What Should I Major in If I Want to be a Market Researcher?

The Short Answer:

Anything you want.

A Slightly Longer Answer:

A very direct and straight-line strategy would be to major in some business field, get great grades, and apply to MSU’s Master of Science in Marketing Research Program. They are ranked #1 in the US. You can find out more at their website. I’m also told UGA and Hofstra are good too. Upon completion of your degree, you will be a formally-trained Market Researcher.

The Best Answer (Is Actually a Series of Questions):

Is “What should my major be?” really the right question you should be asking? As an aspiring market researcher you might want to take a higher-level strategic view of the situation and ask the question this way:  “What experiences and skills do I need out of college and from my major to get a job as a Market Researcher?”

The reason I phrase the question that way is because aside from the three schools mentioned above, there are very few places where you can get a true degree in Market Research.  Plus, your goal shouldn’t be to BE a Market Researcher, it should be to DO Market Research for a living.

In my career, out of the thousands of researchers I have worked with, I have only personally worked with two Market Researchers who came to the profession with a MMR from MSU or Georgia. They were great people and very talented. But if I look at the majority of Market Researchers I’ve worked with, it’s hard to pin a specific major on them. I did my undergrad in History and Philosophy and afterwards earned a Master of Arts in European History.  That doesn’t exactly scream “Fortune 500 Company in Your Future,” yet here I am and I’m not alone. I know people who have entered the field with degrees in Education, Psychology, Economics, Journalism, Library Science, Sociology, Marketing, Criminal Behavior, Chemistry and the list goes on. Pretty much any major works as long as you can use it to build the right kinds of experiences and skills. The more the better.

The lesson here is that it will not just be the degree you have alone that lands you your first Market Research job. My best advice is major in something you are good at, that enables you to have a high GPA at graduation, and gives you the kinds of experiences necessary to succeed in an interview with a great company that does Market Research.  If there are multiples degrees that fit that description for you, then I recommend you look even closer at the school and degree program with the following questions:

  1. Does my major/minor offer signature opportunities to show I can integrate multiple data sources to create new knowledge?
  2. Will I have opportunities as an undergrad to lead and execute real research projects with real respondents? This could be tied to a major, minor, or department.
  3. Does my degree program involve a co-op or internship opportunity?
  4. Will the school I attend offer balance in my education?
  5. Does my school/department/major offer multiple campus leadership opportunities where I can demonstrate project management, strategic thinking, and the ability to lead my peers?
  6. How big are the job fairs at this school? Who recruits there? Do they even look for Market Researchers?

Selecting a college or university program that will allow you to answer “Yes, this ______” to all of those questions, and your ability to fully take advantage of all of those opportunities should significantly improve your chances of being hired and succeeding in a Market Research career after university.  Here is why I believe each of these are important:

Does my major/minor offer signature opportunities to show I can integrate multiple data sources to create new knowledge?

My major as an undergraduate was History and Philosophy.  In my studies in History, I would have failed the assignment if I submitted a research paper that had just one source in the bibliography and offered no new ideas or perspectives on the subject I had researched. The same is true today in my career as a Market Researcher.  Taking one piece of data — or even multiple points of data — from a single source in isolation hardly tells your client the full story.  Further, the major value-add Market Researchers provide to their business partners is the creation of new insights and new knowledge.  A presentation of already-known facts citing one source of data isn’t very credible to your business partners.  It isn’t very credible to a History Professor either.  As a result, many of the Liberal Arts disciplines are good degrees to explore because they teach you many good habits of integrated research — especially when the answer to the question you are being asked is ambiguous or subjective.

If a career in Market Research is your goal, maximize a degree in fields like History, Political Science, and Philosophy, by studying in a program that gives you the opportunity to research and write your own undergraduate thesis or Capstone presentation. This is valuable for both the experience of doing it AND the benefit of talking about it in an interview.  Even better if you can work as a Research Assistant to one of your professors or a graduate student on a publishable piece of research in one of those fields.  These big projects that generate new knowledge will help credentialize you as a researcher more than all the “little” research papers from your coursework you complete over the course the major.

Will I have opportunities as an undergrad to lead and execute real research projects with real respondents?

In my own experience at the University of Iowa, I was fortunate enough to earn a position as an undergrad Research Assistant in the Sociology Department. This gave me great hands-on experience doing respondent interviewing and qualitative research analysis that I could later talk about in interviews.  It also taught me how to collect data and insights from people rather than from databases and secondary research articles.  Qualitative research can be difficult to master, and getting experience in a rigorous, laboratory setting is a big advantage. Majors like Sociology and Psychology are great preparation for a job in Market Research — especially if you want to focus your career on gathering qualitative insights.  However, these majors prepare you best when your school offers access to lab jobs and running research projects as an undergrad.

