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Think Tanks | The Careers Service Think Tanks – Oxford University Careers Service
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About this sector

Would you like to shape policy in a particular sector? Working in a think tank can be exciting, influential and very fulfilling. Think tanks are research institutes that seek to play a key role in making and influencing global, regional and national policy. Whilst each think tank serves a specific purpose, they all share a common vision to improve their respective sectors, as well as being sources of new ideas and research.

Think tanks engage in research and advocacy in a range of areas such as social policy, politics, economics, security, the environment, science and technology, and many more. Think tank researchers influence public opinion and public policy, which is a different focus from traditional academic research at a university. Think tanks also differ from other research organisations such as risk consultancies (see note below), pressure groups or voluntary organisations, in a number of ways:

  • They are usually identified with particular positions on the political spectrum, such as left, centrist, right, green, and liberal etc.
  • They are not usually overtly ‘campaigning’ organisations.
  • They often use the media and direct contacts with the senior leaders in their sector to disseminate their work in an attempt to influence government as well as wider public debate.
  • They can initiate their own work and seek funding for it or can conduct research at the behest of a third party.
  • They are generally funded from charitable and corporate sources.

The main output of think tanks is the publication of their research and policy work. At the same time, most organise conferences and seminars, both as part of the research process before publication and after publication to disseminate their work. They may also seek to hold private meetings with government ministers, business people and voluntary organisations involved in the policy making process. Think tank directors and other senior staff members are often considered leading experts in their field and sometimes write pieces for newspapers, political magazines and appear on news and current affairs programmes.

As well as direct engagement with organisations and individuals, think tanks use the internet and media to disseminate their findings and as a way of encouraging debate on the issues in which they have an interest. Many have websites containing downloadable reports, information on seminars, virtual debating forums and further links to useful sites. Some of the larger internationally-themed think tanks have a number of offices across the world.

The possible range of areas of focus for a job in a think tank is virtually endless because think tanks carry out research that concerns the specific region, community, or issue area(s) for which they operate, be that a continent, country, state, societal group, political party, industry, or theme.

List of Think Tanks

By focus

Some examples of think tanks and their focus are listed below:

International Affairs, Defence and Security

Democratic Government

Development

Economy

Ethnicity and Equality

European Integration

Work and Employee Relations

By ideology

Below are examples of how think tanks might be grouped according to their ideological outlooks:

Conservative

Conservative/Libertarian

Centre-Right

Centrist

Centre-Left

Liberal/Left

Independent

Other Think Tanks

A more extensive list of Think Tanks can be found in the “External Resources” section, below.

There are several online directories of Think Tanks and professional bodies. The think tank section on the Guardian website has a brief summary of, and further links to, think tanks in the UK. It offers a brief summary of each organisation, including what it does, key personnel, brief history, work in progress and recent publications, while the Policy Library maintains a World Think Tank Directory.

Entry points

The majority of think tanks are quite small – one of the bigger ones has only 40 members of staff – therefore, there are not many researcher vacancies at any one time. Some organisations only employ experienced researchers on contract work. There are several tiers of research positions in think tanks. Most employers expect prospective entrants to have a detailed knowledge of research techniques, which may be acquired by taking a taught or research Masters degree course or a PhD/DPhil in a particular area.

The most common entry point is at a research associate level, or junior researcher, often beginning directly or shortly after completing a PhD/DPhil. Some research associates are hired with a Masters degree and relevant research experience. Senior associates are typically PhD/DPhil level researchers with several years experience. Some are also affiliated with a university, often in an adjunct teaching capacity. About half of these researchers come from academia, while the other half are promoted from within the think tank. These researchers can progress to become senior fellows or research fellows and are appointed because they hold outstanding credentials as nationally or internationally recognised experts in their field.

Policy centre directors have sometimes worked their way up within the think tank sector to the top management of their organisations while other candidates are found primarily through informal networks, prestigious academic programs, and government-related organisations.

