Careers outside of academia for humanities and social science researchers: think tanks and social research organisations

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 second in a short series of blog posts exploring some of the other opportunities available. This post will focus on opportunities in think tanks and social research organisations.

Researchers working in these sectors are valued for their excellent research skills, which often takes precedence over their specialist subject knowledge (unless the latter is relevant to the expertise of a given think tank). These skills could include your qualitative or quantitative analytical skills and knowledge of different research methods (including proficiency in statistical or analytical software packages, such as Strata, Excel or SPSS. Although some of these organisations have strong links to academia, it’s still important to highlight your research experience (including research modules you have taken and use of particular research software) when making your application. Don’t assume the recruiter will know what skills you have just because you have a Masters or PhD!

To get into this sector, it’s often important to get on the radar of the organisations you’re interested (rather than necessarily relying on advertised vacancies) – so be proactive! Create your own opportunities by sending out tailored, speculative applications and/or attending training courses or public events where research is being presented, to network and make contact with staff directly.

Although entry level roles aren’t typically well-paid, they are often a good way to gain experience and start building a career in this field.

Visit the Social Research Association (SRA) website for information about social research careers and to search for vacancies.

Working in think tanks

Think tanks conduct research, analysis and advocacy work on a broad range of issues – from social policy, political strategy, the economy, to the environment, business policies, and many more. Their primary aim is to influence public policy and opinion, which they achieve through the publication of their research and policy work. At the same time, some organise conferences and seminars, and they may also seek to hold private meetings with government ministers, business people and other stakeholders involved in the policy making process. See the Guardian website for a list of some think tanks in the UK.

The majority of research positions will be open to researchers from a range of disciplines, although some think tanks do specialise in specific areas and will seek particular expertise (e.g. economics experience would be valuable for the Institute of Fiscal Studies or National Institute of Economic and Social Research). When applying, it’s important to show you are passionate about the area of policy the think tank deals in.

The size of the think tank and how it is funded has a big bearing on the direction and type of work they do (and, potentially, on job security). Larger, well-funded organisations (e.g. the Health Foundation) are more likely to be engaged in ‘academic’-like research (research to further knowledge), as they are less restricted by financial pressures. Less well-funded organisations often conduct more project-based, outcome-driven work; they often need to fundraise to support their work – and then produce tangible results to report back to funders as evidence of impact. It’s worth understanding how a think tank is funded before you apply.

Given the need to engage stakeholders, fundraise, report impact to funders (and so on), strong communication and interpersonal skills are important for these roles, alongside research proficiency.

Download our ‘getting into…’ guide for more information on working in think tanks.

Working in social research organisations

There are a number of research agencies that exist primarily to conduct research, often on a consultancy basis where they are commissioned to do this on behalf other organisations. Many of the larger market research agencies have specialist social research departments (e.g. Ipsos MORI and GfK), whilst other agencies might specialise specifically in social research (for example, NatCen and Kantar Public UK). Often these organisations have teams that specialise in quantitative, qualitative and data-led research. Some of these larger agencies also offer graduate schemes that provide excellent training and progression, as well as roles for more experienced social researchers (such as those with a PhD).

There are also many small businesses specialising in social and market research.  In general these are less likely to advertise formally for new staff (which is why being proactive is important!). You can find some of these smaller organisations listed in the SRA member directory.

For general advice on working in research agencies, visit the Market Research Society careers page.

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