I'm a recent social sciences master's graduate based in the UK, and I'm interested in making PhD applications next year. I would like to take the year I have available to gain some kind of experience, ideally research experience to strengthen my applications. Do you have any advice on some steps I can take for this? I have been thinking about research assistant positions but there aren't many of them available, especially in the field I am interested in. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.
One possible option is to try to land a job in, perhaps, the library at a nearby university. My daughter did something like that. It not only gives you access to the library itself, but also to the faculty, if you can work out the hours. Some other position at a university might also be possible.
As you say, you probably can't land a research assistantship, but it is possible to still collaborate with people as an independent researcher and get a start on research. You need access and some time to invest. It is also good to have some ideas for possible research that some faculty member might be interested in. You need too avoid getting exploited, but a cooperative relationship isn't out of the question.
To maximize your potential for finding a position, you can search for any position that has a research component vaguely related to your potential PhD topic. For instance, if your topic is women's labor force participation during recession, you should be very broad and look at positions related to women, to labor force participation, or to recessions. The position could be in a university or more broadly in a nonprofit or similar NGO.
If you can’t find work with a specific research component, you can also look at positions that would give you experience with the population you are interested in.
PhD admissions tutor here! First, you are doing exactly the right thing in looking for more experience. If you are applying for a funded studentship they are very competitive and you need to stand out from the crowd. If you can get a research assistant post in a vaguely relevant area that's great. But I also really like applicants who have a bit of non university experience - consider NGOs, market research companies, local government, civil service, industry. These will give you a different perspective on research and some new skills and contacts. Civil service in particular is often an excellent option if you can get in. Good luck!