FEATURE1 June 2009

Double lives – Robert Stock


Researchers reveal how their out-of-hours pursuits impact on the 9 to 5. This month we meet Robert Stock, independent qual researcher and pre-primary teacher in a South African township

Tell us about your day job
I’ve been an independent qual researcher for the last nine years. My partner and I currently live just outside Cape Town, but the majority of the projects I do are still based in Europe. It’s a bit of a long commute for fieldwork, but technology means I can do a lot of the work just as easily from here as from London.

Tell us about your other life
I work with a pre-primary school in our local township. I spend one morning a week with the kids reading them stories to help them become more confident in using English. On top of that I help organise school outings and wrote and directed the school’s nativity play last year, which felt very strange in the middle of a southern-hemisphere summer. We’ve also set up a fund to give the school ongoing financial support.

Which came first?
Research has always been the primary career, but I’ve often been involved in more altruistic things alongside, whether it’s taking a sabbatical to work with a children’s charity in Ecuador, or being part of the buddy service for the Terrence Higgins Trust in London.

How do you fit the two around each other?
It’s not that difficult usually, even if I’ve sometimes had to run straight from the airport to the school.

What does volunteer work offer you that research doesn’t?
A constant reminder of how lucky we are in the developed world. It puts everything in perspective when you’re working on a multi-million pound brand one day and the next you’re with children who live in corrugated iron shacks that have no running water.

What does research offer you that your volunteer work doesn’t?
Intellectual stimulation of a very different sort. And, of course, the money that buys the freedom to do these other exciting things.

What does research teach you that you can use in your volunteer work?
Moderating skills are certainly very useful in managing groups of kids. And having run my own business I’m able to help the principal of the school with various financial and management issues too.

What does your volunteer work teach you as a researcher?
Humility, obviously, but also how useful it can be in research to rekindle that sense of innocence and wonderment that children have. It’s far too easy to become a bit jaded if you get caught up in this business at the expense of everything else, and it’s good sometimes to imagine how the world must look through the eyes of someone whose experience is completely different from your own.

What do your research colleagues say when you tell them about your other life?
I’m sure some are secretly quite jealous. And quite a few friends in the business have been very generous in contributing to our school fund. But then I guess researchers are very socially aware people.

What do the other people who work at the school say when you tell them you’re really a researcher?
I try and explain what I do, but it’s difficult for people to understand why some of the issues we deal with are important when their lives are more about survival than lifestyle choices. Although having said that, it’s fascinating to see how children here respond to peer pressure and use pester power just as much as in the developed world, so things are definitely changing.

If you had to give up one of your two lives, which would it be?
My experience here has got me thinking about how I could combine the best of both. So when our South African adventure comes to an end, I’d be keen to explore areas such as social or CSR research, or working with NGOs or charities.