the Census, Bureau of Labor Statistics) spend approximately $4 billion annually on economic and social information collection and dissemination and employ 12,000 staff. The commercial sector presents job opportunities in survey research firms and market research, with annual gross revenues of $10-15 billion and more than 45,000 technical staff. Academic survey centers and, recently, survey methodology education programs, seek staff and faculty with specialization in survey methodology.

What Kind of Work Do Survey Methodologists Do?

Survey methods change and are created as they are applied to an increasingly wide range of topics, and as new technologies develop that can be adapted to the collection and extraction of data. Methodologists design and implement these collection strategies. Survey methodology is a dynamic field where new challenges arise all the time, and bright, talented individuals are needed to develop and test new methods.

Our alumni are working at places like Pew Research,Survey Monkey, US Census BureauQualtrics, UCLA, Market Strategies International, University of Manchester, Research Triangle Institute, Uber, Boston Children's Hospital, NORC at the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan Survey Research Center and the University of Nebraska.  Our alumni are pursuing careers at organizations around the world.

Survey methodologists are at the forefront of developing and testing methods. They are engaged in all aspects of the survey process, from designing and selecting samples of subjects to questionnaire development and testing, design and administration of field procedures, interviewer training, reducing the level and extent of non-response, exploring new statistical estimation techniques, examining how surveys can safeguard respondent privacy and confidentiality, and efficient processing of collected data.

Survey methodologists work in the laboratory as well as the field. In the laboratory, they may be working with subjects in focus groups or in depth interviews to develop procedures for subsequent use in the field, with teams of scientists developing methods for a particular study, or examining methods to make more efficient sample selection. In the field, they may be training interviewers, observing field tests of survey instruments, overseeing large scale data collection operations involving a few dozen to hundreds of interviewers, or testing the extent to which samples actually represent populations of interest.

What Kind of Background Is Needed to Work in This Field?

Survey methodology is a field where individuals with interests and training as diverse as statistics, data science, and the study of human and social behavior may use their talents. Substantive background is often less important than having the right methodological skill set. It is important to keep in mind, though, that whatever the background, survey methodology is a quantitative research method, and preparation in some topics in mathematics is going to be useful.

For example, some individuals have interest and undergraduate training in the social sciences, particularly psychology and sociology. Survey methodology is a field where those interests can be applied to challenging problems in how people answer questions, how they respond to requests to participate in projects designed to benefit the public in general, and how scientists can measure the accuracy of their responses. Practitioners in these kinds of studies do need to understand statistical methods, and how to apply them in research studies. And thus students entering the field should be familiar with, at a minimum, college algebra. A course or two in calculus may prove useful as well, but it is by no means a requirement.

Others have interest in statistical methods. They could contribute to the development of new sample designs that employ materials that have not been used before, to the specification of estimation procedures appropriate to the sample design, to the implementation of methods to compensate for missing values, or to the exploration of statistical models that strengthen inferences drawn from surveys. Students entering the field with these interests should have taken a solid calculus sequence in undergraduate studies, and at least an introductory statistical methods course.

What Is the Job Market Like for Survey Methodologists?

Individuals holding Masters and PhD degrees in statistical, data and social sciences with training in survey methodology are in high demand. Jobs are available in government, academia, and private industry.

Government agencies at local, state, and federal levels employ survey methodologists. The U.S. federal statistical system, for example, consists of 10 large agencies (e.g., Bureau of the Census, Bureau of Labor Statistics) along with nearly 70 others (e.g., Small Business Administration, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission). These agencies spend approximately $4 billion annually on economic and social information collected through surveys, employing over 12,000 staff. International agencies, from the United Nations to the World Health Organization and other affiliated agencies are also employing survey methodologists.

The academic sector has hundreds of survey research centers at universities and colleges across the U.S. These centers are continually seeking Masters and PhD level staff to conduct and direct surveys and to conduct research on the survey process.

The private sector has numerous job opportunities for those with graduate training in survey research methodology. The private survey research sector has annual gross revenues of $10-15 billion and has over 45,000 technical staff. Non-profit survey firms are continually looking for trained survey methodologists to staff their diverse data collection and research activities. Market research firms are searching for survey methodologists with strong technical skills, familiarity with how research is done in the private sector, and an interest in exciting and challenging careers. Many market research firms are affiliated with multinational corporations, and are expanding US operations to international sectors.

What Are the Salaries Like?

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Bureau reports median annual wage-and-salary earnings for all occupations collected through the National Compensation Survey.

According to statistics available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in May 2014 the mean salary for survey researchers was $54,730 per year.  Survey researchers plan, develop or conduct surveys. 

In May 2014, the mean salary for statisticians was $84,010.  Statisticians develop or apply mathematical or statistical theory and methods to collect, organize, interpret and summarize numerical data.  This category includes survey statisticians.

To further explore Occupational Employment Statistics for these and other related occupations, please see the BLS website.

The American Statistical Association (ASA) conducts an annual salary survey.  The results provided on the ASA website are indicative of the salary a student graduating with a degree in survey methodology can expect to earn.

Survey methodology research is, for those with social science, data science, or statistical interests, a place with great opportunities for employment!