With More Than 1.6 Million Survey Responses, Princeton’s Survey Research Center Turns 25

Nov 14, 2017
Sarah M. Binder
Woodrow Wilson School

Surveys are a part of our everyday lives — from customer service telephone surveys and retail email surveys to the official U.S. Census. Many surveys are designed to inform important research on issues that affect many lives.

For the past 25 years, a dedicated center at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School has gathered an astonishing 1,676,908 survey responses, on topics ranging from the economics of concert ticket pricing (with more than 3,000 interviews conducted at 26 venues around the U.S.) to the way students’ opinions change after their first year of college.

Since its establishment in 1992 through a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Princeton Survey Research Center has been a key resource to assist students, faculty and administrators with the design and implementation of survey research projects and the management of data collection. Its staff provide consultation and guidance on study design, sampling, instrument development, data collection and data processing.

To celebrate its 25th anniversary, the SRC will host a full-day colloquium featuring presentations on new and recent survey research by social scientists from Princeton and other universities. Open to all students, faculty and staff, as well as the public, “From Interviews to Evidence: A Celebration of the Survey Research Center at Princeton University,” will be held Friday, November 17, 2017, starting at 8:30 a.m. in Robertson Hall, Bowl 016. [Registration is required; to register, email Helen Varone at hvarone@princeton.edu.]

Founding Director Alan Krueger will open the conference with a discussion about survey evidence on pain medication and labor force participation. Krueger is the Bendheim Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the Woodrow Wilson School and former chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.

In addition, Betsy Levy Paluck, professor of psychology and public affairs (and 2017 MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Fellow), will discuss “The Effect of a Supreme Court Decision Regarding Gay Marriage on Social Norms and Personal Attitudes.” The complete agenda can be viewed here.

Krueger said, “In its first 25 years, the Princeton Survey Research Center has been able to assist in an astounding array of important research by faculty, students and staff.”

The Survey Research Center has made strides over the years to modernize its services and expand the number of researchers it is able to assist. Associate Director Edward Freeland joined SRC in 1998, noting at that time, the Center had six outdated computers that were not networked — requiring data to be copied manually from computer to computer. In 2001, the SRC moved to its current location at 169 Nassau Street.

Today, the Center is not only vital in supporting faculty research; it also supports the research projects — especially senior theses — of dozens of students hailing from many academic departments. The facility has 12 stations (and three overflow stations) with computer-assisted telephone interviewing, digital voice recorders, iPads, a library collection on survey research methods, and a network of external resources. The SRC also has developed a system by which researchers can schedule their work time online.

“We have worked diligently to expand the educational scope of our mission, supporting a greater number of senior theses and strengthening our teaching function,” said Freeland. “By focusing today largely on online surveys, we have expanded the number of research projects we can support.”

Undergraduate and graduate students from all departments are welcome to work with the Center; many students conduct research on domestic and international politics, election polling, labor force participation, and online psychological experiments.

“We have more students doing data collection for their senior theses than ever before,” said Freeland. “It’s a fairly low-cost option.”

Pleasant Garner ’18 worked with the SRC to develop a survey to gauge Princeton undergraduates’ attitudes toward recycling, with the results forming a key part of her junior research paper. The SRC sent Garner’s survey to a random selection of undergraduates.

“I met with [SRC Assistant Director] Naila Rahman and told her the basics of my survey: the target number of respondents, the key research question, and the amount of compensation I was able to offer. She gave me pointers on how to streamline my survey, how to use Qualtrics, and instantly knew how many students the survey should be sent to in order to reach the target,” Garner said. “The meeting (and subsequent emailing) definitely helped me work through the process much quicker than if I’d tried to figure out Qualtrics and my survey plan alone. Additionally, the SRC’s role as an intermediary between the researcher and the students invited to participate ensured confidentiality and streamlined the process.”

Maha Al Fahim ’19 is conducting survey research for the first time, through the SRC. She is finding the step-by-step guidance and comprehensive support invaluable as she works on her junior paper, which is examining temporary workers’ interest in unionization and how that interest changes with variables like work sector, demography, length of stay at the user firm, and the ratio of permanent to temporary employees at the firm.

“I had difficulty finding a survey that tested such factors. However, I did not feel limited because I knew that through the SRC, I can gather my own data. This makes the SRC empowering. It helps Princeton’s scholars become leaders in their fields as it allows them to lead in untrodden fieldwork, collecting the necessary primary sources and clearing a path for future research,” she said. “I am learning how exciting it is to engage in original research in pursuit of the unknown. I have the opportunity to contribute to the existing knowledge and search for suitable solutions.”

During the 2016-17 academic year, the SRC provided consultation on 14 faculty and post-doctoral research projects, 45 graduate student projects, 94 undergraduate student projects, and 22 surveys conducted by University administrators —a total of 295,769 interviews for 1,563 web-based surveys and experiments.

In addition to assisting the Princeton University community, the SRC belongs to the Association of Academic Survey Research Organizations and occasionally conducts surveys for external organizations. For example, the Center recently received a grant of $383,891 from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to fund a project to identify and examine ways to improve the questions in the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Contingent Work Survey (CWS). Led by Krueger and Freeland, the aim of the project is to increase validity, reduce measurement error, and determine if new or additional categories of alternative work are needed.

To RSVP for the 25th anniversary colloquium, email Helen Varone at hvarone@princeton.edu. A full agenda can be found here.