Operational researcher

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Peter Hall works in operational research (OR) at the Department for Work and Pensions in London where he uses statistics to check whether the correct amount of benefits are paid each year.

How would you describe your work?

I work as part of a team that measures the amount of money that the government spends on working age and pensioner benefits. Specifically, we are trying to work out the amount that has been incorrectly paid due to errors and fraudulent claims.

One of my main responsibilities is to produce monthly reports that contain figures for fraud and error rates. These reports are given to performance management and fraud strategy groups who use them to assess trends and to determine how best to reduce the size of the incorrect payments.

How do you produce one of these reports?

I am given data on fraud and error that has been collected from each region of the UK. I check that this has no errors in it, and run statistical calculation programs using a computer. This generates the results, which I put into the report and explain any statistical limitations.

What hours do you work?

I work flexi-time, which means I can arrive by 10am and leave by 4pm on some days as long as I work 36 hours a week by working longer on other days. This is convenient because I can put in extra hours when I have many deadlines, but I can work shorter hours when I do not.

What skills and qualities do you need to be an operational researcher?

I need to be good at applying mathematical techniques, interacting with people, problem solving and time management. I also need to pay attention to detail with regard to data. Some computer programming skills are also useful.

What are the positive aspects of your work?

I like doing a job that is meaningful and of interest to the general population. And I like being able to use some of the skills that I learnt at university, not only the mathematical aspects, but also the other transferable skills like interaction with people.

I also like the variety of the work. There are many different techniques and ideas for solving problems and I am not restricted to one particular function.

What is your biggest challenge?

It's not always possible to get the data required to solve a problem using a particular analysis method. So I need to be innovative in this respect.

Peter's route to his career as an operational researcher

  • A levels in maths, chemistry and physics.
  • MEng degree in Chemical Engineering.
  • PhD in Chemical Engineering.

Peter's operational researcher tips

  • Study maths at A level and do a numerical type of degree. Statistics is very useful in my post.
  • You need to like solving practical problems involving numbers and data.
  • Be open-minded in terms of understanding the needs and viewpoints of the people you are working with.

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Salary of an operational researcher

  • Operational researcher analysts can expect to earn around £33,000, and project managers about £36,000, although starting salaries for graduates will be in the mid £20,000s.

Getting in

  • Most entrants have a degree in a subject like maths, statistics, sciences, economics, business studies or computer studies. There are also some degrees that include OR. Many employers also ask for a Masters degree in one of these subjects.
  • Employers with large OR departments run graduate training programmes. New entrants are put into an OR team and work on projects under supervision. They gradually take on more responsibility as they progress.

Modified: 16 June 2013

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