Think tanks

 

What think tanks do depends on their size and funding, but principally their aim is to publish and influence public policy debate. 

Most think tanks are non-profit organisations and may be based in the charity sector. Others are funded by particular advocacy groups, the voluntary sector, government, businesses, generate revenue from consulting or research or combination thereof. Although these policy institutes may have political bias they are usually independent of political parties and government.

Think tanks conduct research into a range of issue oriented topics as well as broader business, political and economic areas including different aspects of social policy, political strategy and reform, the environment, security and the military, technology and economics using a variety of social science research methods.

Think tanks are no longer a North American and Western European phenomena and indeed the past 10 years has witnessed the impact of globalization on the think tank movement.

This is most evident in regions such as Africa, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and parts of Southeast Asia. Here there has been a concerted effort by the international community to support the creation of independent public policy research organizations resulting in collaboration across geographical regions.

The think tank sector employs relatively few people. The smallest institute may have a core staff of 3 or 4 and employ extra staff when needed. The largest employ around 50.

Useful links

  • National Institute for Research Advancement - think tanks and Policy research resources.  This site contains links to research institutes in more than 50 countries. Search for job vacancies, fellowships and special events sponsored by the organisations. 
  • Policy Library - Social, economic and foreign policy resource - updated daily with the latest jobs, research and events in the UK, US, Australia and New Zealand.
  • Sourcewatch - encyclopedia entry on Think Tanks - includes excellent list of American, UK, European and Australian think tanks and public affairs organisations and publications.   
  • Foreign Policy - comprehensive index of international think tanks, including top 10s, and political standing.   

Useful Information

Routes in

Across think tanks as a whole there is no typical career path and progression. The majority of graduates will be attracted to the role of analyst or researcher which is common to all think tanks.

However full time positions are rare with research associate positions often requiring at least a Master's degree plus five years high-level research experience. Candidates for Senior Associate roles are typically PhD level researchers with a number of years of experience.

It's unusual to have a ‘think tank’ career. The majority of LSE students working in think tanks will have begun as interns or have transitioned from other sectors with significant work experience. The think tank sector as a whole employs relatively few people.

Desirable skills and qualifications

It is very common to have a Master's qualification, particularly for analyst and researcher positions.

In addition to strong research skills, think tanks are increasingly looking for strong influencing and communication skills and the interest and ability to engage with new technologies and media.

The staff profiles can often give an insight into the skills that particular think tanks value but be creative - you may be the very person to fill a skills gap in an organisation!  

A think tank employer will look at skills gained from any previous employment, professional knowledge and technical expertise and academic qualifications. Your knowledge of the subject area and the organisation's values are also likely to be tested.

Internships and work experience

The main entry point is via internship programmes and part-time/project-based opportunities. If you are keen to work in the sector after graduation, aim to get an internship during your time at the LSE.

Think tanks have a fairly rapid turn-over and rely heavily on interns. Short internships in think tanks are a good way to get a ‘foot in the door’ and are open to undergrads and recent graduates and tend to combine research and administrative work. Internships can be a great way to get some interesting experience which will look impressive on your CV.

Whilst interning it’s essential that you network and keep an eye open for opportunities.

It’s important to bear in mind though when you join as an intern that the number of permanent positions is low and formal graduate placements are rare.

Job and internship hunting strategies

Think tanks expect to receive applications in four ways. To increase your chances, consider all of the following:

  • Specialist websites such as and w4mp.org (Working for an MP)
  • The think tanks' own websites, which post vacancies for interns and staff
  • Through speculative applications (try to connect with the values / philosophical standpoint of particular think tanks)
  • Adverts in national publications like The Guardian, The New Statesman the Times Educational Supplement and The Economist

Our advice is to be proactive and seek out smaller organisations that don't necessarily advertise, particularly if your Master's or PhD thesis has either or strong subject or methodological similarities to your potential target.

Some jobs are not advertised or are filled internally through existing staff or volunteers so building and maintaining a network and using tools like LinkedIn should be part of your overall job strategy.