Government social research officers 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. They 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.
Job 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 wide range of research projects and employing a range 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.
- Starting salaries for graduates (entry-level research officers) range from £25,000 to £27,000. Those entering with a postgraduate qualification may begin on a higher starting salary.
- Graduates entering on the fast stream will expect starting salaries in the same range as non-fast stream entrants, but will gain a breadth of experience in a shorter time than others and can usually expect to get to principal research officer in around four years.
- Pay increases are performance based but it is likely you would earn over £45,000 after 4 to 5 years.
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 data from the Government Social Research Service (GSR). Figures are intended as a guide only.
While working hours may be 9am to 5pm, flexibility is required to accommodate busy workloads and project timetables.
There are opportunities for working part time as well as job sharing, but not for self-employment.
What to expect
- Civil servants receive 22 days annual leave, plus 9 days' public additional 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, Titchfield.
- The role may be stressful owing to the need to deliver a high standard of work to deadlines in response to shifting priorities.
- However, it offers the satisfaction of shaping the work of government in a wide range of areas. Some social research officer roles involve contact 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.
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:
- social sciences;
- political science;
- social statistics;
- social policy.
If your undergraduate degree does not include training in social research methods, you could either pursue a further degree or take the relevant research modules of a higher degree. Postgraduate diploma courses are also available.
Relevant further degree course subjects include:
- most kinds of statistics, e.g. social;
- social research methods and statistics;
- social science research methods.
This is one of four analytical fast streams, the others being economist, statistician and operational researcher.
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 apprenticeship scheme for non-graduates (talented school-leavers) and at the end of the structured two-year scheme, those who have completed it can apply for graduate jobs.
Visit the Government Social Research Service (GSR) website for details of entry requirements and relevant social science subjects accepted for entry.
You will need to show evidence of the following:
- 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 and experience of employing statistical techniques and using the internet for research are important.
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 through their studies by them to undertake government internships.
Opportunities for government social research officers arise in 20 central departments:
- Cabinet Office
- Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS)
- Department for Communities and Local Government
- Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS)
- Department for Education
- Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA)
- Department for International Development (DFID)
- Department for Transport (DfT)
- Department for Work and Pensions (DWP)
- Department of Energy and Climate Change
- Department of Health (DH)
- Home Office
- HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC)
- HM Treasury
- Legal Aid Agency
- Office for National Statistics (ONS)
- Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA)
- Scottish Government
- Welsh Government
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;
- 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:
- Civil Service Job Search
- Civil Service Fast Stream - for fast stream opportunities only.
- Individual government department websites
- Local Government Jobs and individual local council websites for research officer vacancies with local authorities.
Each individual government department undertakes its own recruitment through Civil Service Jobs and sometimes on their own websites, as and when they need researchers. Vacancies for the fast stream are advertised on the dedicated fast stream website.
Opportunities for social researchers may also be advertised on:
- Local Authorities Research and Intelligence Association (LARIA)
- National Centre for Social Research (NatCen)
- Social Research Association Jobs
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.
All fast streamers have access to a development programme designed to develop their social research, managerial and communication skills, as well as preparing them for promotion to more senior roles. However, they will still keep their skills up to date via courses and seminars.
There can be opportunities to apply for day release to college for training once a week, although this is largely dependent on the skills you start with. Depending on circumstances, some departments may support social research officers who wish to undertake a part-time, relevant postgraduate degree.
Training is planned to meet individuals' needs, but might include:
- research and surveying skills;
- data collection and analysis;
- personal effectiveness, e.g. communication and presentation skills and people management;
- project management;
- policy process and government procedures.
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)
A typical 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.
Fast-stream graduates 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 2 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.