To be a successful operational researcher you'll need strong mathematical ability, good communication skills and the confidence to analyse large sets of data
Operational researchers use mathematical methods to help organisations develop better systems and operational procedures.
You'll examine an organisation's operations and use mathematical modelling, simulation, optimisation, data science and other analytical approaches to find more effective ways of working. The organisation is then able to use the information to develop a strategic policy and make better decisions.
Operational research (OR) was developed in Britain during the First and Second World Wars when it was used to apply mathematical and scientific techniques to the planning of military operations.
Today, OR is used throughout industry, commerce, the public sector and government services to find solutions to a range of complex operational problems, such as how to:
- improve customer service
- improve processes and procedures
- increase revenue and profitability
- reduce costs
- manage and reduce risk.
Operational research is also sometimes referred to as management science. Job titles vary and may include operational analyst, operational research analyst or operations consultant. Check job adverts to make sure the job reflects the work of an operational researcher.
Operational researchers use qualitative problem-structuring techniques and simulation, and advanced quantitative methods, for the purpose of:
- examining assumptions
- facilitating an in-depth understanding of an organisation's operations
- deciding on practical action
- supporting the management of change
- reviewing progress.
As an operational researcher, you will typically need to:
- interview managers and staff in order to define the problem and the results they would like to achieve
- gather relevant hard and soft data from systems and personnel at various levels within the organisation
- collect and analyse data and develop models, often using spreadsheets, databases and pragmatic, numerical approaches to solve problems
- use analytical methods, such as simulation, network analysis, decision analysis, multi-criteria analysis, scenario analysis, soft-systems modelling, optimisation, game theory and queuing theory
- use mathematical programming techniques, including linear programming
- use statistical methods and test hypotheses
- identify innovative and pragmatic solutions to clients' management problems and set up and test these solutions
- make recommendations to inform the decision-making process to agreed timescales and quality standards
- compile a report of findings and make presentations to clients, often requiring clear and persuasive explanation of complex processes to a non-technical audience, in order to help them make decisions
- outline the strengths and limitations of the analysis you've carried out
- develop and implement ways of quality assuring your work and analyses
- keep up to date with changes to operational research techniques and identify new opportunities
- (with experience) manage projects, staff and budgets.
- Starting salaries are typically between £20,000 and £28,000.
- At senior level, salaries range from £40,000 to £80,000. In the public sector salaries are likely to be at the lower end of this scale.
- Salaries tend to be higher in self-employment and consultancy where specialists are involved more in strategic planning. Salaries in this area may reach £100,000 or higher.
Salaries vary depending on your skills and experience, academic background, location and the sector you work in.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
You'll usually work 37 hours a week, although longer hours and weekend work may be required to meet project deadlines. Part-time work is possible.
There may be opportunities for hybrid working.
What to expect
- Work is mostly office based, unless you're working in consulting or for professional services firms when you will need to visit client sites. You'll have frequent contact with people at all levels of a business or service.
- Self-employment or freelance work is possible once you've gained experience. Opportunities are mainly found within consultancies.
- The majority of jobs are city based. There are more financial opportunities in London.
- The work is results oriented and customer focused with projects managed to strict deadlines.
- Overseas travel may be required in some sectors. Travel is more common in consultancies.
Most operational researchers are graduates with degrees, usually a 2:1 or above. Employers typically look for graduates with degrees that have maths, statistics, management or computer science content. Relevant subjects may include:
- business studies
- data science
- industrial engineering
- life and medical science
- management science
- operational research
Although numerical degrees are the most common entry subjects, you can get into OR from a non-numerical degree or after working in another profession if you have the right combination of skills, experience and aptitudes.
You can also become an operational researcher through completing a Level 7 Operational Support Specialist apprenticeship (equivalent to Masters level), which combines paid work with part-time study.
Some large employers offer graduate training schemes where you may be able to specialise in operational research. For example, the Civil Service offers a Government Operational Research Fast Stream scheme.
Many employers expect you to have an MSc in OR prior to entry, while others may fund new recruits to undertake a Masters part time. Search for postgraduate courses in operational research.
You may be able to secure funding for Masters courses via the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) or the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). Some universities also have their own scholarships. Two Masters degree scholarships worth up to £10,000 each are offered annually by The OR Society.
The OR Society holds a Careers Open Day, usually in November, which is attended by companies actively recruiting and universities running MSc courses.
