To be a successful operational researcher you will need strong mathematical ability, good communication skills and the confidence to analyse large sets of data

Operational researchers use analytical methods to assist organisations in developing better systems and operational procedures.

In this role you'll examine an organisation's operations and use mathematical modelling, computer software or 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), sometimes known as management science, was developed in Britain during the Second World War, when it was used to apply mathematical and scientific techniques to the planning of military operations. Today it is utilised throughout industry, commerce and government services.

Responsibilities

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.

Duties often involve:

  • interviewing managers and staff;
  • gathering relevant hard and soft data from systems and personnel at various levels within the organisation;
  • defining the problem and the results you would like to achieve;
  • collecting and analysing data and developing models, often using spreadsheets, databases and pragmatic, numerical approaches to solve problems;
  • using analytical methods, such as simulation, network analysis, decision analysis, multi-criteria analysis, scenario analysis, soft-systems modelling, optimisation, game theory and queuing theory;
  • using mathematical programming techniques, including linear programming;
  • using statistical methods and testing hypotheses;
  • identifying innovative and pragmatic solutions to clients' management problems and testing these solutions;
  • feeding in results and helping to implement chosen options;
  • compiling a report of findings and making presentations to clients, often requiring clear and persuasive explanation of complex processes to a non-technical audience.

During the life cycle of a project, communicating clearly with clients is vitally important 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.

Membership of The OR Society provides a host of useful services such as networking, news and details about conferences and job vacancies. The society also produces a website, Learn about O.R., which provides more information about careers in the subject.

Salary

  • Starting salaries are between £20,000 and £28,000. Salary will depend on location, sector and your academic background.
  • At senior level salaries range from £40,000 to £80,000. In the public sector salaries will be at the lower of of this scale.
  • Salaries tend to be higher in self-employment and consultancy where specialists are involved more in strategic planning than in analysis. Salaries in this area may reach up to £100,000 or higher.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

You will usually work 37 hours a week, although longer hours and weekend work may be required to meet project deadlines.

What to expect

  • Work is mostly office based, with visits to clients in other settings as appropriate. There is frequent contact with people at all levels.
  • Self-employment or freelance work is possible but only after having gained about five years experience. The main opportunities are with consultancies.
  • Jobs are widely available and are mainly 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 occasionally. Travel is more common in consultancies.

Qualifications

Most operational researchers are graduates who have at least a 2:1 degree or higher. Relevant degree subjects include:

  • business studies;
  • economics;
  • engineering;
  • life and medical science;
  • management science;
  • mathematics;
  • operational research;
  • physics;
  • statistics;
  • technology.

Although mathematics and business-related subjects are the most common entry subjects, if you have the appropriate aptitudes you can also enter OR from a non-numerical degree or after working in another occupation.

People who have worked in OR for a considerable amount of time may have learned on the job, but those who enter it soon after their studies tend to have an MSc in OR or a first degree in OR, statistics or mathematics.

Entry is not possible with a HND only.

A pre-entry postgraduate qualification is desirable for work in some sectors. Some employers insist on an MSc in OR prior to entry, while others may fund new recruits to undertake a Masters part time. Many employers, particularly consultancies, prefer a Masters in management science or OR. If you are considering postgraduate study before entering an OR role, you are likely to need a 2:1 in your first degree. Search for postgraduate courses in operational research.

You should apply directly for employment or for a Masters during the final year of your undergraduate degree. The number of vacancies is reported to be expanding in all sectors, although entry standards remain high. Most postgraduates are finding jobs on completion of their courses and those with a Masters will have an advantage when looking for work.

Usually held in November, The OR Society - Careers Open Day is very useful. It is attended by companies actively recruiting and universities running MSc courses.

Skills

You will need:

  • the ability to identify and deploy appropriate advanced analytical techniques;
  • a strong understanding of mathematical concepts;
  • the ability to turn raw mathematical data into meaningful information;
  • good interpersonal and communication skills to explain solutions clearly to both technical and non-technical audiences;
  • the ability to establish a rapport with colleagues and clients;
  • flexibility and the ability to pick up new ideas.

Work experience

Pre-entry experience is not needed, although a relevant vacation or course placement may improve your chances.

Employers

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 just a few 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 - computer modelling of attack and defence scenarios to help the armed forces plan in active service, as well as disaster relief. In the military, operational researchers are referred to as operations analysts (OA). A graduate development programme for scientific and technical graduates, including operational researchers, is run by the Defence Science & Technology Laboratory (Dstl).
  • Financial services - OR is very active within the major banks and other financial institutions.
  • Health - OR techniques are used widely in the National Health Service (NHS), e.g. to better utilise operating theatres and assess the risks posed by patients with various conditions.
  • Manufacturing industry - OR has played a significant role in helping companies improve efficiency, reduce costs and make the most effective use of capital investment.
  • The oil industry - OR techniques are used to increase performance and profit.
  • Management consultancies - international business consulting organisations increasingly have sections that specialise in business modelling, statistics and OR.
  • 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.
  • Transport and travel - OR techniques are used widely by airlines and train companies to offer varying fares and to generate higher revenues by filling more seats at different prices. The profitable development of low-cost airlines has depended largely on OR.
  • Marketing - helping companies target marketing activities through the use of data mining, as well as using modelling to forecast demand.
  • Universities and research institutions - operational researchers 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.

For more details regarding the different employment sectors visit The OR Societies Learn About O.R. website.

Look for job vacancies at:

Professional development

Many employers who recruit first degree graduates offer in-house training, appropriate short courses and often the opportunity to study for a Masters on day release.

New entrants are usually assigned to an OR team and work on projects under supervision, gradually taking on more responsibility as they progress.

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), e.g. consultancy skills or risk analysis.

OR is constantly changing, so keeping up to date with developments in the field is beneficial to career progression.

After graduating, you may decide to undertake a postgraduate course, either because the employers of interest to you prefer it, or to aid your long-term career prospects. Some research funding is available from the:

Check to see which universities offer either EPSRC/ESRC funding or their own scholarships.

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 the academic's job. Being qualified to PhD level is now valued for senior management positions in both the public and private sectors. Search for PhDs in operational research.

Career prospects

Promotion and long-term prospects are excellent. 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 or to specialise in a particular aspect of OR.

It is possible to use OR skills in a broad context outside a pure OR function, working in a production or marketing department. Those who practise OR within a management consultancy and wish to remain in an OR function could move into a commercial organisation; those wishing to stay in consultancy could focus on running a consultancy business, rather than just working on client projects; and those in the public sector can reach senior civil servant level after ten to 15 years.

Progression may be to principal analyst, head of an OR group or you might move in to the private sector.

OR is an excellent foundation for a career in general management and many of the UK's top managers began their careers in OR.

Since OR teams use a variety of business skills and have contact with personnel at all levels of seniority, the work can provide insights into how organisations work.