Careers outside of academia for humanities and social science researchers: government and parliament

Are you a social sciences or humanities postgraduate interested in pursuing a research career, but not sure if academia is the right path right for you? Read on to find out more about other opportunities for using your research skills…

A large number of humanities and social science Masters and PhD students go on to work in research capacities outside academia. This is the first in a short series of blog posts exploring some of the other opportunities available. This post will focus on opportunities in UK government and parliament.

Working in a research role in government provides an opportunity to work on things that really matter. These roles can be challenging as the pace of work is often very fast, which sometimes means that you are unable to measure the impact of one intervention before it changes again! You may also get asked by colleagues for evidence that doesn’t really exist and/or on areas they may not be a specialist in, so communication is often a key skill requirement, alongside your strong research abilities.

Researchers in this sector are valued for their excellent research skills, which often takes precedence over their specialist subject knowledge (unless the latter is relevant to a specific role). These skills could include: understanding the ‘robustness’ of research, qualitative or quantitative analytical skills, handling large data sets (with data science a growing area in this sector), and experience of different research methods. It’s therefore important to highlight your research skills when making your application – don’t assume the recruiter will know what research experience you have just because you have a Masters or PhD!

Working in the Civil Service

Social scientists and humanities researchers are employed in a range of roles across government departments and agencies. In some cases, researchers are employed within particular departments (such as education or housing), for example in ‘Analyst’ roles. Alternatively, they may work in central research services that provide experienced researchers to work on projects with other departments across the civil service. Examples of these central services include:

  • Government Social Research Service (GSRS), which conducts research to inform the design, development, implementation, review and evaluation of government policy – for example, by identifying, analysing and interpreting social trends
  • Government Statistical Service (GSS), which supports the collection, production and communication of official statistics used by policy makers on areas such as the economy, society, population and environment
  • Government Operational Research Service (GORS), which provides evidence to underpin policy decisions, develops models to predict how systems will behave and brings new perspectives to the way problems are tackled
  • Government Economic Service (GES), which provides economic analyses to different departments – from education to health – to influence and shape the government’s response to some of the key policy issues

You can find out more about these types of roles on the Prospects website.

One way to access these roles is by applying to the Civil Service Fast Stream, a fast-track route to leadership positions within the UK Civil Service. You could either apply through the ‘Generalist’ scheme, where you would have the opportunity to work in a variety of roles across different departments, or you could select a specific scheme – for example, with the GSRS, GORS, GES or GSS. Alternatively you could apply for direct entry into roles you are interested (e.g. ‘Analyst’ roles) through the Civil Service job portal.

Working in local government

Local government is responsible for many essential services and a research career in this sector is an opportunity for you to contribute to the wellbeing and development of local communities. High quality research skills are key to councils because the ability to gather evidence and apply analysis is fundamental to success. Researchers working in and with (for example, via the Local Government Association) local authorities require a broad knowledge of research methods, as well as a good understanding of local government.

You can find out more about opportunities available, and where to look for jobs, on the LGA website.

Working in Parliament

There are also opportunities for social researchers in Parliament. Parliamentary Clerks are responsible for supporting the Select Committees that scrutinise the work of government departments. This can involve a significant research element, although some roles will focus more on procedural work in Parliament. For a case study, visit the Beyond the PhD’ website.

Library Clerks are based in the House of Commons or Lords libraries. They are not librarians (as the name might suggest!), but specialists who provide research services to MPs and Select Committees, producing briefing papers on current policy or legislative issues.

Although not part of the Civil Service, Clerks are recruited through the Fast Stream, which provides possibilities for movement to other government functions. Find out more about these roles in the jobs section of the UK parliament website.

Working for an MP

The roles described above are all neutral – in other words, they are not aligned to any particular political party. However, if party politics is where your interests lie, then research-related roles do exist if you work for an MP. Typical responsibilities might include: monitoring the press and Hansard, researching the background to political issues & campaigns, writing reports and speeches, and assisting with constituency business.

Often the route in can involve an element of unpaid work experience, to get a foot in the door and demonstrate your motivation. It’s also worth being aware that, once you’ve aligned yourself to one party, it may be difficult to move to another.

You could explore job vacancies on the Working for an MP website.

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