A couple of weeks ago I attended an inspiring and insightful webinar all about how to start your career in a think tank, delivered by Smart Thinking, and with speakers from several big and small think tanks. Below is what I found out.
- What is a think tank?
In the UK think tanks are a part of the non-profit sector and are generally not funded by the government (although some projects may be backed by government). A think tank is there to create and vet government policy, it explains what the government is doing, has an educational purpose and provides innovative ideas. A lot of think tanks provide analysis in media so that it reaches not just government and academia, but the wider public, and in doing so trying to influence public policy and public opinion.
- What roles exist in a think tank?
Policy and research roles aren't the only roles available! Roles in event management and communication are plenty, as think tank try and influence government, media and the wider public through conferences or private dinners, or through the press. In bigger think tanks there are also other administrative or operational roles such as HR, IT, marketing and more. In smaller think tanks you may do all roles in one!
- How to get into the think tank sector
There is no set career pathway, employees come from many different sectors. Some policy researchers develop a research and adviser career first e.g. within national government, charities or within politics, and some come directly from academia. Some think tanks may ask for a master or a PhD for policy roles, whilst others will employ people without a further study degree. Others come from more specialist fields that are relevant to the think tank, e.g. from education or health. Roles are open to any degree background, although a passion for policy is key!
Internships are the usual way in although some will also advertise entry-level permanent positions.
- What are the skills needed
For policy/research roles core research skills are useful e.g. research methods, interviewing and conducting focus groups for example. However an aptitude for research may be enough for some roles! Knowledge of the policy-making process and how it works is vital. The ability to communicate your research clearly, both written and orally, to different audiences is key. Any data analysis skills e.g. SPSS will be an advantage for some roles.
- Some application tips
It is important to research the think tank, knowing what their values and mission are. Pay attention to the job description and what skills are they looking for and adapt the CV and cover letter accordingly. Passion is a key factor, showing what is unique about you and what has inspired you to apply for the think tank. Showing attention to detail regarding spelling and grammar is important and make sure you don't undervalue any of your experiences or take them for granted, such as voluntary positions, involvement in societies or tutoring, for example. Recruiters want to get to know you and your story!
- Think about whether you want to specialise in a certain policy field or work in a think tanks that covers several policy fields. This will help narrow down your search.
- There are other roles in think tanks apart from policy/research; also look for roles in events, comms, administrative and operational roles.
- Covid-19 has affected recruitment, however for many the recruitment has just been delayed and in some instances recruitment may increase due to increased public interest in public policy. Keep an eye out for opportunities!
Good luck in your applications!