During Michaelmas Term, LSE Careers and the Department of International Relations (IR) hosted a great panel of speakers from think tanks and research organisations.
Chaired by Mark Hoffman, Dean of the General Course and Professorial Lecturer in the Department of IR, the panel shared their unique career journeys, including tops tips and the challenges they’ve faced along the way.
Read on to find out what advice the panellists had for students considering careers in think tanks and policy research.
Applying for think tanks
The first piece of advice is to target your application. When applying for internships, clearly explain in your application what you believe you would get out of it and how it would help you progress towards your goals. Make sure you understand specifically what the think tank in question focuses on and how it operates, as opposed to what others do. Explain why you’ve therefore chosen this particular group over another think tank. Where possible, go to think tank events and engage with the speakers, making sure you ask specific questions to fill the gaps in your knowledge.
Secondly, it doesn’t matter what you studied or where. What matters is your ability to put forward your analytical skills that prove you a valuable prospect for the organisation. Don’t underestimate the value of an entrepreneurial spirit – get involved in campaigns, charity work, university societies, or any other extracurricular activities that will stand out to employers.
Your research, communication, and writing skills need to be strong. Our panellists’ advice was to practice your writing, as almost every group will ask for a writing exercise as part of the internship recruitment process. It also helps to learn how to think in a policy way. For example, take a current affairs issue and practice writing a thoughtful column on it.
Quant competencies are increasingly sought after, so you should be confident working with numbers and computers. Furthermore, don’t underestimate the importance of a proficiency in Microsoft Office, namely Excel. Entry-level jobs will involve lots of research support such as handling event lists and managing reports.
You should also be able to quickly adapt to the think tank’s model of research – whether that’s a fundraising model, administrative model, or otherwise. This is where it helps to have strong interpersonal and collaborative skills, and the ability to network effectively goes a long way. Smart Thinking aggregates all the latest public policy research and analysis from the leading UK think tanks on one platform and is an excellent resource to get you started.
Keep in mind that careers in think tanks are rarely linear or meticulously planned out; it isn’t a very defined field in terms of paving a clear career path. There are many different pathways into the sector and people frequently move in and out of the field, particularly between government and think tank job opportunities.
The biggest difference between the two is the scale of operations. There are more internal bureaucratic and administrative hurdles in government. In think tanks, you are in closer contact with the people at the ‘top’ and it is easier to get things done internally. However, management changes in small non-governmental organisations are felt more heavily.
The most important thing is to get your foot in the door. Once you’ve landed your first role, it’s a lot easier to move around. Institute for Government offers six paid yearly internships, with two to three researchers taken on as permanent staff each year.
To PhD or not to PhD…
A PhD isn’t required to enter the field, although it often becomes an expectation that you will have one once you’ve risen higher in the ranks – but not always!
Some people may decide to leave their job to go back and complete a PhD, but you must note that PhDs are a very long process and the chances of your thesis topic being relevant to your job are slim, so choose a topic that you’re really interested in. Equally, if you pursue a PhD looking to go into academia and this doesn’t work out for you, then a career in think tanks is a good alternative.
Visa sponsoring opportunities
It’s rare for think tanks to sponsor visas, but may occasionally happen for permanent staff (not interns). For international students considering careers in the sector, it’s worth noting in your job search that it’s possible to get certain U.S. visas such as a talent visa when working for think tank organisations under the United States Department of State.
Whilst freelancing, you may remain affiliated with think tanks to maintain an ongoing professional profile. Lots of think tank work involves fundraising as most think tanks are non-profit organisations and may be based in the charity sector. People who perform well in this field are those who are proactive, interested, and willing to try different things.
Thanks to our panellists for their contributions to the discussion: Hanaa Almoaibed (Research Fellow, King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies and Associate Fellow, Chatham House), Jacob Parakilas (Political Specialist, US Department of State), Akash Paun (Senior Fellow, Institute for Government), and Emily Redding (Founder and Director, Smart Thinking).
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