As a government social research officer you can influence policy affecting every UK citizen using techniques acquired through your degree

As a government social research officer, you'll provide research input for the analysis required to develop, implement, review and evaluate new and existing government policies. This research evidence helps inform the policy decisions of ministers.

Government social research officers account for more than 1,000 members of the workforce, spread over 20 government departments. You'll liaise closely with civil servants and other government analysts, such as operational researchers, economists and statisticians.

The role involves responsibility for the research and analysis of policy, as well as commissioning and managing research. It is a challenging, fast-moving and diverse role that has a direct impact on many government activities, often at a high-profile level.

Research officers are also employed in local government, working for local authorities.

Responsibilities

Activities vary significantly according to department and policy area and whether research is conducted in-house or commissioned from external researchers.

Tasks are likely to include:

  • working on a range of research projects and employing a variety of different research methodologies (if undertaking research internally);
  • discussing and agreeing project requirements with clients (policy officials, ministers);
  • drafting research specifications;
  • agreeing the terms of reference for research;
  • commissioning and project-managing research projects;
  • commenting on draft research instruments, such as questionnaires, and editing draft reports;
  • conducting, or commissioning then analysing, in-depth interviews with members of the public and large-scale data sets;
  • managing junior staff (supervising, encouraging and mentoring);
  • ensuring that research is conducted within a set time frame to meet policy requirements;
  • managing competitive tendering exercises;
  • ensuring quality control of research;
  • providing information and analysis on a policy issue and its development;
  • providing information on what research is already available in a policy area;
  • working in close partnership with external research contractors, other government analysts, and policy colleagues during the course of the research;
  • producing both written and oral briefs for policy colleagues and ministers, based on reviews of research evidence;
  • responding to external and internal research enquiries from colleagues, government departments, academics, local councils, regional development agencies and members of the public;
  • explaining complex ideas and findings in a way that can be easily understood;
  • keeping up to date with developments in policy and social issues, as well as qualitative and quantitative research methods;
  • delivering presentations at conferences.

Salary

  • Starting salaries for graduates (entry-level research officers) range from £25,000 to £30,000. Those entering with a postgraduate qualification may begin on a higher starting salary.
  • Graduates entering on the fast stream can expect starting salaries in the same range as non-fast stream entrants, but they will gain a breadth of experience in a shorter time and can usually expect to get to principal research officer in around four years.
  • Pay increases are performance based but a salary of over £45,000 can be acheived after four to five years in the role.

At senior level (principal research officer), salaries may be higher.

Salary scales vary across departments, but most provide additional benefits such as flexible working hours and a pension scheme.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Full-time working hours are usually 9am to 5.30pm, but some flexibility may be required to accommodate busy workloads and project timetables.

You may be able to work part time or job share, but there are no opportunities for self-employment.

What to expect

  • Civil servants receive 22 days annual leave, plus 9 days' public holiday leave. Holiday allowances may vary between other employers.
  • The work is largely office-based with attendance at meetings, events and conferences usually a feature of the work.
  • In terms of geographic availability, locations include Cardiff, Edinburgh, Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield, London, Newport and Titchfield.
  • The role may be stressful owing to the need to deliver a high standard of work to deadline in response to shifting priorities.
  • However, it offers the satisfaction of shaping the work of government in a range of areas. In some social research officer roles you could work with high-profile members of the government.
  • The job is likely to involve travel within the UK if, for example, you are working on a project with other government departments in another city. You may also need to travel for research purposes - to conduct interviews or hold meetings with external research contractors.

Qualifications

For entry into government social research, you need a good first or higher degree in a social science subject, with a substantial social research component. Mathematics and statistics graduates are sometimes employed.

If you have a second class honours degree (in any subject) you can gain entry by first taking a relevant postgraduate qualification.

The following subjects may improve your chances:

  • criminology;
  • geography;
  • politics;
  • psychology;
  • social policy;
  • social sciences;
  • sociology.

If your undergraduate degree does not include training in social research methods, you could pursue further study. Search for postgraduate courses in social science research methods.

