Think tanks are research organisations that aim to influence policy on a regional, national or even global scale. Unlike academic researchers, they not only think about problems, but attempt to implement the necessary amendments to bring about change.
Each think tank has its own specific area of interest, ranging from climate change to the free market economy. They seek to sway public opinion and advocate on behalf of issues they think are important. Think tanks are often associated with a particular political stance, although there are also independent think tanks with no political affiliation.
With its focus on impacting policy, this career is perfect for anyone who wishes to use their knowledge and research skills to make a difference. People with politics degrees may find that working in a think tank is an attractive career choice, but anyone with research experience is suitable.
Qualifications needed to work in a think tank
Entry requirements vary depending on the organisation. Some think tanks require employees to have postgraduate qualifications in a relevant subject, while others, such as the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) ask for an undergraduate degree in a discipline that is relevant to the organisation.
Think tank internships
To really stand out you need to have a good track record of research experience. This could be acquired either through postgraduate study or through undertaking work experience with various research organisations.
- The Education Policy Institute (EPI) offers a six- to 12-week summer undergraduate research internship. The opportunity is available to undergraduate students in their penultimate year who are studying a quantitative subject and have an interest in education policy. During the internship, the intern will work on one of EPI’s reports and conduct a short piece of their own research.
- IPPR offers paid internships throughout the year. It also has the Amelia Zollner IPPR/University College London Internship Award, a three-month internship exclusive to UCL graduates.
- The Royal Society of Arts (RSA) has six-month paid internships for graduates who are interested in research and public policy, specifically policies relating to public services, heritage and housing.
Before applying for an internship or permanent position, ask yourself whether you are genuinely interested in the think tank’s area of expertise. You will be spending a lot of time researching a specialist subject, and if you don’t care about the research topic, you might find the work boring.
Also, think about the politics of an organisation. You need to make sure that the values of the think tank align with your own, otherwise you might find yourself endorsing policies you don’t believe in.
A final tip is to use the internship to make a good impression. Not only are internships great opportunities to network, but EPI has stated that if an intern is impressive, they could offer them a job.
If you can’t secure an internship, there are other ways to get experience; universities often advertise research assistant positions. Although they might not be related to policy, getting any kind of research experience is invaluable and looks great on a CV.
Skills for think tank jobs
The following skills are fundamental for think tank jobs:
- research skills
- qualitative and quantitative analysis
- IT skills
- attention to detail
- ability to multi-task.
Research skills, as well as quantitative and qualitative analysis, are obviously fundamental as you will be dealing with a lot of data. However, excellent verbal and written communication skills are just as important. Think tanks rely on their written reports, presentations and media appearances to gain attention for their findings and in turn influence policy.
On your application, showcase not only your research experience but your great networking and interpersonal skills. Given that you will be rubbing shoulders with journalists and politicians, you need to have a bit of a silver tongue to charm people and get their attention.
Types of think tank jobs
The most common job role within a think tank is an analyst: they choose the think tank’s policy proposals, collect and analyse data, keep up to date with legislation and current affairs and contribute their findings to reports.
Project directors, often those with a PhD, have a more senior role. Their job involves deciding which research areas the analysts need to prioritise and they have the final say on policy recommendations. They also interact with the media and meet with politicians to spread their findings and encourage widespread debate.
The typical salary for a think tank employee is £25,000 for an entry-level position, rising to £50,000 for a senior manager.
Nevertheless, if you want the satisfaction of implementing change combined with the excitement of political life, a think tank might be the place for you.