International Market Research Consultant

Richard Garfein, PhD
Independent Consultant

It has been nearly 20 years since I received my PhD in social psychology from New York University and promptly left academe — venturing out into the "real world." I would like to share some of my experiences with you to illustrate what led to the move and how it has worked out for me.

Even during the mid-1970s, good academic jobs had become quite scarce, with hundreds of candidates applying for every entry-level, tenure-track opening. Even if I had wanted to stay in academe, the odds of my landing a good job were slim. But more importantly, as a graduate student, I had learned these things about myself:

  • Although I liked doing research, I didn't love classroom teaching

  • I didn't have the passion to become a clinical psychologist (another interesting career alternative to academic psychology that many pursue after getting their doctorates).

  • I found, to my surprise, that I really liked working in a corporate (business) setting. While working on my dissertation, I had taken a part-time job at American Express, providing research support to its human resources department. I guess what I liked was the atmosphere, the camaraderie, the excitement, the opportunity to travel and the earning potential. 

Shortly after completing my PhD, I joined American Express full-time, for what was to become an 18-year stint. An academician making the move into business receives a decidedly mixed reception. On the plus side, the research skills that one acquires as a research psychologist are absolutely applicable in a corporate setting. The skills are appreciated, and someone with research-psychology training can make an immediate contribution.

On the minus side, changing careers means starting at the bottom again. As you can imagine, being regarded as someone with "no experience" was a bitter pill to swallow after nailing down a hard-earned PhD. The earlier on in one's career that one makes the move, the easier it is.

For most of my 18 years at American Express, I worked in the market research field. So many social psychologists have stumbled into market research (not knowing that the field existed during graduate school) that it would have to be called a mainstream, alternative career path for social psychologists. The work that one engages in is applied social psychology in the true sense of the term. Some observations that I would cite in contrasting the academic world that I knew in the 1970s to the corporate world that I came to know are the following:

  • Publication. In an academic field, scientific knowledge is advanced through publication of one's work in respected scientific journals. In the business world, a very high percentage of the breakthrough, exciting work never sees the light of day outside of the company within which it was conducted. Some sharing does take place verbally, at professional association meetings, and to a limited extent, in trade journals. One works in a milieu of short time frames and short memories. Pragmatism takes precedence over theory.

  • Audience. In social psychology, work is written up and presented to one's peers (i.e., other researchers). Rarely is work presented outside of the field. In corporate settings, results of studies are presented to one's internal customers (few of whom have had any formalized research training). The responsibility lies with the researcher to make the presentation clear, user friendly and action oriented.

  • Expanded role. Over the years, the corporate market research role has broadened well beyond the scope of simply carrying out studies. One is increasingly called upon to work in multidisciplinary teams as a research expert and to tackle a wide range of tasks as part of the team. A diminishing percentage of one's time is actually spent doing research. The true test of one's work is the success of actions taken based on the research.

An important career choice that market researchers face is whether or not to stay in research. A number of market researchers make the move into nonresearch marketing positions to broaden their overall corporate experience and to open up other career-path possibilities. Staying in market research literally means that the highest level position that one will attain is head of market research.

Nevertheless, I chose to stay in market research simply because I like doing research and believed that I could make my greatest contribution in that area. I reached the top of my American Express career ladder by 1988 as vice president-international market research. Eight years later, in the interest of tackling new challenges and opportunities, I left American Express to start my own international market research consulting practice. I am excited about the prospects and feel that my social psychology doctoral training and 20 years of business experience have provided the ideal preparation.

(Originally published in the May/June 1997 issue of Psychological Science Agenda, the newsletter of the APA Science Directorate.)