How to Become a Documentary Researcher in the US

A documentary is a film, television show or radio program that provides a factual record. To ensure the documentary is as accurate and detailed as possible, producers often hire researchers to gather all the relevant information. If you are a competent researcher with an interest in working in the broadcast industry, this could be the right career for you.

What do documentary researchers do?

To begin with, documentary researchers are a type of media researchers that specialize in documentaries and other factual productions. Their day-to-day tasks include:

  • Establishing the kind of information that is needed for a specific project
  • Identifying potential sources of this information – The sources could be scholarly journals, works of art or government publications
  • Verifying the authenticity of these sources
  • Studying the documents and retrieving relevant information
  • Holding interviews with documentary contributors – These individuals could be renowned scholars or government officials
  • Recording the information gathered from the sources and presenting it to filmmakers or producers

Work environment

Documentary researchers typically work from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. They could, however, work late into the evening and during the weekends when there are tight deadlines to be met.

In their bid to collect information from various sources, these researchers spend a significant amount of time travelling to various local and foreign destinations. So you should be prepared to spend time away from your family.


How much do documentary researchers earn annually? The following table provides the answer.


Annual average wage

Documentary Researcher


Source: Indeed

Entry requirements

There are no set educational requirements to get started in documentary media. It is, nonetheless, important to possess a bachelor’s degree. The following disciplines can give you a good foundation:

  • Communications
  • Journalism
  • Museum studies
  • Culture and Media
  • Digital Media
  • Anthropology
  • History

While pursuing your degree, you should also focus on heightening your interest in documentary research. Watch documentaries avidly and read widely to develop skills in information acquisition.

These degrees also lead to internship programs, which can help you gain some relevant work experience.

Important skills and abilities

To be a well-rounded documentary researcher, you must possess the following qualities:

  • An inquisitive mind
  • Strong information acquisition, management and analysis skills
  • Strong research skills
  • Critical thinking skills
  • Networking skills
  • Strong teamwork skills
  • The ability to work under minimal supervision
  • Good listening, speaking and writing skills.

Career development

At this point, you should have what it takes to impress potential employers. After landing the job, what do you need to do to move a step ahead?

First, you should take your time to learn from experienced researchers. In this industry, the final product of a documentary project can enhance your reputation more than an advanced degree.

Put effort into your work and use your networking skills to build contacts with producers, directors and other film-making professionals. Joining professionals association such as the Association for Documentary Editing can expose you to more networking opportunities.

If you feel an additional credential can add to your competence, consider pursuing a graduate certificate in documentary filmmaking. Some of the institutions offering this program include:

  • George Washington University, District of Columbia
  • New School for Public Engagement, New York
  • University of Colorado, Colorado

Job opportunities

The employers of documentary researchers include:

  • TV and radio stations
  • Film production companies
  • Film schools

As your competence increases, so does your chances of being hired as a senior documentary researcher. With vast experience and sufficient industry know-how, you can make the big step and establish your own documentary production company.

Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t provide occupational information for documentary researcher, it does predict some job growth in in the motion picture and video industry. This is good news for aspiring documentary researchers, since film and TV production companies are the biggest employers.

Finally, the key to success lies in building bridges and networking with your fellow professionals. You may need them in the future. Good luck!

It may not be a job for everyone, but if you enjoy research and have a real interest in media then this could well be the career for you

Image: iStock