Operational researchers use analytical and creative skills to assist organisations in developing better systems and operational procedures.
By examining an organisation's operations and using mathematical modelling, computer software or other analytical approaches, they 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 World War Two, 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.
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 sought;
- 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 to them in non-technical language and to persuade them of the benefits of the recommended changes.
Membership and a host of useful services such as networking, news, details about conferences and job vacancies are offered by The OR Society. The society also produces a website, which provides more information about careers in the subject, see Learn About O.R. for more details.
- The range of typical starting salaries is between £20,000 and £28,000. Salary will depend on location, sector and your academic background.
- Salaries at senior level range from £40,000 to £80,000, with salaries at the lower end in the public sector.
- Salaries tend to be highest 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 even slightly higher.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Working hours are mainly carried out over a 37-hour week, although longer hours and weekend work may be required to meet project deadlines.
What to expect
- Work in some roles is mostly office based, with visits to clients in other settings as appropriate. There is frequent contact with people at all levels.
- Self-employment/freelance work is possible but only after having gained about five years' experience. The main opportunities are with consultancies.
- Jobs are quite 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.
Most operational researchers are graduates and have a 2:1 degree or higher. Relevant degree subjects include:
- operational research;
- management science;
- business studies;
- life and medical science;
Although mathematics and business-related subjects are the most common entry subjects, applicants with the appropriate aptitudes can also enter operational research (OR) from a non-numerical degree or after working in another occupation.
People who have been in OR for a considerable time may have learned the work 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. Many employers, particularly consultancies, prefer a Masters in management science or OR. If you are considering taking a Masters before entering an OR role, you are likely to need a 2:1 in your first degree.
Masters courses often offer an option in consulting skills. Some employers insist on an MSc in OR prior to entry, while others may fund new recruits who join after their first degree to undertake a Masters part time.
Pre-entry experience is not needed, although a relevant vacation or course placement may improve your chances.
You should apply directly for employment or for a Masters programme in management science or OR in your final year. 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 in the competition for jobs.
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.
You will need the following:
- ability to identify and deploy appropriate advanced analytical techniques;
- a strong understanding of mathematical concepts;
- 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;
- ability to establish a rapport with colleagues and clients;
- flexibility and the ability to pick up new ideas.
One of the attractions of operational research (OR) work is its variety; it contributes to the success of organisations across a wide 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 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 helping improve service and reduce costs.
- Transport and travel - OR techniques are used widely by airlines and train operating companies to offer varying fares and make 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 Learn About O.R., which is produced by the OR (Operational Research Society).
Look for job vacancies at:
- Datatech Analytics
- Inside OR - sent to members of the OR (Operational Research) Society.
- Government Operational Research Service (GORS)
- Prospect Recruitment
- Guardian Jobs
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 operational research (OR) team and work on projects under supervision, gradually taking on more responsibility as they progress.
A wide 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 either the:
- Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC); or
- Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)
Check to see which universities offer either EPSRC/ESRC funding or their own scholarships. Search for postgraduate courses in operational research.
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.
Promotion and long-term prospects are excellent. If you stay in operational research (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 10-15 years.
Progression may be to principal analyst, head of an OR group or a move into 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.