Operational research (OR) - sometimes known as operations research or management science - involves using scientific techniques to analyse problems and make decisions. Operational researchers use mathematics and mathematical modelling on computers to compare the likely outcomes of a number of possible solutions to a problem. They use this information to advise the decision makers in an organisation on the most appropriate way forward.
Operational researchers are found in many different employment sectors as their work has a wide range of applications. Typical projects include:
Operational researchers must have a thorough understanding of the problem they are studying. They do this by talking to people who are involved at all stages and by obtaining relevant statistics. They decide on the most appropriate analytical techniques to use and, when they have finished their work, communicate their findings in presentations and written reports.
Operational researchers may work alone or in teams. They liaise closely with a wide range of people.
Operational researchers usually work 37 hours a week, Monday to Friday, although longer hours (including weekends) may be required when working to deadlines. There may be opportunities to work part time or to work from home. Some operational researchers are self-employed and work as consultants on short- or long-term contracts.
Operational researchers are usually based in offices, but visit clients' sites to carry out research, so a driving licence may be useful. Travelling within the UK and overseas and staying away from home may be required.
Starting salaries for an operational researcher typically range from £20,000 to £26,000 a year.
There are opportunities for operational researchers throughout the UK, although the majority of employers are based in large cities. The national government employs operational researchers in the Government Operational Research Service (GORS), which recruits around 80 candidates each year, and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl). There are also opportunities in other sectors, including financial services, the NHS, manufacturing, retail, oil and transport. Some operational researchers work for management consultancies, universities and research institutions.
The majority of operational researchers are graduates with good honours degrees, usually 2:1 or above. Relevant degree subjects usually have a significant mathematical, statistical or computing content, for example mathematics, computer science, economics, statistics, management science, business studies, physics, chemistry, engineering, or life and medical sciences. Other subjects may be accepted. Some universities offer joint honours degrees in OR and another subject, such as mathematics or statistics.
Applicants for degree courses generally need a minimum of five GCSE's (A*-C) including English and maths and two A levels, or the equivalent. Entry requirements vary widely, so candidates are strongly advised to check exact entry requirements with individual institutions.
Some employers prefer applicants with postgraduate qualifications, for example a Masters in operational research or management science, or a PhD. A list of universities offering postgraduate courses is available on the OR Society website. Entry usually requires a good first degree in a relevant subject.
The OR Society organises open days for undergraduates interested in OR as a career. For details visit their website.
New recruits are usually trained in-house. This may include an induction course to introduce the organisation's culture and policies, training in computer systems, training in the skills needed for specific projects, and management and personal skills training. There may also be the opportunity to attend external courses, such as those offered by the OR Society.
Operational researchers working in the public sector will undergo regular job appraisals when individual training needs are identified.
Some employers may support part-time study for an MSc in operational research.
OR is constantly evolving, so operational researchers need to commit to updating their knowledge and skills throughout their careers.
The OR Society has an accreditation scheme. Members of The OR Society who have successfully completed a degree with a substantial amount of OR content or have recently been employed in OR may apply to become Candidates of the OR Society (CandORS). This grade recognises that the candidate has made a commitment to the OR discipline and signals their eligibility and intention to apply to become an Associate of the OR Society (AORS). Members with around two or three years' experience may apply for AORS, progressing to Associate Fellowship (AFORS) and Fellowship (FORS) as their careers develop.
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An operational researcher should:
Promotion depends on ability and performance. Skilled, experienced operational researchers may choose to specialise in a particular business area, or move on to lead a team in an operational research department. A number of operational researchers progress to senior management positions.
There is a structured careers path for operational researchers working for GORS. They are encouraged to change departments in order to broaden their experience. Some move into other government jobs.
The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl),
Porton Down, Salisbury SP4 0JQ
Tel: 01980 613121
Government Operational Research Service (GORS)
The OR Society, Seymour House,
12 Edward Street, Birmingham B1 2RX
Tel: 0121 233 9300
Additional resources for job seekers and those already in a job.