Seen these icons?

If we have events, jobs or news that are relevant to the page topic, you can access them by clicking on icons next to the print button.

Think Tanks | The Careers Service Think Tanks – Oxford University Careers Service
Oxford logo
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.

Equality & 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.

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

This information was last updated on 06 September 2018.
Loading... Please wait
Recent blogs about Think Tanks

Free Practice for Psychometric Recruitment Tests

Blogged by Hugh Nicholson-Lailey on 12/09/2018.

Since the beginning of September, your Careers Service is providing free access to a comprehensive range of practice materials to help students and alumni prepare for the recruitment tests commonly used by companies in recruitment.

This service provided by JobTestPrep covers pretty much the full spectrum of recruitment psychometric tests and also includes practice materials specifically developed to mirror the tests used by individual named companies. So whether you are looking to prepare for verbal and numerical reasoning tests, or e-tray exercises, or the Watson Glaser tests used by nearly all law firms, the free access we provide will help you to prepare and practise.

Matriculated students and alumni must apply to the Careers Service for an Access Code. This will give you 12 months free access to the site from the first time that you log in with the code. To request a code, sign-in to your Oxford CareerConnect account and submit a query via the Queries tab using the title: Request for JobTestPrep Access Code.

An additional free resource offering a whole bank of tests is provided for us by Practice Aptitude Tests, and this can be accessed by anyone who has an Oxford University email address. To access this service, simply register using an email address that ends .ox.ac.uk. 

Full advice is given in our briefing on Psychometric Tests.

Work Experience Programme for Disabled Students

Posted on behalf of Leonard Cheshire: Change 100. Blogged by Polly Metcalfe on 10/09/2018.

Change100 is a programme of paid summer work placements and mentoring.

It’s 100 days of work experience that can kickstart your career!

Change100 aims to remove barriers experienced by disabled people in the workplace, to allow them to achieve their potential. They partner with 90 organisations including Barclays, the BBC, Skanska & Lloyds who believe disability isn’t a barrier to a brilliant career.

It’s designed to support the career development of talented university students and recent graduates with any disability or long-term health condition, such as:

  • physical impairments
  • sensory impairments
  • mental health conditions
  • learning disabilities or difficulties e.g. dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD
  • other long-term health conditions e.g. diabetes, MS

Who is Change100 for?

To apply to Change100, you must meet all the following criteria:

  • have a disability or long-term health condition.
  • be in your penultimate or final year of an undergraduate or postgraduate university degree, or have graduated in 2016 or 2017. Any degree subject accepted.
  • have achieved or be predicted a 2:1 or 1st in your undergraduate degree.*
  • be eligible to work in the UK for the duration of a full-time summer work placement.

*If your academic performance has been affected by mitigating circumstances related to your disability or health condition, these will be taken into account. Please get in touch to discuss this.

Applications for Summer 2019 will open on Monday 24 September and close on Wednesday 16 January 2019.

For more information and to register your interest, click here.

Free Female Leadership Event – London

Posted on behalf of Girls in Leadership UK. Blogged by Polly Metcalfe on 10/09/2018.

Girls in Leadership UK is pleased to announce their launch with the ‘Learn to Lead’ event. The evening will be packed with inspiring speakers, life-changing stories of women in leadership across different sectors including Banking and Law. Our panel of speakers will provide you with detailed and practical advice on how to lead in your chosen field as well as lessons from their leadership journeys. Learning to lead is a poetically vast and exciting theme. The discussions will leave you feeling energised and inspired for creating your own wonderful adventures at whatever stage. Attendees will also have the opportunity to network with the speakers, guests and other attendees.

Schedule

18:00-18:10 Introduction

18:10-18:20 Keynote speaker Sophie Khan

18:20-18:45 Panel Q&A

18:45-19:00 Questions from the audience

19:00-19:15 Closing remarks

19:15-20:00 Networking

The event is mainly for those at university or beyond, but you are most welcome if you think you can benefit from the discussions. Please arrive at 17:45pm for registration. Limited spaces are available so bag your tickets early to avoid any disappointment! You can sign up here.

 

Postgraduate study in Canada – EduCanada event in London

Blogged by Abby Evans on 07/09/2018.

Students and their families are invited to this completely free event at Canada House in London to learn about postgraduate study opportunities in Canada and to meet informally with Canadian universities and colleges to get any questions answered. Advance registration is required to attend – find out more and book your place here.

Seminar programme (10am – 12pm)

  • Studying in Canada: an overview of the Canadian education system
    Allison Goodings, High Commission of Canada
  • Living and Working in Canada: a guide to applying for Canadian study visas, and information on post-study visa opportunities
    Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada
  • How to Apply: a panel discussion on Canadian postgraduate admissions
  • Tuition and Fees: a panel discussion on finance, funding and scholarships for international postgraduate students

The main exhibition will open at 12pm, where you’ll be able to speak to the Canadian institutions who are exhibiting.The event will be held at Canada House on Trafalgar Square, a beautifully restored heritage building that now houses an impressive collection of Canadian art and design.

Bar Pro Bono Unit: Caseworker Volunteering Opportunities

Posted on behalf of Bar Pro Bono Unit. Blogged by Annie Dutton on 15/08/2018.

The Bar Pro Bono Unit is the Bar’s national charity, based in the National Pro Bono Centre on Chancery Lane, London, which helps to find pro bono legal assistance from volunteer barristers. They are seeking dedicated and enthusiastic individuals to volunteer as Academic Year Casework Volunteers 

This is a fantastic opportunity to obtain unique exposure to the Bar as a profession and to a wide range of areas of law. By volunteering you  will  learn a great deal about the practical working of the courts and the needs of litigants in person which should complement your studies.

You will be assisting the caseworkers one day per week, over a four month period. Tasks will include:

  • Drafting case summaries, using the case papers provided by individuals who need legal assistance; these case summaries are then used by experienced barristers when reviewing the file.
  • Drafting case allocation summaries which are used to try to find volunteer barristers around the country to take on the case on a pro bono basis.
  • Taking telephone calls from the public and providing updates to existing applicants.

Closing date for applications: Monday 27 August 2018 at 23:00

Requirements

You must have completed at least one year of law-related study or law-related work.

Previous volunteer’s feedback:

“I would strongly recommend to anyone interested in pursuing a legal career to try and spend some time with the BPBU. Not only does it look great on your CV, it also helps you hone crucial skills such as succinctly summarising the key facts of a case and identifying the relevant legal issues, something that should stand you in good stead for any pupillage or training contract interviews. The staff are all wonderfully welcoming and helpful, and whilst a key benefit is the range of areas you will experience (anything from Defamation to Child Protection), they will also accommodate specific requests to see more work in certain areas. Ultimately you are doing genuinely important work that makes a material difference to people’s lives, whilst being supplied with copious amounts of tea and cake. What’s not to like?”

This page displays current related blog posts. If none display, you can still stay up-to-date with our newsletter sent regularly to all Oxford students.

Older posts can be found in our archive of past blogs.