Influencing Social Change: Advice for Students Who Want to Work with NGOs. Melbourne, Australia

Influencing Social ChangeSharon Bond works as a Senior Research Officer with a not-for-profit organisation in Melbourne, Australia. Sharon conducts research and analysis to inform the planning and development of the organisation’s community services. One of Sharon’s primary research areas is on the ‘through school to work transition’ project. Sharon discusses her career path into her current role and she provides advice for people looking to find similar jobs, including her studies and the skills required in her day-to-day work.

Sharon Bond

sbond@bsl.org.au

Senior Research Officer, Brotherhood of St Laurence

My career path

I am working as a Senior Research Officer in the Research and Policy Centre at the Brotherhood of St Laurence. The centre is concerned with issues of social disadvantage and exclusion across the life course. I primarily work in the ‘through school to work transition’ but have conducted research in other areas also. My work involves conducting literature reviews, the analysis of government policy and its impact on disadvantaged groups, and the evaluation of programs operated by our community services division. The purpose of this research is to inform the planning and development of Brotherhood services and to build an evidence base from which to make recommendations to government.  Advocacy is a further component of my work. This occurs through alliances with other community agencies which together collectively lobby the government, and media releases which communicate the implications of my research for disadvantaged Australians.

After completing my honours degree in 1998 I was unemployed for six months. Research is a difficult field to break into but volunteer work helped. Initially, I had short term, casual research assistant jobs at universities, government and not for profit organisations. Then for around 6 years I worked part time with two different research offices doing religious research (both ecumenical and for the Catholic Church). Toward the end of this time I enrolled in a PhD at La Trobe University and in mid 2007 came to work at the Brotherhood where I currently work full time. I had wanted to move into social justice research for a long time so was delighted at this opportunity. 

Getting the job done

An honours degree is needed to obtain research work and increasingly postgraduate study seems to be required. Many of my co-workers have doctorates. My work involves writing research and ethics proposals and budgets, in negotiation with the service division. It involves developing surveys using Survey Monkey, intermediate statistical skills and the ability to use SPSS. Much of my research uses qualitative methods and involves running and analysing interviews and focus groups, for which I sometimes use NVivo software. Literature reviews require good internet search skills and the ability to use Endnote. A clear and succinct writing style is also essential to get reports and articles published. Good communication skills are needed to attract media attention with key findings and messages. Networking with other community organisation researchers is also important, both for the sharing of research and for more powerful, united advocacy to government. There is no established trajectory for career advancement that I am aware of, it’s a winding road.

My favourite part of this job is when I have my data, for example digital interviews (which to me feels like treasure) safely stored and I know I can spend the next period studying, analysing and seeking to understand the participants’ experiences. It is also deeply satisfying when this collective experience (for example, the experience of young people for whom cost is a barrier to their participation in school) can be used to bring about a more just society.

My least favourite part of this job is making sense of government policy documents that are written with a lot of jargon. This involves distinguishing between ‘aspirational goals’ and the concrete, tangible things that they have committed to do. I also feel apprehensive talking to journalists and on radio.

My goal for the future is to complete my PhD thesis which explores the attitudes of younger Australians to issues of poverty and social justice and the ways in which they engage in action for the common good. The challenge will then be to look at the implications and ensure my thesis is useful rather than a dusty volume on a bookshelf. As I have for many years been researching in both my work and spare time, I’m also looking forward to some time to travel, relax and do neglected household tasks such as rediscovering my garden from beneath the jungle of weeds.

Advice to students

My advice to a student considering my line of work is to try some volunteer research work or an internship to see if the job is for you. The networks you build will help you find paid work later, although tenacity is also important. On one occasion I rang all the ‘social research’ listings in the yellow pages looking for work. To become a researcher you need curiosity and a love of learning, the willingness to sit in relative isolation reading or working on a computer for long periods, through to the ability to engage large groups in presentations and research participants in deep conversation. Given the time span of research projects and the sometimes abstract nature of the work, it can be a long time before the concrete outcomes of your labour becomes visible (for example, a report, implementation of practical recommendations). Studying to become a researcher may not lead to a clear professional identity at the end, as studying to become an accountant does. Nor does the sometimes fragmented and casualised work provide the remuneration or security that a full-time graduate accountant salary would. That said, research can be interesting and personally fulfilling work and there is great satisfaction in knowing that your efforts can influence social change. In this sense there are other intrinsic rewards.


Editorial Credits

SAW logoArticle copyright: © Sharon Bond 2011. Published by Sociology At Work. All rights reserved.

Working Notes ISSN: 1838-5214

Article citation: Bond, S. (2011) ‘Influencing Social Change,’ Working Notes, Issue 2, June, online resource:  http://sociologyatwork.org/influencing-social-change

Top image credit: Normanack (2009) ‘Kids Work’, Flickr. Online resource last accessed 3 June 11: http://www.flickr.com/photos/29278394@N00/3937995404/