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:

Continue reading


How to become a Politician’s assistant

How do you become a Politician’s assistant, what do they do and how much do they earn?

There is no standard route to get into politics – it’s more about your work experience, attitude and understanding of the industry. The Prospects website is full of job profiles, which are a great way to find out about the different types of jobs available.  They list typical daily tasks and responsibilities and the skills required to help you decide whether it is the sort of role you would be good at and enjoy.

There’s also information about how to gain work experience and find vacancies, plus ideas on related job roles that you could be interested in. See the newly updated Politician’s Assistant profile.

Top tips from Careers & Enterprise:

  • Writing experience – strong writing skills are highly valued in this sector, so get experience writing for different audiences in a concise way. You could start your own blog or contribute to newsletters/campus newspaper etc.
  • Network – make connections with people who you can contact for more information and advice. This could be from talking to alumni at careers events, speaking to employers at careers fairs or presentations or talking to a friend/family member about their job.
  • Volunteer with a local political society/party or campaign group – get involved in local issues or join a society on campus.
  • Research the sector – Sites such as W4MP contain a huge amount of information and resources on working in Politics. You may also discover upcoming events and work experience opportunities along the way.

For more information about a career in politics, think tanks and government, see our online ‘getting into …’ guide.

Creating social change with ParliaMentors

Afsana_blog_imageAfsana Salik, 3rd Year International Relations student

ParliaMentors is a political leadership programme I’ve been on this year while studying at Queen Mary. I’m in a team of 5 Queen Mary students, all of us from different cultural and religious backgrounds. we’re supported to run our own social action project and we also get mentored by an MP. It has been an amazing experience for me.

It’s such a wonderful initiative that gives students from various cultures and faiths the chance to participate and make a change in society. The great thing about it is that it gives opportunities to students like me the experience of parliamentary life through mentoring by MPs. I’ve been mentored by Labour MP Stephen Timms for the last year. He is a very active and committed MP and so passionate about what he does. ParliaMentors also trains us to make social change in our communities. I’ve loved the training that I’ve been given throughout the programme. Each of these training sessions is based around skills like teamwork, leadership and public speaking, and they have been so useful and beneficial. And the training didn’t just support my participation in the programme – it also helped me in other areas, helping me to look at my community from a different angle.

My group and I have decided to deliver a social action project on mental health. We started by doing broad research into mental health in our local borough of Tower Hamlets, and after some thought, we have decided to focus on our campus. We are bringing together the students’ union, counselling service and students to bring changes in our counselling system, in order to make it more accessible. We believe our work will benefit the future students of our university and hopefully others in Tower Hamlets who also uses similar services.

Continue reading

How to get a job in public affairs

Stuart Thomson, Head of Public Affairs at Bircham Dyson Bell, recently came to give a talk to students at Queen Mary. In this really helpful blog post he explains how he got to where he is today and what his tips are for students and graduates looking to make their career in public affairs:

So you want to work in politics

Here are some of our top tips:

–         Every local MP has too much work to handle and will be grateful of an extra pair of hands.  If you don’t get a favourable response from yours, there are still a good number of others in London so you can try them.

–         Around the time of local and national election campaigns get involved with your local political party, there’s always plenty of work to do!

–         Whilst getting a job in local government and the civil service doesn’t rely on networking, breaking into think tanks, political party roles and public affairs certainly does.  Make sure you attend talks and events where you get to meet people in the industry.  Right on your doorstep is the prestigious Mile End Institute so why not start there?


–         Make inquiries at your local council. You may be able to apply for a placement, do some volunteering on a community programme or simply work shadow someone.

–         If you can’t get anything in the field of government and politics itself, think laterally about areas of work related to it. Try and get a few weeks work experience in a local newspaper. You can use the experience to learn to debate and express opinions on news items, or look at a government relations department in a big business, where they employ the equivalent of lobbyists.

–         Be flexible with your career plans. You could start your career working for a few years in the policy unit of a charity or NGO, for example, and then move into government, a think tank or a political party.  Equally you could work in any sector where the job itself intersects with government, such as the government relations department mentioned above.

So what’s the take-away message?

Think creatively, be persistent and flexible and get networking.


UN Careers: Part Two, Unpicking the Process


So you’ve read Part One, Have You Got What it Takes and decided you really do want to work for the UN. So what are your options? First of all, each individual UN agency will have its own vacancies throughout the year, so it’s definitely worth taking the time to research your options. Many people will simply apply for the Secretariat because they think this is where the important work is done (or they want to go to New York!). But the agencies are just as important as the Secretariat and will have an array of choices. Each one will recruit slightly differently, so the main things to remember are to make sure your application is tailored specifically to that agency and that role (don’t talk generally about the UN) and that you’ve paid careful attention to the values and competencies mentioned in part one.

Young Professionals Programme (YPP)

If you want to work for the Secretariat one of the main ways is through the YPP. In a nutshell, you make an application to sit an exam. If you’re successful in that exam you are invited for interview. And if successful in that you will get placed on a roster and offered a position as and when one becomes available.

