Career Spotlight: insights about working for a think tank

We were joined by Dr Ann-Marie Brouder, from Forum for the Future, and Susan Steed (working for a PhD), from the new economics foundation.  Find out more about policy work here.

Ann-Marie’s career followed a winding path, starting with a BSc in Marketing and Business where she went to work in the policy section of a large company.  She realised her interest in the environmental area was growing and did an MSc in Development Economics, from where she went to work for Unicef in Malawi.  Eventually she came back to the UK to take a post as research fellow at Reading University.  From there she went to Forum for the Future and is now a Principal Sustainability Adviser there.

Their agenda is to push businesses and governments to think long term about the challenges involved in particular around energy and food.  They work with some of the big names (Ecover, Sky, PepsiCo etc) to change their practices.. Through desk research, interviews and research, they aim to persuade and challenges these corporations to think differently.  Other projects might include, for example, O2 approaching them to help the company be the ‘leaders in sustainability in the mobile world’.  Or, they might try to influence the public through, for example, engaging with the National Trust, WI and the Church of England to champion the idea of community energy through their members.

Some of the transferable skills she took from her PhD:

  • being able to write and do presentations
  • being able to manage quick and dirty research projects
  • being able to work independently
  • demonstrating passion and commitment
  • learning how to work in teams when the PhD had been much more individual.

Starting salary around early £20k.

nef has a slightly different agenda from Forum for the Future though both operate in similar ways.  Their mission is to challenge governments and people to think about economics ‘as if people and the planet mattered’.

Susan described nef as apolitical but slightly left/Green leaning, though they do do some work with the Tories too.  Other think tanks will have different political leanings (eg Policy Exchange might be right-wing, IPPR left wing).

nef’s work can be split into the following themes:

  1. Research theme: the Happy Planet Index
  2. Research into action: Time Banks
  3. Providing an alternative view point: media appearances and books
  4. Research into campaign: Jubilee 2000 debt campaign
  5. Training: MOOC on economics
  6. Consultancy: nef consulting (which provides training in social research methods, for example)

Funding for think tanks comes from grants, or consultancy work.

Susan’s time is split between doing desk work, speaking at conferences and so on, and ‘fieldwork’.  She joined nef after having been a Housing Officer for a local council, because nef at that time was involved in a housing project.  It helped that her own personal interests allied with nef’s – she had been involved with setting up a local currency which is one of nef’s particular interests.

How do you get to stay in a think tank, given that much of the work is project-based and therefore funded per project?  Either you have to be really good at a particular skill (she is good at a particular social research method), or you have to have particular knowledge that the think tank doesn’t want to lose.  People either stay a couple of years, or a long time, which means there is a certain amount of ‘churn’ at the entry levels.