Where to Look For Contract Research Work

Contract research work in applied sociology
Photo: Texas A&M University-Commerce, CC 2.0 via Flickr. Adapted by SociologyAtWork.org

It can be tough to know where to look for a job as an applied sociologist. Contract work can be an ideal place to start out so you can build up your resume. To this end, there are a couple of industries where you might focus your job hunt initially. Here are some tips for finding work in social research with market agencies; how to look for work with local governments; and how to maximise your chances with specialist recruitment agencies. Remember that many contract opportunities also come up through personal networks, so staying well-connected is essential!


Diving Into Contract Work

The idea of contract work can seem scary at first. After all, many of us will value stability and a guaranteed income when we’re job hunting. Contract work can be tough because it’s impermanent and it means remaining flexible. This may not suit applied sociologists who look after dependants, especially as you’re likely to miss out on medical benefits and perhaps superannuation or other perks. I went from casual contract work in academia; to a permanent position in federal government; to temporary contracts in state government and with businesses. Contract work means being very organised about your financial and career planning. Then again there are many benefits if you can find a way to fit contract work in with your lifestyle.

I have found in the past that when I’ve needed to recruit sociologists, many people turned down the opportunity to work on contract roles because they were holding out for an academic research position. If that’s where your heart lies and you have lots of patience, then perseverance is the ticket. If you find the academic market tough, however, that’s because it is. There are few jobs and many academic research positions are already casualised anyway (though this is not something we should support!). Still, if you’re open-minded, contract work in applied roles offer exciting opportunities to boost your CV. These jobs can be a great way to gain experience, as they generally offer diverse tasks and responsibilities. This means you can gain additional skills in a short period of time.

So where to start looking for work?

Social Research in Marketing

Photo: Texas A&M University-Commerce via Flickr
Photo: Texas A&M University-Commerce via Flickr

Don’t discount the market research industry. We tend to look down on this field in sociology. Sure there is a lot of poor research pumped out under the guise of market research, but wide-sweeping elitism on where sociologists should work is a disservice to our training and expertise. Some market research agencies specialise in “social research” and they exclusively do social policy work for government, especially in health and community sectors. Most marketing jobs will want you to have a certain level of focus group interviewing experience (a set number of hours) if the job is qualitative, or they will be very specific in needing strong quantitative skills. Thankfully they are almost always willing to train people. This is ideal for new graduates or early career researchers. If you’re mid-career and have no commercial or policy experience, you may need to be prepared to take a side-step in pay, but you may be able to make this up in bonuses.

Years ago I worked on a social marketing project (albeit run by an academic, Professor Linda Brennan). This experience was an eye opener about how sociologists can contribute in this field. The project was for a state government agency looking to inform public information campaigns for vulnerable consumers. I did the qualitative analysis and co-authored an article. This role came up through a mutual academic contact in the year after I finished my PhD. I have been able to apply the knowledge I gained from this project in many other jobs since, including in analysis of media for social policy and later, in social media research.

Don’t write off the valuable work sociologists can do in social marketing! Note that most social marketing agencies will want both quant and qual skills, but some will specifically ask for one or the other. Ring up marketing agencies directly – many will take unsolicted CVs, though most jobs will be advertised on general job seeking websites, like Seek.com.

Here are some keyword searches that may help you find relevant work:

  • “Social research”
  • “Social policy”
  • “Qualitative research”
  • “Quantitative research”
  • “Social science”

Local and State Policy

Photo: Texas A&M University-Commerce, via Flickr
Photo: Texas A&M University-Commerce, via Flickr

Another good place to look for contract work is in local councils. They often have research positions especially in health policy. Sign up to job email lists for local councils in your area to keep on top of new opportunities. (Go to their website and head to their jobs/careers section and register your interest or join their email list.) These contract research positions tend to run from six months to two years.

There are also lots of contract jobs at the state government level, and generally less contract positions at the federal level. I’ve worked on short term projects for state government and I can tell you there’s plenty of work out there, but it will be highly specialised. Usually they are asking for specific experience in one policy area or in specific research methods. Interesting opportunities will also come up for public investigations and public inquiries,  as well as special city projects (such as for sporting and community events or city planning).

Most major government agencies will have a temporary work register. You will have to sign up to each department’s register individually, but the questions are usually general enough so that you can modify your applications. Registers are usually open for 12 months and they are a good way to have policy work delivered straight to you.

Major cities are likely to have specialist recruitment agencies who focus on hiring social researchers for government work, but you will need to already have the specific experience they are looking for, as they need you to walk into the job with your feet running. In Melbourne, Australia, there are only around four recruitment agencies that organise all government positions for the state. They tend to place people who already have policy experience. Contracts typically go from three to 12 months.

Send in your resume to agencies and follow them up with a phone call to talk them though your skills and experience. It’s better to strike up a relationship with one particular person at the recruitment agency – if they’re doing their job properly, they’ll keep calling you with opportunities (but don’t leave it up to them!).

Most of this contract policy work happens in larger cities (with a concentration in capital cities) or alternatively in rural areas, remote regions or mining towns. You may need to consider temporarily relocating to take advantage of longer contract positions. Once you have “your foot in the door” of government, you will be able to apply for permanent positions in other departments more easily. Keyword searches you might try:

  • “Social policy”
  • “Project officer” (junior role) “project manager” (senior)
  • “Community development”
  • Health AND policy


Photo: Texas A&M University-Commerce, via Flickr
Photo: Texas A&M University-Commerce, via Flickr

Never forget that most careers are built on personal relationships – and sociology careers are no different. Bear in mind Mark Gravovettor’s classic sociology theory on weak ties!  Contract roles are not always advertised. This is because contract roles tend to grow as the team expands, or as the scope of the project evolves. Sometimes, people will need to be hired from one week to the next, which is why networks come in handy.

When I’ve needed to hire people in the past, I put the word out through my academic and applied networks. These avenues yielded better results than general advertisements because I needed specialists (qualitative sociologists). When an employer is time-pressured, it’s easier to tap into existing networks and follow personal recommendations from people who can be trusted.

Make sure you put the word out with your former supervisors, colleagues and former co-students that you’re looking for work!

Over to you

Have you got any other suggestions about where to look for contract research work? Be sure to contribute to the discussion in the comments section below!

A version of this article first appeared on our Sociology at Work LinkedIn Group

3 Comments on “Where to Look For Contract Research Work

  1. You may get into companies that deals with BioTech or BioSciences. They often do continuous research, hence they will always find researchers to give them valuable info regarding their study.


    • This is a great suggestion, Laura! There’s lots of interesting work for sociologists in biotechnology and related fields. I once taught sociology to environmental science students too – there’s so much applied sociology can offer such disciplines.


    • This is a great suggestion, Laura! There’s lots of interesting work for sociologists in biotechnology and related fields. I once taught sociology to environmental science students too – there’s so much applied sociology can offer such disciplines.


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