Looking for a career in social research? Here’s my advice

By Sophie Pilley, Sociology Alumni

I was recently invited to join a panel of alumni speakers at the University of Surrey to talk about my career as a social researcher; the event was designed for us to talk about how we got into our current roles, and to offer advice to students within the Sociology department.

In this blog, I’ll offer a few more thoughts about my own career at the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), and some of the tips I gave to students on the day about applying for a job in social research.


What my job entails

I’m a Senior Researcher in NatCen’s Questionnaire Development and Testing Hub (QDT Hub). We’re a specialist team, with unique expertise in questionnaire design and question testing methods (please see here for more information on these methods).

We work with internal teams within NatCen as well as external clients, such as charities or government bodies. Our projects are relatively short – usually lasting a couple of months. We also carry out testing of web questionnaires and documents such as advance letters or leaflets.

Our work covers a wide variety of fascinating topic areas; in the past year, we’ve tested questions on smoking behaviours, documents to screen homeless people for gambling addiction and questions about fruit peel consumption.

In my role, I’m often a project manager, which means having oversight of all aspects of a project: from designing recruitment documents to carrying out interviews and writing the final report.


How I got here

I decided I wanted to be a researcher while studying A level Sociology. My understanding of the career was limited, however – at that time all I could imagine it could involve was something like adjusting the lighting in a factory to see if it would have an impact on productivity!

Despite my lack of knowledge around the career I decided to study Sociology and Social Research at the University of Surrey. During my degree I continued to struggle to imagine what a day job in research would involve, until I worked at NatCen during my sandwich year. (A lecturer recommended the role to me, so I knew it was going to be a good opportunity.)

I was a placement student within the QDT Hub for a year before completing my final year of university, and fell in love with the role. I enjoyed knowing that our work made a difference to the quality of data collected, as well as working on a variety of topic areas and with a variety of clients.

After graduating I was able to build on my research experience by working at Ipsos MORI for 18 months, across a mix of qualitative and quantative projects.

I enjoyed the role, but came across an advert for a researcher within the QDT Hub at NatCen and knew I had to apply.

I’ve now been back at NatCen for 5 years, and haven’t looked back since.


Top tips for applying for social research jobs

Looking for a social research job after graduating – or when making a career change – can be a daunting prospect.

That’s why I’ve included some tips below on finding and applying for jobs in social research:

  • If you’re studying, ask for your lecturer’s opinion. They’ll often know the names of the top companies and may have contacts within them.
  • Try to get some work experience. This could be a placement during the summer, getting a job on a temporary contract or doing some voluntary work. NatCen sometimes takes on placement students or interns, which is a great way to gain some practical work experience.
  • Make sure you research a company before applying for a role. You want to be able to understand what the organisation does and how it might be different to others. I was particularly drawn to NatCen as they’re a not-for-profit, for example.
  • Include all of your experience when applying. Not all experience which relates to a role will be directly related to social research. I volunteered at a zoo during university holidays, and that taught me a range of valuable teamwork skills which I’ve brought to my role as a researcher!
  • Tailor your application to the role. Don’t send the same covering letter to each organisation. These should be tailored to the role, and outline what skills and experience you can bring to that specific job opportunity.
  • Be honest. If you don’t have experience of using a particular software, it’s best just to be honest during your interview. It isn’t always the end of the road, as NatCen develops staff members’ skills with an excellent training programme.