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Operational researchers provide the quantitative and qualitative information that improves strategies, decision-making and processes.

Operational research is used in government, commerce and industry.

What do operational researchers do? | Typical employers | Qualifications and training | Key skills

Operational researchers examine the way an organisation operates, using mathematical and analytical techniques to help it to develop better business practices and systems.

Operations research can also be known as management science or, if applied to the engineering field, industrial engineering. It was developed out of the management science theory work completed during the First and Second World Wars. It is essentially a form of problem-solving and can be applied to a wide range of business problems and planning. For example, it has been used to help controlling air traffic, to predict when there will be an increased need for power supply from utility companies, to improve manufacturing processes and to model the behaviour of retail customers.

A large amount of the work involves using mathematical and statistical models, computer software and data analysis – but operational researchers will also use qualitative methods of research, such as interviewing.

Responsibilities typically include:

  • determining and clarifying strategic and operational problems by consulting with appropriate employees
  • outlining objectives
  • collecting, analysing and interpreting data
  • developing models
  • observing trends within data
  • using complex mathematical and statistical methods
  • identifying and assessing possible strategies
  • presenting results that can be easily understood
  • implementing agreed solutions.

Job titles related to operational research include ‘operations analyst’, ‘operations consultant’, ‘operations and strategy analyst’ and ‘data analyst’.

Typical working hours vary according to the employer and sector you work in. If you work for a consulting or professional services firm, you can expect to travel to client sites; however, if you work for the public sector, there will be much less travel.

Typical employers of operational researchers

  • Consulting and professional services firms
  • Armed forces
  • The Civil Service and the Government Operational Research Service (GORS)
  • The NHS
  • Transport and logistics companies
  • Financial organisations
  • Commercial and industrial organisations, such as engineering firms, retailers and technology companies.

Vacancies are advertised on TARGETjobs, by careers services, by jobs boards and via relevant professional bodies, such as The Operational Research Society, the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, and the Institute of Management Services.

Qualifications and training required

You need to be a graduate to at least bachelors-level to become an operational researcher. The degree needs to either be in a numerate subject or in a subject that covers a large amount of quantitative and analytical theory. Relevant degree subjects, therefore, include:

  • maths
  • statistics
  • computer science
  • engineering
  • physics
  • economics
  • management science.

There are also a few operational research undergraduate courses available. Unsurprisingly, an A level/higher in further maths is often a requirement.

It’s worth noting that many employers prefer candidates to have gained an MSc (or other postgraduate qualification) in operational research.

Key skills for operational researchers

  • A methodical and logical approach to work
  • Very strong mathematical and IT skills
  • Problem-solving abilities
  • Confidence when working with data
  • The ability to communicate complex data simply
  • Effective teamworking and relationship-building skills
  • The ability to communicate well, and manage relationships, with clients
  • High level of organisation.

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