Skills & experience

Skills needed

Excellent communication, written language and research skills, a keen interest in public policy, current affairs or a specific strand of the think tank’s work, as well as team working and networking are essential. At the level of junior researcher, desk-based research and getting out to meetings and talking to people will be central, but you will probably also have to do a lot of your own administration.

For many think tanks you will need a degree that is relevant to their area of expertise, and/or some training in research methodologies. The work of think tanks and professional bodies utilises a wide range of research methods and involves extensive dissemination activities. Rigorous and sophisticated quantitative and qualitative techniques such as surveys, mapping exercises, interviews and focus groups are often used. Postgraduate research, experience of collecting and analysing statistics, specialist knowledge of a specific subject area and language, or some combination of these factors, are commonly asked for. In-depth knowledge of an area, region or theme central to the organisation’s work can be crucial.  Many think tank websites include staff profiles and it is useful to take a look at these to see how current think tank employees have reached their particular positions.

Getting experience

If you do not have much research experience or a postgraduate degree, short internships are a good way to gain experience and start building your network, and are an invaluable addition to your CV. Open to undergraduates and recent graduates, they usually consist of a mixture of research and administrative work. Very occasionally, and more likely if you are a postgraduate, they may lead on to an actual job immediately. Many larger think tanks offer internship programmes, and the specifics of the experience will vary greatly among the opportunities. However, in general, students should look for a few key attributes in researching internship opportunities with think tanks:

  • Do the think tank’s philosophy and its core research themes match your own interests?
  • Will the internship provide a range of experiences and contacts?
  • Will there be an opportunity to be involved in the research or publication of the organisation’s scholarship?
  • Will the experience provide a tangible project to talk about in your CV and later interviews?

Alternatively, ‘to get your foot in the door’, it could be worth considering administrative jobs within a think tank – although without building up the necessary research skills and experience these roles will not automatically lead to more research-based positions. You could also see if any of the think tanks could offer you some work experience – even if this is not advertised it can be worth volunteering your services for short periods of time to gain a deeper insight into the sector and to start building contacts. As a starting point, a list of websites is given at the end of this briefing.

Every year there are a number of international and UK-based internships offered through the Internship Programme at the Careers Service. Find out what previous students have said about them and any upcoming opportunities on the Internship Office’s webpages.

As well as advertised opportunities, if you are proactive and network effectively, it is also possible to create an opportunity through alumni contacts, or through tutors or colleagues who have contacts within organisations.

There is often confusion about whether you should be paid to do an internship or work experience. It will depend on your arrangement with the employer as well as on the status of the employer. To find out if you are entitled to be paid when undertaking work experience or an internship, visit the Government’s webpages on the National Minimum Wage.

Getting a job

Obtaining a job in a think tank involves a careful mix of postgraduate training, experience, skills and networking. Research the area in which you want to work, consider what kind of work you want to undertake and work backwards to plan milestones and your immediate next steps. You may well also re-define and re-focus along the way.

  • Talk to people (contacts, alumni, colleagues, tutors, supervisors) who are already working in a field within which you might want to specialise, or who may know people who are in that field. If you are planning a thesis, already writing one, or undertaking research, think about how this may relate to your future aspirations.
  • Search for opportunities in publications like the Guardian, The New Statesman, The Times Education Supplement, and The Economist. Individual think tank websites are the most common sources for vacancies and consultancy opportunities.
  • Contact think tanks you would like to work for; even if they are not advertising it is worth contacting them and asking about any opportunities, particularly if your research interests correspond strongly with their concerns.

Whether you are looking to start building experience in this sector or already have some directly relevant experience to market, tailoring your CV is crucial. Potential employers need to see that you have an understanding of, passion for and ability to thrive in their organisation and the role advertised or that for which you are speculatively applying.