Journalism is another great major/minor to get this kind of experience because of its focus on interviewing, synthesizing, and story-telling.  Some of the best qualitative Market Researchers I know were Journalism majors.  They were taught as undergraduates to be professional question askers and their experience on their school newspaper, local newspaper, or other publications honed their skills at distilling hundreds of quotes and interview hours into short, pithy, compelling narratives.  Again, the value here is not just the degree in Journalism itself, but the skills, experience, and portfolio of work that can be showcased to potential employers as a result.

Does my degree program involve a co-op or internship opportunity?

One of the hardest barriers to overcome as a first-time job applicant is the experience factor. Market Research is a hard industry to break into in the first place, so having a program where you get real-world business experience or even public sector research experience, can save you a lot of trouble.  This is one of the greatest advantages to majoring in one of the traditional business fields (Economics, Marketing, Finance) because many Business Schools have pre-existing relationships with major companies and want to see their graduates placed with prestigious companies.  Engineering is a great major for this too.  The key is to understand what opportunities exist for you to go to school as or while being the employee of a business in your industry of interest.  Getting these experiences can also help you build your network within the world of Market Research even if you don’t intern with a company’s Market Research Department.  During your internship, network like crazy and request to have lunch with some of the Market Research leadership at the company.  Ask smart questions, be impressive, don’t be afraid to mention your interest in the field, and even leave your resume behind.  You never know what might happen.

Will the school I attend offer balance in my education?

Even though I majored in History and Philosophy, I had the opportunity to take courses in the Business School and Sociology Department that rounded-out my skills. I wasn’t amazing at accounting, but at least I had it on my transcript. Having exposure to the Sociology lab gave me primary research experience with living people I couldn’t exactly get in my History Degree. As a result, I didn’t have to “apologize” for my Liberal Arts degree in interviews because I had a broad foundation beyond “just” the core concepts of my major.  The same is true on the other side, if you are planning on majoring in Business (say Marketing) with the intent to do Market Research as a career, it can’t hurt to have a minor field in a more research-based discipline to give you exposure to the methods, rigor, and language of doing research.  On our site we often refer to the “art” and “science” of Market Research and you will be better served if you have at least some exposure to the skills required to be both an artist and a scientist in your career.

Does my school/department/major offer multiple campus leadership opportunities where I can demonstrate project management, strategic thinking, and the ability to lead my peers?

Again, even if your grades are good , if you can’t prove to a recruiter you have the experiences and skills that will set you up to succeed on the kinds of Market Research projects you’ll be assigned, you’ll be less successful in your application. The good news is they don’t expect every college graduate to intern at TNS/Kantar to be a suitable Market Research job candidate. Being President of a Club, Fraternity, or Honor Society goes a long-way on a resume and in the interview process. Just make sure your Presidency has a few, notable, insights-based accomplishments to point to.  The more campus leadership opportunities you have access to and are passionate about, the stronger your resume and interview conversations will be once it’s time to apply for your first job out of school.

How big are the job fairs at this school? Who recruits there? Do they even look for Market Researchers?

In my own experience I was extremely fortunate to attend Purdue Univerisity where the job fairs were so big (even during the Great Recession) that they had to be held outside in the Mall because so many companies came to hire there.  I was also very fortunate that many of the companies visiting Purdue either had Market Research departments of were directly hiring entry-level Market Researchers.  Most colleges and universities have a career office on campus that will help students with interviewing skills and even identifying career path options.  They also should be able to provide potential applicants with the list of companies that visited for the most recent Career Fair and what positions they hired for.   This information may even be on the their website and publicly available. I isn’t a deal-breaker if you get into your dream-school and the Career Fair isn’t that big, but it sure makes life simpler for aspiring Market Researchers if the recruiters are coming to campus already to hire you rather than applying into some ethereal database in the sky.

Conclusion:

If you’ve made it this far and didn’t jump-off at the MSU link, you have probably figured-out that the short answer I provided first is probably best:  “Anything you want.”  However, you will be more successful if you make your school decision and your major decision around some of the criteria above.  I close with one of the best pieces of advice I received in my career search, which was this:  “Your school’s pedigree and your GPA will get you the interview, but it will be your experiences and what you show you can accomplish that will get you the job.”

Good luck in your college search, good luck in your decision on a major, and good luck as you start your career as an aspiring Market Researcher!

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