13 March 2013

Researchers may work in libraries and archives or collect information from field work. Research projects can focus on anything from one piece to a whole collection.

Working with the collections and carrying out different types of research are tasks you will encounter. Image: Imperial War Museum.
Working with the collections and carrying out different types of research are tasks you will encounter. Image: Imperial War Museum.

What do researchers do?

Heritage organisations carry out research to support their collections.

Research projects differ enormously. Some involve painstaking academic research in libraries and archives. Others are more community-based, collecting memories from local people for example.

A researcher will need a very strong interest in a particular aspect of heritage, backed up by study and experience.

Some may be linked to theatre productions or exhibitions. Others are based around a particular area or an anniversary celebration.

Research could be on one piece from a collection or on the whole collection. Some projects look at wider issues in heritage such as the effects of the environment on heritage items, conservation techniques or security systems.

Heritage researchers could work for:

What is the job like?

Some researchers are self-employed, working as consultants on a range of projects. Their clients are likely to include organisations wanting to do some heritage research which do not have the funds to employ a permanent researcher.

The projects you work on may be short term (usually ranging from a few months to a few years). This is likely to be linked to funding. You may spend time bidding for funding to continue your research or for your next project.

Nowadays, research may be linked to the commercial business work of a heritage organisation. For example, researching licensing rights for material to be published or research into visitor numbers and diversity.

What else should I know?

Researchers may work indoors or out, depending on what they are researching. Some time is spent indoors writing up your research.

As a researcher you may wear protective clothing. This may be to protect yourself, from dust or chemicals, for example. You may also need to protect the delicate items you are studying.

Researchers may work as part of a team, particularly on a large project. At the same time, they need to be able to work alone as they may be responsible for a particular part of a project. You may also spend time working with visiting researchers who want to study your collection, helping them to find and use the material they need.

Research work may involve travel. You may travel to heritage sites in the UK or overseas. You may meet with other international experts in your field at meetings or conferences. You may make presentations and give lectures on your research, in the UK or overseas. If you are a university researcher, teaching students may be part of your work.

How do I become a researcher?

As a researcher, you will need:

  • a very strong interest in a particular aspect of heritage. This needs to be backed up by study and experience
  • an enquiring mind
  • determination to see a project through
  • to be self-motivated and self-reliant but, at the same time, able to work in a team when necessary
  • good communication skills, both written and verbal, to explain your research to non-specialists
  • to be willing to continue learning throughout your career.

Research often proceeds slowly so you have to accept that you may not see instant results.

Qualifications and training

The vast majority of researchers are graduates. Many have a Masters and PhD as well. Your first degree is likely to be in a relevant subject which reflects your interests.

This could be, for example:

  • history of art
  • arts or heritage management
  • museum studies
  • archaeology.

However, you could go into heritage research from many other subject areas such as science, geology or sociology, for example.

Studying for a Masters or PhD

You could study for a Masters or PhD during a career break or by part-time or distance learning. You may be able to study for a PhD while working. Your Masters and PhD allow you to study a particular subject in greater depth, as well as developing your research skills.

Degrees and Masters in all subjects are widely available at universities across the UK. Details are available on the UCAS and UKPASS websites.

Once you have your PhD you can apply for post-doctoral posts, which may combine research with teaching.

To work as a freelance researcher, you need experience in the heritage sector. You need some commercial awareness and business skills so you can market your services, deal with finances and develop your business.

You may advertise your research service on a website. A lot of your work, however, is likely to come from developing a reputation in the heritage world.

What can I earn?

A research assistant could start at £18,000 rising to around £25,000. A university researcher could earn from £29,000 to £36,000.

Also of interest

Stay updated

Sign up for our weekly careers newsletter

View our privacy policy.

Related events & opportunities