A research apprenticeship

Bangladesh Demographic and Health Survey 2011 questionnaire, by NIPORT, ICFMacro, USAID and Mitra and Associates

Today I caught up with S N Mitra, who taught me all I know about survey research.  Mitra got his masters in demography at Australian National University and returning to Bangladesh found himself starting Mitra and Associates.  Since the beginnings in the 1970s Mitra has conducted high quality population based surveys for development agencies and NGOs.

In his office and on field trips with his survey teams in 1989-91 I discovered the importance of interview selection and training, pretesting and quality checks.  I learned to appreciate an elegant question that conveyed one simple message that everyone could answer truthfully and I understood that a simple, direct design was better than a complicated design.

Mostly I learned how to love my work, fight for my ideas passionately and then have a laugh.

On this trip I talked to him about the Demographic and Health Surveys which he has been doing in one form or another since the late 1970s. And there he was, still debating the right question format, sample size, report writing, dissemination strategies and interpretation.

Today Mitra told me that professionals cannot be made by others, professionals need to develop themselves through constant application to learning and working.  But he discounts the value of a mentor.

In 1990 Mitra told me, in the midst of my ranting about some way to code a question, “you will never enjoy working with someone more than working with me”.  At the time it sounded like a curse. It was, in fact, his gift to me.

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