Social researchers plan, design, conduct, analyse and manage social research projects, reporting on findings in order to shape policy or to examine the effectiveness of existing policy

As a social researcher you'll use a range of methods such as interviews, survey questionnaires, focus groups and desk research to investigate the attitudes, behaviour and experiences of individuals and population samples on specific issues.

Your research could focus on a range of topics, including:

  • the benefits system
  • children and families
  • crime and justice
  • disability
  • education
  • energy
  • the environment
  • equalities/human rights
  • health and social care
  • housing
  • nutrition
  • population structure and migration
  • poverty
  • social services
  • tax and pensions
  • transport
  • unemployment
  • work and income.

You'll collect, analyse and evaluate data and information and present your findings to clients and key stakeholders in order to inform policy decisions.

You could work in a client-side role, which has slightly more focus on the users of the research, (e.g. policymakers), or on the agency-side, which focuses more on the design and delivery of the research.

For information on working in social research for the government, see government social research officer.


As a social researcher, you'll be involved in a range of activities (usually in a team). You’ll typically need to:

  • understand the needs of the project, i.e. the research questions it needs to answer
  • design an appropriate methodology to deliver the project
  • design and write survey questionnaires
  • apply a range of research techniques to gather relevant information, including document analysis, surveys, case studies and interviews (face-to-face, telephone and online)
  • liaise with and direct social research field interviewers to gather information
  • gather information by directing or carrying out qualitative fieldwork
  • conduct reviews of relevant literature and evidence
  • analyse and evaluate research and interpret data using a range of analysis packages
  • prepare, present and disseminate results in the form of reports, briefings, research papers and presentations
  • offer research-based briefings and advice, which may involve writing action plans
  • advise external bodies on social policy
  • prepare and present tenders for new research projects, or respond to research tenders prepared by others.


  • Starting salaries at researcher level typically range from £20,000 to £29,000.
  • You're likely to earn between £30,000 and £50,000 as a senior social researcher with significant experience.
  • Salaries at manager/director level can rise to £70,000+, depending on the sector.

Salaries vary depending on your experience, the sector you work in and your location. Salaries in local and national government and academia are likely to follow a grading structure.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours are typically 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.

What to expect

  • Jobs are available throughout the UK, particularly in towns and cities. Some sectors of employment are more concentrated in London and the South East.
  • In some sectors, short-term contracts are common and you may need to be flexible to find a constant flow of work.
  • There are opportunities for freelance or consultancy work once you've got substantial practical experience, which will suit you if you're outgoing and enjoy bidding for work, networking and making contacts.
  • Working to regular project deadlines can be challenging, especially if you're working on policy issues in a changing and quick response environment or working on more than one project.
  • The work is largely office based, although you may need to travel for meetings and to undertake research.


You'll usually need a degree to get into social research. Although any subject is acceptable, employers often prefer those with a strong analytical and/or research focus. The following subjects may be particularly useful:

  • anthropology
  • economics
  • business studies
  • geography
  • mathematics
  • politics
  • psychology
  • social policy
  • sociology
  • statistics.

It's possible to move into a career in social research straight after your degree, particularly if your course included social research methods and statistics.

Although not essential, taking a taught Masters course in social research methods or a research degree (MPhil, PhD) may be advantageous. Search for postgraduate courses in social research.

Some of the large research agencies run graduate training schemes and you may need a 2:1 or above to be considered for a place.


You'll need to have:

  • basic experience or understanding of quantitative and/or qualitative methods
  • strong analytical and problem-solving skills
  • the ability to think logically and creatively (both are important)
  • good communication skills, both written and verbal
  • interpersonal skills to develop and maintain relationships
  • report planning and writing skills
  • teamworking skills and the ability to work well on your own
  • confidence in using Microsoft Office software
  • project management skills to oversee all aspects of a research project right through from initial plans to the final report
  • accuracy and attention to detail for handling data and reporting research findings
  • a flexible approach to work, with the ability to work on several different research projects at once
  • organisation skills, good time management and the ability to work under pressure and meet deadlines.

Work experience

Experience of research methods, from modules on your degree or Masters course for example, is important.

You could also get some practical experience in research or market research interviewing. Visit Market Research Society (MRS) - Work Placement & Intern Opportunities for details of companies that welcome approaches from students and graduates looking for a work placement in social or market research.

Opportunities for freelance and temporary survey interviewers are also available with NatCen (National Centre for Social Research) and ScotCen. Alternatively, you could get experience in a managerial or administrative role in which research is used to evaluate service delivery.

Although the larger research agencies are likely to have graduate traineeships, small businesses specialising in social research may not have formal schemes, but nonetheless may be able to provide a good grounding in social research methods. Use your networking skills at social research or training events to find out about possible openings.

Find out more about the different kinds of work experience and internships that are available.


There are opportunities available in many types of organisation, including:

  • central government - social researchers work in the main government departments (see government social research officer), as well as for the Scottish and Welsh governments
  • local government - particularly social services, housing, education and chief executive departments
  • independent research institutes such as NatCen Social Research (based in London and Edinburgh)
  • large and small research agencies
  • higher education institutions (academia)
  • charities
  • the Office for National Statistics (ONS)
  • trade unions
  • pressure and lobby groups.

Many of the larger research agencies, such as Ipsos UK and Kantar Public, have specialist social research departments and some offer graduate traineeships. There are also many small businesses that specialise in social and market research.

Social researchers in higher education (academia) are based in:

  • large research centres
  • attachments to university teaching departments.

Research centre clients range from government to charities and may also include undertaking consultancy work as well as their own research. Jobs are available on both a permanent and fixed-term contract (often two to three years). If your work is attached to a university teaching department, you'll usually be employed on a fixed-term contract for the length of the project.

Some market research consultancies in the private sector also conduct social research for clients such as government agencies, consumer goods producers and retailers, and media agencies.

Look for job vacancies at:

The Research Buyers Guide provides information on companies and consultants offering market research services, which may be useful for speculative applications.

Professional development

Graduate training programmes are available with some of the larger research agencies and government departments. These usually last two years and include initial induction, on-the-job training, a range of short courses and mentor support.

With many smaller organisations you'll be trained on the job, learning from colleagues. You'll also take short training courses on specific areas, such as:

  • evaluation techniques
  • statistical methods
  • qualitative methods
  • survey design and sampling
  • presentation skills
  • the use of software packages.

The SRA provides both foundation and advanced training in a broad range of areas, (including courses from NatCen Learning):

  • report writing
  • conducting focus groups
  • qualitative interviewing
  • questionnaire design and testing
  • qualitative approaches
  • evaluation
  • creative methods
  • statistics
  • consultancy skills.

For more information, see SRA Training.

SRA membership is also useful for networking and career development opportunities.

You could also study for an MSc in social research part time while working.

Career prospects

In central and local government, higher education and most of the independent research institutes, there's a recognisable career structure with different grades reflecting levels of experience, responsibility and seniority.

As a typical new entrant in the Civil Service you might expect to be a research officer for two years before promotion to senior research officer. Promotion to principal research officer generally takes four years, depending on your skills and experience. If you're employed at a university specialist research centre, your career and salary structures are usually linked to those of lecturing staff.

If you're working for a major research agency, you're likely to start as a researcher before moving on to the role of senior researcher. At director level, you may be in charge of a group of researchers focused on a policy area, and will need strong leadership and management skills.

Promotion from entry level generally leads to involvement in larger projects, project management, tendering for new business, and staff and financial management. Senior researchers are also expected to win new business.

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