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Social research and policy


Social research seeks to answer questions about human behaviour, social structures and cultures. 

Research is conducted by social scientists, who may be employed on permanent or short-term contracts, depending on the organisation and size of project.

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What is social research?

Social research seeks to answer questions about human behaviour, social structures and cultures. 

Research is conducted by social scientists, who may be employed on permanent or short-term contracts, depending on the organisation and size of project.

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) has a section on careers and skill development. 

Key research topics funded by the ESRC include:

  • economy and business
  • environment
  • health and wellbeing
  • international
  • public services
  • politics and governance
  • society

What is social policy?

Social policy is developed using the research findings of social scientists. There are numerous definitions of social policy, but Sociology Today defines it as:

...the main principles under which the government of the day directs economic resources to meet specific social needs. 

It is one aspect of public policy, which is concerned with the responsibilities of governments. 

The Social Policy Association has produced a video explaining social policy.


Who are the employers?

Typical employers of social scientists include:

Large research agencies

Examples include: Ipsos MoriKantarGfK.

Specialist social research organisations

Examples include:  NatCen Social ResearchNational Institute of Economic and Social Research.

Small businesses

For a directory of organisations, searchable by sector, expertise, services of respondents, access the Research Buyers Guide.


For a list of charities, see the Charity Commission's Register of Charities and search for 'social research'.

Trade unions and pressure groups

See current list of trade unions, and current list of UK pressure groups.

Higher education institutions

Large research centres such as Institute for Social and Economic Research (University of Essex), Social Policy Research Unit (University of York) and many other centres around the UK.

Central government

Examples include:  Government Social Research ProfessionOffice for National Statistics.

Local government

For example: Local Government Association Research and Information team.

Do I need a PhD or masters?

The Social Research Association recommends that job applicants in this sector have some form of research methods training or qualification.

This could include a masters or postgraduate diploma in social research methods.

An MPhil or PhD also provides relevant experience of using research techniques and methodologies.



What jobs could I do?

Typical social research and policy roles include:

Prospects - Social researcher

Prospects - Government social research officer

Prospects - Market researcher

The Social Research Association's careers page includes a number of interviews with researchers, including useful questions such as "what was your first professional job?"

The Market Research Agency produces an online booklet, Your Career in Research, which outlines four key roles in market and social research.

  • Qualitative research
  • Quantitative research
  • Analysts
  • Operations

The Association for Qualitative Research produces a free Graduate Pack, downloadable on request, covering topics such as qualifications required, salary information and sample case studies.

Job descriptions and requirements for social policy roles can vary widely, depending on the employer and policy area involved. 'Policy Officer' is a common entry-level job title and a Google search will allow you to investigate the requirements of currently advertised posts. 

Roles are likely to involve:

  • monitoring and analysing developments in the policy environment
  • producing briefings and drafting publications on key issues
  • providing policy input into organisational campaigns

Skills and experience required include:

  • excellent knowledge of the specific policy area
  • strong written and verbal communication skills
  • the ability to build relationships with a wide range of internal and external stakeholders

How do I find a job?


You will need some relevant practical experience, for example in research or market research interviewing, or through other work involving research methodologies.

Experience in an administrative role where research is used to evaluate something, such as service delivery, could also be beneficial.

Involvement with the development and implementation of policy, perhaps through your department or the Students' Union would also be valuable.


You'll usually need a social science degree, for example in economics, politics, social policy, etc. For quantitative roles, a mathematical subject will be useful. A PhD will be particularly important for roles within academia.

The Social Research Association recommends that you get some form of research methods training or qualification. This might be developed during your undergraduate course, or as a postgraduate qualification


Skills required will vary depending on the role, but typically include experience in research methods and techniques, strong analytical skills, excellent interpersonal and communication skills and attention to detail.

Recruitment processes

Some of the large research agencies offer graduate traineeships, for example, Ipsos MoriGfK, as well as roles for more experienced social researchers.

Smaller research companies will usually be responsive to speculative applications, the Research Buyers Guide provides a useful list of organisations.

Build your network of contacts by joining groups such as the Market Research Society's Young Researchers Network, as this will allow you to learn more about your chosen field and find out about potential employers and opportunities.


How do I find work experience?

Many individuals in this field start work in research assistant roles, perhaps involved in collecting data for a particular survey.

The National Centre for Social Research recruits survey interviewers throughout the year, and the Market Research Society has a useful page listing companies that offer work placements and internships.

During your studies you could also look for opportunities to support academic researchers within your faculty – perhaps helping them with interviewing, data entry, etc. This will give you a useful grounding in the practical work involved.


Your next steps

  • Join relevant societies (student membership fees are usually discounted) such as the Social Research Association or the Market Research Society. This will demonstrate your interest in the subject and allow you to make useful contacts.
  • Look for the social media accounts of relevant organisations and follow them
  • Join a student society that is relevant to your particular policy interests, for example, economics, environments and so on, and look for opportunities to get more involved
  • If you are a member of any other clubs or societies look for ways to instigate some research, for example, to measure the impact of their activities. This will be great evidence of your enthusiasm and commitment when it comes to making applications
  • Investigate research methods courses and qualifications early so you can be clear about how they will enhance your applications. Talk to potential future employers to gauge their opinions.

Further information and vacancy sources



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