My experience of working in a think tank

Last updated: 25 Jan 2023, 13:36

Jonathan Webb, a research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), gives insights into working at a think tank, the recruitment process and how to make your application stand out.

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From intense research to mingling with politicians, working at a think tank is a varied job role that demands a vast array of skills. Jonathan tells us what attracted him to a career at a think tank and urges applicants not to be put off by the competitive application process.

How did you get into working with a think tank?

I previously completed a PhD in politics at the University of Sheffield. I then worked for a policy research institute that was attached to a university, combining policy work with academic research. I eventually decided that I enjoyed the policy research more than the academic research, so decided to transition into a think tank.

What motivated you to work for a think tank?

One of the frustrations I had in academia is it often felt like the work didn’t have a wider social impact. I found that policy work, on the other hand, did. It’s rewarding to see how my work can have a positive impact on policy – whether that’s encouraging government to adopt a new homelessness strategy or shaping the debate on climate change in a progressive direction.

What does a research fellow do on a typical day?

My job involves significant research, networking, fundraising and media elements. The research I do is varied; it will usually involve a mix of qualitative and quantitative analysis, as well as desk-based literature reviews and conversations with key experts to inform our research. This research informs policy reports, as well as policy briefs and other ad hoc pieces of analysis we might produce for the media.

Building networks in the sectors I work in – housing and environmental sustainability – is important for ensuring my work and the wider work of IPPR can have an impact. These networks are also important for identifying partners we can work with on future projects. Understanding how to write proposals and build good relationships with stakeholders is important to secure funding to support our work and the development of future projects.

Think tanks are regularly approached by the media for comment. Understanding how to respond to media requests requires a wide-ranging skill set. This includes being comfortable with media interviews and being able to condense often complex research into succinct and accessible messages that can be communicated to the general public.

How competitive is it to get a job in a think tank? Do you need any qualifications?

Working for a think tank is often cited as a career aspiration for many students and graduates entering the job market. Given there aren’t a huge number of think tanks and the number of people employed by think tanks is usually pretty small, getting a job in this area can be quite competitive.

While most people who work in a think tank tend to be from well-educated backgrounds, there’s no minimum qualification in a lot of cases beyond an undergraduate degree in a relevant subject area. This usually means people with a social science background, but I work with people who have degrees in mathematics, philosophy, economics and languages to name but a few.

While qualifications matter, having the tenacity to learn quickly and work in a fast-paced environment are just as important.

The limited number of jobs and prestige of working for a think tank often deters applicants. Don’t be deterred. A clear career trajectory in research and policy will unlock more senior positions. IPPR is also looking at ways in which we can directly recruit more talented graduates from diverse backgrounds into our organisation.

What other skills/qualities are needed to work at a think tank?

Good research skills; an ability to communicate complex information clearly to the media and the public; ability to work in a fast-paced environment; good interpersonal skills; ability to network well with a range of people from across business, politics and the third sector; and clear enthusiasm and passion for the policy area you work in.

Have you worked on any projects that have impacted policy?

In my previous role, I worked on projects that have shaped Welsh government policy on youth homelessness. In my current role, my research has contributed to shaping the debate on rent setting in the sub-market housing sector and, through IPPR’s Environmental Justice Commission, we are helping to identify new policies for what a just transition to a zero-carbon economy would involve.

What do you enjoy about your job and what do you find most challenging?

I enjoy how varied my day-to-day work is. I also enjoy seeing the impact mine and my colleagues’ work has. Being able to influence government and influence the public debate to generate change is really rewarding. The greatest challenge in my role is ensuring the work we produce is timely. There’s often a small window to shape the policy debate and you need to be very attuned to the political landscape to ensure your work has any influence.

Are there any particular highlights of your career so far?

The piece of work I’m probably most proud of was around youth homelessness. This was a collaboration between my previous organisation and world-leading experts based in Canada. This work had a really positive impact in an area of work that’s really close to my heart. It managed to ensure research and evidence shaped government strategy and provided policy and advocacy groups with a clear evidence base to inform their work.

What is the recruitment process like at IPPR?

Recruitment usually consists of an application form that includes reference to qualifications, previous work experience and a section to insert a covering letter. We often receive a large volume of applications for research posts and from this total, we will usually shortlist around five candidates. We will then ask candidates to undertake some form of assessment relevant to their role and will conduct an interview. The interview panel will usually involve a team lead, another team member, a senior colleague from another team and a representative from HR.

What is the working environment like at a think tank?

Each think tank is organised differently. At IPPR, we work in different teams focused around policy areas. For example, I work in the energy, climate, housing and infrastructure (ECHI) team. There is also IPPR North, which is based in Manchester and Newcastle, as well as IPPR Scotland, based in Edinburgh. This allows us to have regional coverage right across the UK and to ensure we consider the devolved dimensions of key policy issues.

Networking is a big part of working in a think tank. This tends to attract sociable people to the role. As an organisation we often do social activities together. We have a social fund where staff contribute money to support these activities. More generally, we often eat lunch together and make an effort to grab a drink either in our teams or more widely whenever we can.

Building relationships with politicians is one of the most effective ways to shape policy. The level of contact we have with politicians varies. It can be ad hoc or more structured. We often have politicians take part in our policy roundtables and public events. Our Environmental Justice Commission is currently chaired by three cross-party MPs and we work across the political spectrum with politicians from different parties.

Do you have any careers advice for graduates hoping to work with think tanks?

There’s a bit of a misconception that you must be an extraordinary expert to be recruited to a think tank. You don’t. You need experience, but the main things you need are a clear aptitude for research and a tenacity to work in the fast-paced world of politics. There’s really no standard route into a think tank but a good track record of research and/or policy experience under your belt will help you land a job at a top think tank.

My main advice would be to work for a think tank that works on issues you care about and aligns with your own view of the world. IPPR is an independent think tank. However, we have been established in line with our charitable purpose. Our work aligns with these objectives and everyone who works here is committed to ensuring public policy reflects them.

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