JOB SEARCH / JAN. 31, 2015
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How to Work for a Think Tank

Have you ever fancied the idea of working for that most clever-sounding of institutions, the ‘think tank’? This post shines a light on what think tanks are, and the various routes of entry into the think tank sector.

What is a think tank?

Think tanks publish and influence public opinion and public policy debate. Examples of think tanks include the Centre for Social Justice and Demos.

“Think tanks share a common vision to improve their respective spectrums, as well as being sources of new ideas and research,” according to the University of Oxford.

Think tanks are not-for-profit organisations. Most are based in the charity sector, but they can also be funded by other organisations, such as the government or businesses. Their income derives from either consulting or research, or both; their main output is the publication of their research and their policy. Although think tanks may have a clear political leaning, they will invariably be independent of political parties.

Think tank organisations research a broad range of political, social, technological, environmental, and economic issues, particularly around strategy and policy, using the wide range of methods available to them.

Routes of entry and career progression

There are no specific routes of entry into think tanks. Typically, graduates begin as interns with a think-tank whilst at university, or move into the think tank sector following work experience elsewhere. (Formal graduate roles are exceptional). Internships are a good way to ‘get your foot in the door,’ and will give you valuable research and administrative experience. Astute graduates will network broadly during their internship and keep their eyes open for future opportunities.

Most who apply to join a think tank will invariably apply for the position of junior analyst or researcher, roles found in all think tanks. Junior positions will usually have a master’s degree or a PhD, in addition to solid research experience. There will usually be tiers of research positions in think tanks, for example from junior research roles to research fellows to think tank directors. Promotion is typically, but not exclusively, ‘from within’.

Typical salaries

Below are the median annual salaries for those working for think tanks, based on years of experience:

1-4 years

£26,531

5-9 years

£33,000

Source: Payscale

Skills, qualifications and attributes required

Generally, those who work for think tanks as associate researchers will have a social science degree or similar, typically at master’s level. In addition, the following skills are valued:

  • Excellent research skills
  • Administrative skills
  • Strong communication and influencing skills
  • Teamwork skills
  • Networking skills
  • Digital skills – to engage others using new technologies and media
  • A keen interest and knowledge in public policy, current affairs and the relevant subject area of the think tank.

A think tank employer will also be interested in the skills and technical expertise you have acquired from your previous work. 

Where to begin your job search

There are a number of ways to apply to join a think tank:

  • Websites of think tanks. Click on this link for a list and profile of think tanks in the UK; for think tanks round the world, visit the Policy Library website. Most think tanks’ websites will include the profiles of their employees, so have a look to see how they reached their particular positions.
  • Speculative applications. If the work and values of a think tank resonate with you, consider making an informal inquiry about working for them.
  • Advertisements in publications such as The Economist or The Guardian.
  • Networking, for example through LinkedIn. Build a network of people working for think tanks and get to know them, proactively responding to their posts and highlighting similarities or research interests you have in common.

Still want to work for a think tank? The sector is small (and many vacancies are not advertised), so it is especially important to be proactive in your job search. If you have the required skills, knowledge and interest to work for a specific think tank; if your dissertation has methodological or other similarities with their work, consider that an opportunity to be seized. Good luck!

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