You'll need to be curious about human behaviour, a logical thinker, and have an awareness of research methods to get a job as a social researcher

Social researchers plan, design, conduct, manage and report on social research projects. You'll use a variety of methods to collect, analyse and organise information and data, which you'll then present to others as a written report or oral presentation.

A range of methods, such as interviews, survey questionnaires and focus groups are used to investigate the attitudes, behaviour and experiences of population samples on specific issues. Research findings may be used to shape policy or to examine the effectiveness of existing policy.

Types of research

Your research could focus on a range of topics, such as:

  • the benefits system
  • crime
  • education
  • the environment
  • gender
  • healthcare
  • population structure and migration
  • poverty
  • social services
  • transport
  • unemployment.

Responsibilities

As a social researcher, you'll:

  • follow instructions from your client about the nature of the research to be carried out
  • use an appropriate and creative methodology to design and manage a research project, which may involve the use of quantitative and/or qualitative methods and may include both pilot and development work
  • design and write questionnaires and surveys
  • apply a range of research techniques to gather relevant information, including document analysis, surveys, case studies and interviews (face-to-face, telephone and online)
  • develop and test theories
  • liaise with and direct social research field interviewers to gather information
  • carry out information and data retrieval searches using electronic databases
  • analyse and evaluate research and interpret data, making sure you've identified key issues
  • gather information by directing or carrying out fieldwork
  • prepare, present and disseminate results
  • 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.

Salary

  • 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.

Income figures are intended as a guide only - salaries vary depending on your experience, the sector you work in and your location.

Working hours

Working hours are typically 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. Some extra hours will be required, particularly near to project deadlines.

Part-time work in field research is possible.

What to expect

  • Jobs are available throughout the UK, particularly in university 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.
  • The work is largely office based, although you may need to travel for meetings and to undertake research.

Qualifications

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

  • 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. However, many employers now expect you to have more detailed knowledge of research techniques. You can develop this knowledge through taking a taught Masters course in social research methods or by doing a research degree (MPhil, PhD).

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.

If you want to work in the higher education sector, a PhD may be particularly useful as an advanced understanding of subject-specific academic methodology is often appreciated.

Skills

You'll need to have:

  • experience in quantitative and/or qualitative methodologies and using different research techniques
  • strong analytical and problem-solving skills
  • excellent interpersonal, teamworking and communication skills
  • report writing skills
  • confidence in using statistical techniques and computer-based programs
  • project management skills
  • accuracy and attention to detail
  • a flexible approach to work, with the ability to work on several different research projects at once
  • organisation skills, excellent time management and the ability to work under pressure and meet deadlines.

Work experience

It's important to get practical experience in, for example, research or market research interviewing or through work involving research methodology. Try to get training in as broad a range of methods as possible, while still focusing on areas you're interested in.

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 Social Research and ScotCen, or 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 vacancies. Use your networking skills at social research or training events to find out about possible openings.

Employers

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 government
  • local government departments – particularly social services, housing, education and chief executive
  • charities
  • large and small research agencies
  • higher education institutions.

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

If you're working in higher education, you'll either be employed in a large research centre, which employs both permanent and fixed-term research staff, or a university teaching department, where researchers are often employed on fixed-term contracts of one or two years.

Other employers include:

  • NatCen Social Research
  • the Office for National Statistics (ONS)
  • trade unions
  • pressure and lobby groups.

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.

Recruitment agencies rarely handle vacancies.

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.

Ongoing training in a broad range of areas including report writing, interviewing, questionnaire design and testing, qualitative approaches, and commissioning and managing research is provided by the SRA and NatCen Learning. 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, more policy decisions, tendering for new business, and staff and financial management. Senior researchers are also expected to win new business.