Guest blog by Rory Kinane who works at international affairs think tank Chatham House:
Think tanks are a strange type of institution that often defy simple categorisation. They sit somewhere between the apex of academia, policy making and media-commentary. At their best they can be agenda setting institutions that sit at the front of global policy debates and offer fantastic opportunities for their staff. At their worst they can be badly-managed parochial institutions that expect you to work hard for poor wages.
In most instances think tanks should be more like the former than the latter. And my personal experience has been highly positive. Here are some quick tips on finding a role in the think tank and what to expect:
Finding a think tank role
The first thing to realise about finding a think tank job is that the think tank world is small. Chatham House is by far the largest international affairs think tank in the UK and it has around 170 staff. Of those 170, many are involved in jobs ranging from catering to IT, so only around half are directly involved in research.
There are a large number and wide variety of think tanks in the UK, but even in summation there are only a few thousand people working in the sector. So if your main ambition is to work for a think-tank, be prepared to have some back up options.
Second, it is important to bear in mind that many of the best people in think tanks enter institutions after many years in other sectors e.g. academia, government, NGOs. In fact the best roles go to these who can bring a wealth of experience to the table.
Third, there are a litany of roles in think tanks that can be interesting outside of the research roles. The research roles are highly coveted and few and far between. However, you should not underestimate other roles institutions might offer such as corporate relations, communications or conference organising. Many of the seemingly less glamourous roles can actually be highly rewarding, teach you widely transferable skills and in the long-term be more beneficial financially.
It is vital to understand that there are very few ‘pure research’ roles in major think tanks, most involve at a minimum some element of fundraising and logistics.
The most crucial attribute you need to secure a role is a great knowledge and passion for your subject. Being able to demonstrate this on your application and during interview is what will set you apart from other candidates.
Entry-level roles on research programmes often involve a large amount of organisation and logistics. So the more office experience you have the better and don’t be afraid to list work experience you think might be seen as less interesting e.g. working in a bar. Think tanks involve a huge variety of tasks and having someone that is willing and able to do a wide range of tasks is invaluable.
Research roles tend to favour specialisms of some sort. So it is often advantageous to have a specialism that you have developed over a number of years. Many topics, such as the Middle East and cyber warfare, are likely to be of interest to governments and think tanks for many decades to come. Other areas might be more niche, e.g. the significance of cultural heritage sights in modern conflict, but still have potential.
At the same time, being a generalist isn’t necessarily a disqualifier. If you can demonstrate aptitude and general interest in an area then a specialism can be developed over time.
A PhD can be useful in getting a think tank role at the mid-senior levels; some American think tanks are more stringent on them as prerequisite. On the other hand, increasingly many institutes are moving more towards people with experience of government, NGOs or the private sector. A PhD can also potentially be a double-edged sword if you are applying for more junior roles in a think tank.
Different types of think tank
Before applying for a think tank job, do your research.
This will benefit your application, but it is also vital you understand what sort of institution you are potentially getting involved in. Some think tanks, like Chatham House, are well-known globally, are non-partisan, are independent and offer a variety of roles. Other think tanks are deliberately partisan or ideological. Some are very small and specialised, with less than a dozen employees. A small number of think tanks are funded by specific interest groups for very specific reasons and have less than stellar reputations. Usually it is easy to see the difference between a think tank and a lobbying organisation, but there are on occasion institutions that try to defy obvious definition.
Where to look for jobs
Most think tanks have a job page and it is worth regularly checking the vacancies of your favoured institutions. Many post on W4MP or on their Twitter pages, some even have job alerts you can sign up for.
It is unlikely to lead straight to a job, but many institutions have events that can be attended either for free or by joining the think tank’s membership programme (usually quite cheap for students). Such events might provide ideal networking opportunities or tasters of the think tank’s environment.
If you missed the LSE Careers Public Sector and Policy Careers Event, you can access the brochure via CareerHub.