Highlight the skills outlined above that you have already gained in your degree – what are the most relevant courses you have taken or transferable skills you have built? How have these skills been further developed outside of your degree, through roles in societies, student editorial work, freelance consultancy, travel, previous work experience and internships, etc? Are you doing all you can in the way you phrase the bullet points in your CV to convey the research, communication, team-work, numerical, regional, thematic or other interests you know that organisation values?

A note about Risk Consultancy

Risk Consultancy is sometimes also considered by those seeking to use their research and communication skills beyond their degree. Political, intelligence and security risk analysts examine the respective climate and social conditions of a country, region, or market to determine the level of risk for a particular client. They may provide information relating to government stability, crime or conflict levels, currency convertibility, land rights, as well as other factors that would affect return on investment or other decisions. Typically, analysts gather information pertaining to the area of interest, determine the causes, sources, and level of risk, and forward their findings to decision-makers. They also may offer recommendations for overcoming these risks. For companies operating in multiple countries, local political and economic conditions can determine whether their investment is a success or a failure. Events such as regime change or the sudden collapse of a currency can be devastating if unexpected.

Risk analysts come from a broad range of academic backgrounds and are people who can apply their knowledge to understand new and complex situations. Potential employers are looking for ‘intelligent risk takers’ who are well-informed and keep abreast of current events. They also seek individuals who can write concise and coherent reports. Language skills are an asset but not always a requirement in the field. Some positions may expect you to know a particular region thoroughly so you are able to decipher a balance sheet, understand a country’s economic workings, or provide insight into its politics. However, other positions will focus on several areas of the world and therefore do not expect you to be a specialist.

Therefore, in terms of experience required, a combination of an understanding of the political process in a region (and if relevant a second or third language), economic, accounting and financial skills, are useful and sometimes essential. Building evidence and a narrative of these skills and insights through academic, extra-curricular activities and internships is key to finding an entry level position. Concentrating on a particular angle of the sector can help you build a more targeted strategy. If you are interested in a banking context, you might take courses in Economics. If you would like to specialise in a particular region, build your knowledge on its politics, culture, and economy. If you know that your languages are rusty then think about experience that will help you improve them.

Employers generally recruit on a rolling basis and not all positions are advertised. Researching to identify which employers are aligned with the themes, areas and style of consulting that you are most interested in, and then networking and approaching contacts speculatively, are useful strategies to adopt, even when you are seeking internships and freelance part-time experience.

Some examples of political risk organisations that Oxford students go on to work for after graduating include: Oxford Analytica, iHS, Control Risks, Eurasia Group and the Economist Intelligence Unit, as well as specialist units of accountancy, banking and management consultancy firms. Freelance and other opportunities also exist in this area across a range of employers and sectors, from international organisations to financial and oil companies and consumer businesses. For more information about these opportunities please refer to the website links towards the end of this briefing.

Our resources

Books

The following books are available to read in our Resource Centre at 56 Banbury Road:

  • The Insider’s Guide to Political Internships
  • Global Think Tanks
  • Think Tanks in America

Journals

We subscribe to the following journals in our Resource Centre at 56 Banbury Road:

  • The Economist, weekly
External resources

General vacancies & occupation information

Selected UK Think Tanks

Selected European Think Tanks

Selected US Think Tanks

Selected Political Risk Consultancies

Equality, diversity & positive action

A number of major graduate recruiters have policies and processes that are proactive in recruiting graduates from diverse backgrounds. To find out the policies and attitudes of employers that you are interested in, explore their equality and diversity policies and see if they offer ‘Guaranteed Interview Schemes’ (for disabled applicants) or are recognised for their policy by such indicators as ‘Mindful Employer’ or as a ‘Stonewall’s Diversity Champion’.

The UK law protects you from discrimination due to your age, gender, race, religion or beliefs, disability or sexual orientation. For further information on the Equality Act and to find out where and how you are protected, as well as what you must do if you feel you have been discriminated against, visit the Government’s webpages on discrimination.

This information was last updated on 27 March 2019.
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