A Masters degree or PhD in a social science subject is not a requirement for new research officers, but many people with these postgraduate qualifications do apply for government research officer posts. Such qualifications demonstrate commitment and may be useful for future career development.

The Civil Service runs a fast-track scheme for graduates to work as social, economic, statistical and operational researchers. Visit the website for further information and entry requirements.

Skills

You will need to show:

  • strong social research, social policy and/or numerical skills;
  • a strong interest in the policy process and its impact on government decisions;
  • a high level of knowledge in the use of database software and specialist packages, such as SPSS;
  • strong communication and interpersonal skills;
  • an understanding of the political process;
  • a high level of motivation and initiative;
  • a determination to explore issues thoroughly;
  • the ability to think analytically;
  • good organisational skills;
  • the ability to work well as part of a team.

In addition, knowledge of statistical theory, experience of employing statistical techniques and using the internet for research are important.

Work experience

The Civil Service operates a Guaranteed Interview Scheme for applicants with disabilities and also a GSR Summer Student Placement Scheme.

Although not essential, work experience in an applied research setting is desirable.

Each department undertakes its own recruitment. New graduates are usually recruited as research officers; for senior research officer posts you would be expected to have relevant work experience.

Entry is competitive. Consider writing to the chief researcher in a department to ask for work experience or work shadowing. Industrial placements for undergraduate students on sandwich degree courses are offered by the Welsh Government.

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) provides opportunities for PhD students, funded by them, to undertake government internships.

Employers

Opportunities for government social research officers arise in the following central departments:

Opportunities vary between departments - some have dedicated research teams, while others are just starting to develop their own research capacity.

There are opportunities within local authorities in areas such as:

  • economic development;
  • environment;
  • housing;
  • neighbourhood renewal.

These roles often involve a crossover with policy and information work. Local authorities tend to advertise vacancies through national and local press and on their own websites.

Look for job vacancies at:

Opportunities for social researchers may also be advertised on:

Professional development

As a government social research officer, you will find that considerable emphasis is put on training, both on the job and by attending courses. The nature of the role demands the ability to take in a high level of information quickly and develop new skills at a fast pace.

Some departments may support social research officers who wish to undertake a part-time, relevant postgraduate degree. If you are accepted onto the fast stream, you will have access to a development programme designed to develop your social research, managerial and communication skills, as well as preparing you for promotion to more senior roles. However, you will still have to keep your skills up to date via courses and seminars.

Training is planned to meet individuals' needs, but might include:

  • data collection and analysis;
  • personal effectiveness, e.g. communication and presentation skills and people management;
  • policy process and government procedures;
  • project management;
  • research and surveying skills.

Continuing professional development (CPD) is a feature of a career in government social research. Your skills and experience are constantly reviewed and appraised, offering opportunities for further training or on-the-job development.

More experienced researchers can develop their skills through a relevant university course recommended by the Government Social Research (GSR) Service.

Training is also available through the:

  • Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC);
  • National Centre for Social Research (NatCen);
  • Social Research Association (SRA).

Career prospects

A new entrant might expect to be a research officer for two years before promotion to senior research officer, although applicants who already have a postgraduate qualification and relevant experience might enter as senior research officers from the start.

Graduates on the fast stream undertake an accelerated development and leadership programme, giving them access to more resources in order to reach senior levels quickly. Fast streamers can expect to move jobs every 18 months to two years in the first few years of their career.

It is also possible to broaden your experience through taking a secondment to another government department.

The first promotion on offer to fast-stream graduates is to senior research officer. Promotion to principal research officer generally takes four years, depending on the individual. After this, promotion is generally to chief research officer, who is usually head of social research in a department. There are opportunities to take on posts in the Senior Civil Service.

Promotion is based on merit and opportunity. You need to demonstrate competency across a range of skills including, as you become more senior, staff management and strategic management of projects and research programmes.

Career opportunities are diverse, with plenty of scope for moving between departments and for working on different policy areas within departments. It is possible to transfer out of research into mainstream Civil Service policy or administration roles. Secondments outside government are also possible.