Research careers

Social research

Social researchers carry out research to help their employer or their clients make informed political, social, business or economic decisions. To do this, they collect, analyse and organise information and data, which they then present in written reports and/or presentations. Methods such as interviews, questionnaires and focus groups are used to investigate the views and/or experiences of samples of the population on specific issues.

Social research projects typically examine the impact (or potential impact) of public sector policy relating to a range of issues, for example migration; education; healthcare; unemployment; and social services. The results may be used to formulate new policies or to examine the effectiveness of existing policy.

Researchers tend to specialise in either quantitative or qualitative research. Quantitative research involves working with statistics, using methodological approaches to collecting and analysing data. Qualitative research involves interacting with people to obtain and explore their opinions, identifying the 'reasons' behind the data.

Types of graduate roles

Work in social research is varied and roles can be found in many different organisations including:

  • private research companies, consultancies and institutes (for example NatCen, the UK’s largest independent social research organisation)
  • national government and local councils
  • charities, pressure groups and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs)
  • political parties and members of parliament
  • trade unions
  • think tanks
  • and academic institutions.

Social researchers can also be self-employed as freelance researchers and/or consultants.

To explore the various opportunities in social research, use occupational profiles and job descriptions; careers advice on specialist websites; and lists of social research organisations. See 'Useful websites' later in this article.

If you’re a PhD student or member of research staff, check for any upcoming vista seminars where you can find out more about this or other careers www.sheffield.ac.uk/rs/ecr/mentoring/vista

Entry points

The vast majority of social research roles will be what is known as ‘direct entry’ roles advertised throughout the year when the employer has a need. Usually these will not come with a structured development programme akin to a graduate scheme (however, it is reasonable to expect an induction and professional development opportunities as part of the job).

There are a few graduate entry schemes for social researchers, such as the Civil Service Fast Stream and the Charity Works scheme which prepares individuals to be future third sector leaders. Research/policy are amongst roles commonly available to applicants. Graduate schemes run on an annual cycle, with set closing dates, and open for application early in the academic year. Do your research to find out when these closing dates are and what the recruitment process is.

Skills and experience required

A good degree in any subject can be acceptable to meet the qualification requirements for entry into the profession, although some employers often require relevant social sciences subjects, business studies, mathematics or statistics. A postgraduate qualification and/or specialist knowledge may also be necessary for some positions as this may be seen as evidence of greater research experience and training.

Relevant practical experience is advantageous. Some internships and placements exist, typically for undergraduate students. Alternatively contact social research companies to ask about work experience.

Key skills for social researchers

  • Excellent organisational skills to manage research projects
  • Presentation skills to present findings to varied audiences
  • Communication skills, written and verbal for producing reports, obtaining information and presenting findings
  • Numerical skills for data analysis (see note below on quantitative skills)
  • IT skills, including the capacity to develop knowledge and skills in the use of specialist software
  • Analytical techniques and knowledge of research methodology
  • An enquiring mind and desire to investigate subjects thoroughly

Important note: Quantitative skills are in demand in many research roles. Even if you consider yourself a qualitative researcher or prefer qualitative research, you will be able to put yourself in a stronger position for a wider range of job opportunities if you can get quantitative skills training and experience. Outside of any statistics/quants modules on your course (if applicable), opportunities to develop your statistical competence include:
  • Maths and Statistics Help (MASH) in the University runs statistics workshops and sessions on using the statistical software SPSS
  • The National Centre for Research Methods (NCRM) ‘Quant for Qual course’. There are reduced rates for UK/EU students and bursaries are available
  • Women in Quants.org is an organisation dedicated to improving career prospects for women in quantitative research
  • The Social Research Association runs regular courses and events
  • Audit courses or create other opportunities to learn more and gain experience in quantitative methods – talk to your tutors, supervisor and other academics, postdocs and PhD students
  • Essential: talk to potential employers about the skills and experience they look for in job candidates.

Job search strategies

You will need to think carefully about your job search criteria to help you find and manage information about jobs. Once you’ve worked out what you’d like the purpose of your social research work to be, and identified some key words used in job titles, you can set up job alerts on-line. Jobs may be advertised on Career Connect while many employers will advertise jobs on specialist websites as well as their own sites. For links to specialist jobsites and lists of potential employers, see the ‘Useful websites’ section of this article.

In addition to using the internet to research the careers and find jobs, talking to people provides accurate up-to-date information to help you make confident choices. Using LinkedIn for research and networking should be a part of your job hunting.

It’s very useful to compile a list of the sorts of organisations you are keen to work for. Remember, smaller organisations are harder to find than large ones so in addition to vacancy sites, make sure you look out for events at the University, when relevant employers like the Civil Service might be on campus.

Useful websites for further information
Association for Qualitative Research
Representing the interests of the qualitative research industry in the UK and beyond. Includes a members directory and companies who offer a graduate training programme.
GORS - Government Operational Research
Employs around 500 analysts, supporting policy-making, strategy and operations.
Government social research officer (Prospects)
Includes a description of responsibilities, working conditions, qualifications and skills required.
Government Social Research Profession (UK Civil Service)
Provides details of the Government Social Research sandwich and summer placements for students, including finalists and PGTs.
National Institute for Economic and Social Research
Includes blogs and events along with information on research programmes.
Research buyers guide
Directory of UK and Ireland social and market research firms.
Royal Statistical Society
Contains a careers section with job profiles, events and a jobs board.
Smart Thinking
Includes the latest UK policy research, a list of major Think Tanks, and jobs.
Social Research Association
The professional membership body for social researchers.
Social researcher (Targetjobs)
Includes a job description, typical employers, qualifications and training, along with key skills.
Trade union research officer (Prospects)
What the role includes, working conditions, qualifications and skills.

Last updated: 18 Jan 2019