Full details of the YPP are available on the UN website, including an FAQ and test examples. Key things to remember are:

  • You will need to be fluent in either English or French, be under the age of 32, have a Bachelor’s degree and be a national of one of the participating countries.
  • The programme is incredibly competitive. Roughly 20-30,000 people apply each year; only 4-5,000 will be invited to take the exam and only about 100 or so will actually pass.
  • To ensure fair representation, only the best 40 applicants from each participating country are invited to sit the exam. So you will need to be one out of 40 of the best candidates in your country.
  • The exam takes place once a year in various examination centres throughout the world.
  • If you are successful and offered a position, you must accept it. If you decline you will be removed from the roster and have to do the application process all over again. So you need to be flexible as to where you are prepared to work. If you are holding out to go to New York you may not get there just yet!

Junior Professional Officers’ Programme (JPO)

JPOs are effectively representatives of their home countries who work for and with the UN. Unlike the YPP where you are directly hired by the UN, the recruitment process for JPOs is handled by the foreign or international development office of your home nation. Again, the recruitment process is very competitive, with the requirements being higher than the YPP. To apply you will need a Master’s degree, and at least two years relevant work experience, together with fluency in 2 of the 3 UN languages (English, French and Spanish). Check out their website for more detail on how to become a JPO.

UN volunteers

Getting Experience

While the YPP does not proscribe any minimum amount of work experience, you will find it difficult to make a really good application without any. And nearly all other vacancies at the UN will require some sort of work experience. So the sooner you start thinking about this the better. I know I keep repeating this but study the UN competencies and values! This will give you a good insight into what UN recruiters will be looking for when they review your application. Therefore, you need to make sure you get work experience that will help you evidence these competencies. Any work experience that addresses these competencies will be of value, but doing something with the UN will help demonstrate your commitment to the organisation. Two ways are through a UN internship or volunteering:

Internship Programme

To do an internship you need to be either enrolled in a Masters/PhD or in the final year of your Bachelors degree or you have graduated less than a year ago. Internships last between 2 and 6 months and you will need to apply directly with the relevant agency that is offering them. Internships are unpaid and you will need to have money for accommodation, flights, insurance etc.

UN Volunteering

Volunteering is a fantastic way to gain skills and experience, and for the first time the UN now offers Youth Volunteering for 18-29 year olds. Opportunities are advertised via the website or social media. And if travelling abroad would prove difficult for you, you can also do Online Volunteering. You can search by work type or by region and there are opportunities in everything from website design to writing funding proposals, to doing online tutoring.

For more info on what it’s like working for the UN, take a look also at our sister blog, International Development.

Heather Campbell

Information Assistant, Careers & Enterprise Centre

UN Careers: Part One, Have You Got What It Takes?


At a recent event hosted by SOAS, University of London students were invited along to hear John Ericson (Chief of the Outreach Unit at the United Nations Secretariat in New York) talk about careers in the UN. The talk provided a great insight into how UN recruitment works (you can watch the video here), so if you’ve ever been interested in working for the UN here’s what you need to know:

Are You Ready?

I’m going to talk more specifically about the recruitment process in part two of this blog post, but I want to emphasis, right from the outset that careers in the UN are incredibly competitive. They only take those with exceptional academic records and relevant work experience, who can demonstrate fully the competencies and values of the organisation. Often you will need a Masters degree and maybe even a PhD, and most certainly a first in your undergraduate degree. You will need to be entirely dedicated to the idea of working for the UN; the recruitment process can be drawn out and difficult. If successful you will be and international civil servant, subject only to the instructions on the UN – meaning that the UN will come above national allegiance. You will need to be prepared to work anywhere in the world – perhaps never actually been stationed at ‘home’. The rewards, however, are great. Not only does the UN provide a lot of support to help you relocate etc, but you will be doing a job that has the potential to make a difference to the world. As John pointed out, you will be creating stories to tell your grandchildren.

Knowing Me, Knowing You

The first thing John emphasised is just how large the UN is. It’s a body made up of dozens of agencies spanning every continent, so don’t just look at the Secretariat when thinking of a UN career. Pay attention to all the other agencies. If you are interested in public health, for example, you could work for WHO, UNAIDS, UNFPA and UNICEF. Each agency also has its own recruitment process and you will need to tailor your application to that particular organisation and role. So make sure you get to really know the agencies relevant to what you want to do.

And it’s not just politics or law graduates that they are looking for. The UN employs scientists, engineers, IT personnel, statisticians, anthropologists, geographers, auditors, security advisors, translators, HR specialists, technologists and more. So whatever your background there’ll be a role for you.

More than Competent

The UN has three core values: integrity, professionalism and respect for diversity. It also has 8 core competencies covering things like team work and communication. You can see the full list here. Each vacancy at the UN will use these competencies by which to judge candidates. Meaning that when you make an application you have to make sure you pay attention to what competencies are being asked and tailor your CV and interview answers specifically to those competencies. And have a think about the values too, and how you might demonstrate these to a UN recruiter.

Heather Campbell

Information Assistant, Careers & Enterprise Centre