You'll need to have:
- advanced analytical skills
- the ability to turn raw mathematical data into meaningful information and apply it to real-life problems
- a creative approach to problem solving
- the ability to communicate clearly with clients in order to explain the progress and results of the work in non-technical language and to persuade them of the benefits of the recommended changes
- technical and IT skills, such as knowledge of SQL, R, Python or similar programming languages and advanced knowledge of Excel
- teamworking skills and the ability to build a rapport with colleagues and clients
- project management skills with the ability to work to deadlines and to budget
- good commercial awareness
- a methodical and organised approach to work
- flexibility and the ability to use your initiative and pick up new ideas.
Although not essential, getting experience in OR through a summer internship or placement year during your studies is useful.
Student membership of The Operational Research Society is also helpful and provides a range of benefits and opportunities.
Find out more about the different kinds of work experience and internships that are available.
One of the attractions of OR work is its variety. It contributes to the success of organisations across a range of sectors and business environments.
The following are some of the main areas where OR techniques are employed:
- Government Operational Research Service (GORS) - employs analysts across a range of departments involved in determining and executing government strategies, from forecasting demand for services, to minimising risks and modelling the impact of proposed legislation.
- Defence - includes computer modelling of attack and defence scenarios to help the armed forces plan in active service, as well as disaster relief. The Defence Science & Technology Laboratory (Dstl) runs a graduate development programme for scientific and technical graduates, including operational researchers.
- Financial services - OR is very active within the major banks and other financial institutions.
- Health services - ORs are employed in the NHS for tasks such as determining how long patients will stay in hospital in order to work out how many beds, wards and doctors are needed. Their role includes reducing patient waiting times, increasing efficiency and reducing costs.
- Management consultancies - international business consulting organisations increasingly have sections that specialise in business modelling, statistics and OR.
- Manufacturing industry - ORs play a significant role in helping companies improve efficiency, reduce costs and make the most effective use of capital investment.
- Marketing - ORs help companies target marketing activities through the use of data mining, as well as using modelling to forecast demand.
- Oil - OR techniques are used to increase performance and profit.
- Retail - the analysis of market and consumer information is a major and rapidly growing role for OR in the retail sector. OR techniques contribute to improving service and reducing costs.
- Sport - ORs are involved in the design of stadiums and Olympic villages, for example, and ensuring that they are safe for spectators to enter, exit and move around in. F1 is another area of sport that uses ORs to maximise efficiency and safety.
- Transport and travel - ORs are widely used by airlines, for example, to decide which planes to buy, where to fly to, how many seats to sell and what fare prices to offer. The profitable development of low-cost airlines has depended largely on OR.
- Universities and research institutions - ORs teach on a variety of university courses such as undergraduate and postgraduate management degrees and diplomas, as well as the more specialist OR and mathematics degrees.
Look for job vacancies at:
- Civil Service Jobs
- Government Operational Research Service (GORS)
- The Operational Research Society - vacancies also appear in Inside OR, their monthly news magazine sent to members.
Specialist recruitment agencies such as Datatech Analytics also advertise vacancies.
Many employers offer in-house training, appropriate short courses and often the opportunity to study for a Masters on day release if you don't already have one. New entrants are usually assigned to an OR team and work on projects under supervision, gradually taking on more responsibility as they progress.
OR is constantly changing, so keeping up to date with developments in the field is beneficial to career progression. A range of training courses, seminars and conferences, including major international events, are organised by The OR Society. These courses offer a structure for continuing professional development (CPD).
A PhD in OR tends to be required for careers in universities and business schools, particularly those with a strong research emphasis, since ongoing research and publication is an important part of an academic's job. Being qualified to PhD level is also valued for senior management positions in both the public and private sectors. Search for PhDs in operational research.
Promotion and long-term prospects in OR are good for those with the right combination of skills and experience. If you stay in OR you could move on to lead a project or team, still undertaking some analytical work yourself, as well as managing the work of other analysts. From there, the next step would be to manage an OR department.
It's possible to use OR skills outside a pure OR function, working in a production or marketing department, for example, or to specialise in a particular area of OR.
Alternatively, you could move into a career in general management. There is an increasing number of senior managers and directors who have a background in OR as it provides an excellent insight into the ways that businesses operate.
With experience, you could also consider working freelance or setting up your own consultancy business.