A few weeks ago, I received this email message from a reader who describes herself as a seventh grade teacher in Los Angeles.
Yesterday, one of my students expressed an interest in having a career as a pollster. I looked online to find out how one becomes a pollster, but I found nothing other than the requirement of a college degree. How does one start a career as a pollster? Any advice you could give me for my student would be helpful.
Great question. First of all, congratulations to your student for their interest. Unfortunately, while polling and survey research demand specific kinds of training, our profession lacks some of the characteristics of professions like medicine, law or professional accountancy. We do have professional organizations, such as the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR), The Marketing Research Association (MRA), the Council for Marketing and Opinion Research (CMOR), and the Council of American Survey Research Organizations (CASRO), and most of those groups have ethical codes that bind their respective members. However, the profession lacks a set of formal qualifications, a proscribed course of post-graduate study and any formal licensing or required examinations for competence.
That said, I can offer four specific suggestions to students interested in becoming a pollster or survey researcher some day.
1) Take a lot of Math and Statistics. Statistical science is the building block upon which everything else in the polling world is based, so the more "numerate" and statistically literate you can become, the better. Fortunately, as I understand it, many high schools now offer some exposure to Statistics, so make sure to take those classes. And it doesn't hurt to have a knack for computer programming, as so much of data analysis is now facilitated by statistical packages like R, SAS and SPSS that really sing when driven by command line programming.
2) But be sure to study the other subjects that interest you. Survey researchers are usually more than just survey mechanics. They are usually experts in their chosen field, be it politics, business, medicine or something else (keep in mind that political polling is just one small piece of survey research -- surveys are also used in government and business to measure everything from customer satisfaction to the prevalence of poverty and disease). Most practicing political pollsters earned degrees in fields like political science, sociology, history or social psychology, but if you are interested in specializing in other kinds of surveys, make sure you learn as much as possible about those subjects.
3) Consider a graduate program in survey methods. Many of the individuals that currently work as pollsters or survey researchers had academic training in political science, sociology or a similar specialization that included significant coursework on statistics and survey methods. In recent years, however, a growing number of universities are offering degree programs in survey methods, including the University of Michigan, the University of Maryland's Joint Program in Survey Methodology (JPSM), the University of Connecticut and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. A number of other schools offer graduate certificate programs (AAPOR maintains a complete list).
4) Become an apprentice pollster. This was my path into the profession, and it is a more common experience than you might assume. I first went to work for a polling firm when I was 23 years old. My prior experience was mostly as a campaign field worker who had gained some exposure to surveys and data analysis as an undergraduate political science major at the University of Michigan. Most of my real training in survey methods came on the job working for two Democratic campaign polling firms during the 1980s. I later went back for course work at JPSM at Maryland, but the reasons I'm a pollster today is that I went to work for one and kept at it.
I know that many professional pollsters and survey researchers read this site, and I hope they will offer their suggestions or thoughts in the comments.