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Research roles in think tanks and social research organisations

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The second of our posts summarising a panel event on research careers in the Humanities and Social Sciences. This post will focus on working for think tanks and social research organisations - this panel included three speakers.
The first speaker had had a varied career before working for think tanks. He did a Classics degree followed by a graduate scheme and then a post graduate diploma in journalism. He got some work experience at a national newspaper then worked on health magazines and journals before working for a health-related think tank. Health-related think tanks include The Health Foundation, Nuffield Trust and The King’s Fund.  The speaker's current role involves meeting with funders as well as conducting research and managing a research team of six.  Think Tanks can be funded in different ways, and they need to demonstrate to their funders how they are making a difference.  His role involves writing press briefings and reports, and it's important to be able to communicate non-academically. Networking and communication skills are vital. In the speaker's view a PhD wasn't necessary. Work experience  is important– do approach think tanks directly for work experience. It can be helpful to have an interest in the policy focus area of the think tank, and think tanks usually have political leanings. The speaker noted that people often do something else before working in thank tanks.
The second speaker, a lecturer, had previously been a researcher at the National Centre for Social Research. During his time there he worked on designing surveys for the government and went on secondment in the Cabinet Office. He still does research for external clients as well as his academic commitments which include teaching research methods. He noted that for research outside of academia it's important to be able to communicate with clients and manage projects. When recruiting The National Centre for Social Research look for hard research skills – SPSS and Excel, and also for a masters degree with a strong research component. It's important to do your dissertation well and to get a good mark. The panellist emphasised the importance of being specific in your CV about which research skills and software packages you have used. Work experience with social research organisations will also be highly valued.

The third speaker worked as a labour market researcher for a social research organisation. He had also had a varied career; after his masters in Economics he did the graduate scheme at IPSOS Mori. His role there involved research design, literature reviews, analysing qualitative and quantitative data and lots of report writing. He noted that IPSOS Mori do both qualitative and quantitative research; there are plenty of opportunities for people who only want to do one or the other.He noted that degrees in history and politics can be very useful for building analytical skills. Projects can last anywhere between two weeks and two years. Amongst the skills needed in his current role, he mentioned skills in persuasion and validating arguments with evidence; he particularly emphasised the importance of being able to communicate the vision and impact of your research – this is essential for think tanks. It's also important to be curious and inquisitive. In his current role he uses some of the same statistical packages he used at university. In his view it’s possible to teach yourself statistics through online courses, and he mentioned a book call ‘Statistics Without Tears’. In the speaker's opinion a Masters wouldn’t be essential but could be useful for building confidence. He suggested that a Masters in research methods  could be more useful for think tanks and a Masters in Public Policy may be more useful for charities.People who work for think tanks often have an interest in the policy area of the think tank they work for.
The speaker said there are about 50 social research organisations in London, and also clusters of social research organisations in Leicester, Manchester, Edinburgh and Northern Ireland. Lots of social research organisations offer internships which are usually paid. Think tanks tend to do new/primary research whereas charities tend to use others’ research.
The third speaker was a PhD student and researcher at a Brussels-based think tank. Think Tanks can be small so multi-tasking and networking skills are important. He commented on the close relationship between lobbying and research; it's important to be able to communicate to lobbyists and explain the value of your research and how/where it would be used in a short space of time. Hard research skills such as stats and SPSS also important.

Useful links

Careers Service guide to social policy and social research careers

Guide to working in think tanks by the University of Oxford Careers Service

Social Research Association - has a jobs board and a list of social research organisations

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