Working in think tanks – where should I start?

With a wide range of roles available, working in a think tank can mean different things. For this exact reason there are also different ways to get into the think tank ‘sector’ and it might be difficult to say what life in a think tank is really like – it will vary from think tank to think tank and from role to role.

But how can you get to work for a think tank? And what might that work entail? We’ve tried to put some of our thoughts on Working in think tanks into a blog post, so read on if you’re interested in learning more about what a think tank is, as well as about the skills you might need if you are keen to work in one.

What is a think tank?

Think tanks are research institutes who engage in research, analysis and advocacy, using their resources and expertise to think about big policy issues. They seek to play a role in making and influencing policy – on a regional, national and global level.

While think tanks will vary in structure, size, the policy areas they focus on and their political leaning, they all share a common vision: to carry out research and analysis to improve and come up with policy recommendations for their respective sectors. Some of the main areas of research are social policy, political risk, the economy, the environment, science, technology, industrial or business policies, security and defence and the military.

In order to influence policy, thinks tanks will use media contacts, contacts with politicians, civil servants and other organisations in the policy community to disseminate their work.

What’s it like to work for a think tank?

If you’re interested in shaping policy in a particular sector, working in a think tank can be exciting and fulfilling. As most think tanks aim to be sources of new ideas and research, you will get to engage with the cutting-edge research and analysis they produce. Their main output is the publication of their research and policy work.

The UK boasts more than 120 think tanks with a variety of political leanings and research focuses, so beyond some of the general notions it is difficult to say what working for a think tank will be like. Often it will depend on their size, structure and type of work you will doing for the think tank. Most of our resources assume you will be working in a type of research position, but like any organisation, there will be other types of roles as well such as in communication and marketing, administration, human resources etc.

The best way to find out what working in a think tank is like, is to ask someone currently working for one (in the type of role you would be interested in). Many think tanks will include the biographies of those working for them on their website, so it’s worth having a proper browse to see if you can find anything useful to you. Make sure to reach out to someone (via LinkedIn for example) and ask if they are willing to meet you over a coffee to discuss their experiences and career journeys. In addition to this, King’s Careers & Employability often host industry professionals from various think tanks at our events and every year we organise a Discover Careers in: Think Tank panel event, where you will get first-hand accounts of what working for a think tank is like. You can check out upcoming events on King’s CareerConnect and watch our event recordings of previous events on KEATS.

What skills do I need?

A variety of skills will be needed if you want to work for a think tank and before you apply to work in one, you need to learn how to demonstrate that you have these skills by using examples from your academic work or other relevant experience.

Some skills you will need are:

  • Communication
  • Writing
  • Networking
  • Team working
  • Research (quantitative/qualitative)

Make sure you read all the information about the skills you will need in the job advert or person specification and then read up on the think tank’s values and competency frameworks (if they have this) before applying!

Top 6 tips for working in a think tank

  1. Be political: If you’re at all considering a future career in party politics, make sure you think about the fit between the think tank you are working for and the views of the relevant party! Alternatively, make sure you have a good explanation for why you worked for a think tank with views that might clash with those of the political party you want to work with.
  2. Have integrity: You are likely to be more engaged and therefore more successful if you agree with the philosophy and values of the think tank, so it’s worth considering this when preparing to apply.
  3. Do your homework: We’ve said it before – a good first step is to get familiar with the think tank’s website. Make sure to always tailor your CV and cover letter to the individual think tank, whether you are applying for a job listed in their vacancies or sending out a speculative application.
  4. Think laterally: Getting a job in a think tank is not always easy and competition for the research positions can be fierce. It could be worth going for an administrative job within a think tank to “get your foot in the door”. Any job within the think tank will give you better opportunities for networking! (Take it from me – I started out as an administrative intern in a think tank and I just got “promoted” to research assistant in the same think tank!)
  5. Network: True story – a King’s students once got an interview at a think tank by chatting to the person who sat next to them on the train! Obviously this was very lucky and there are no guarantees the same thing will happen to you, but remember to take opportunities and make contacts through networking. You never know when those contacts will become handy!
  6. Get some experience: Not just experience in a think tank, but any experience which can help you develop the skills a think tank is looking for. Try to get an internship, get involved with a student society (e.g. the King’s Think Tank!) or think about how you integrate a wide range of research methods into your dissertation/thesis!

Smart Thinking list the latest job and internship opportunities from over 30 think tanks, as well as offering guidance for those looking for a career in think tanks and students interested in seeking a think tank placement.