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How to get a job in a think tank

“He who thinks little errs much…” ― Leonardo da Vinci

If you’ve got this far in the book and are still interested in working for a UK think tank, thank you and congratulations! In this chapter we look at how to get a job working for one. But first, let’s briefly examine the different job roles that make up a typical think tank. After all, while the researchers and writers may get most of the credit, their work depends on a number of important supporting roles. These include:

Communications Manager. Think tanks exist to spread ideas. Without an effective communications manager or team, few people will notice an organisation’s output, however transformational it may be. Those working in communications have a number of specific responsibilities, including reading drafts of policy reports to determine the most effective press angle, briefing the media (based on an understanding of which specific points within a given report are likely to resonate most), arranging interviews with report authors, and generally ensuring the think tank’s work is disseminated as widely as possible. Effective communications managers are likely to have well developed networks with the media. Using those contacts, they can help researchers at the earliest stages of their work to focus on the topics and messages that are likely to be of most public interest.

Digital Manager. An important subset of communications is the digital function. A digital manager or team will look after a think tank’s social media presence, manage e-newsletters and subscriber lists, maintain the website, work on images and infographics, and help raise the online presence of events, for example through live-streaming.

Development / Fundraising Manager. Given that most think tanks depend on raising money from individuals, businesses, trusts and foundations, many have a professional development manager or team to build and maintain donor relationships and ensure a steady income stream. It’s in the interests of all policy wonks to work closely with their development team and share the details of their current and future research. Fundraisers will only be able to bring in new money if they can talk in sufficient detail to potential donors. It’s also worth emphasising that fundraising is a dedicated profession for a reason. “Making the Ask” – in other words, requesting sponsorship – is a real skill in terms of getting the timing, messaging and expectations right with potential donors. If this is an area where you lack previous experience, developing a strong working relationship with your fundraising colleagues is a wise strategy.

Database Manager. Like the policy wonks who work in them, think tanks as a whole depend on their network of contacts. Having an effective and up-to-date database run by a good database manager is therefore a must for mailings, fundraising and other communications.

Events Manager. Nearly all think tanks run a steady stream of events which require careful designing, publicising, coordination, management and follow up. Digital tools like Eventbrite have made certain aspects of event management more automated, but there’s still a substantial amount of logistical work to be done by a dedicated events team.

Business support functions: Finance, HR and Office Management. Sometimes rolled into one position, at other times conducted separately, these support functions are vital for the think tank to operate, ensuring staff and bills are paid on time, and that the office is run effectively.

Directors. Check out any think tank website and you’ll find a number of directors who have various management responsibilities. These roles tend to cover two big areas. The first is setting the general direction of the think tank’s research; ensuring its various publications and events have some level of mutual consistency, intellectual credibility, and match the organisation’s brand and ideological or theoretical positioning. The second focuses on the strategic direction of the think tank as a business, including its funding, relationships, processes, operating model and overall mission.

Policy wonks & researchers

And so we come to the roles that have been the focus of this book: policy wonks and researchers. Different think tanks have varying hierarchies in which experienced researchers lead and support the work of more junior members. Though the job titles may vary in each organisation, a common structure would consist of something like: Head of Unit, Senior / Junior Researcher, and Intern, which are explored below.

(Just one caveat: not all those who write for a think tank need to be employees. Some think tanks extend their researcher network through fellowship or associate roles where visiting experts can write on behalf of the organisation. These tend to be individuals who are already established thought leaders in their fields and whose views align with the strategic or ideological position of the think tank.)

Head of Unit (typical salary: £40-80k). Some think tanks have Heads of Unit (HoU) who lead research on a specific policy area, much as I did at Policy Exchange on Technology. I had colleagues who focused on other domains, from Education to Crime and Justice, and from Housing and Planning to Energy and the Environment. In other think tanks, HoUs cover broader streams of work, on themes like public services, or provide particular competencies such as data visualisation, social media analysis and so on.

The Head of Unit role is where you get to experience the greatest variety of activities outlined in Chapter 2. As a result, it’s also arguably the most rewarding. In leading your team, you get to set the policy issues you research and write about and the vision for that policy area. You’re much more likely to be the one going to high-level meetings with government officials and politicians, and the one invited to give speeches at conferences and other events. As an HoU, you’re expected to be the face of the think tank in your chosen field, taking on the bulk of media appearances and providing commentary for journalists.

With that greater range of opportunities comes greater responsibility. HoUs normally look after the budgets for their units, ensure sufficient funds are raised, and complete the general duties of day-to-day hiring, firing and line management of their teams. They may write their own publications, and will certainly be responsible for editing and ensuring the high quality of the reports of those who work under their direction.

The backgrounds of people hired to become Heads of Unit are varied, though most will be at least 8-10 years into their careers. Some join from the Civil Service, bringing with them deep insider knowledge of the Whitehall machine and the internal workings of government. Some may have been special advisers or party appointees. Others will come from an industry area related to their specialism. (As I outlined in Chapter 3, it can benefit your personal credibility with those you seek to influence if you’ve actually worked in the area you research.) Yet others originate from any number of related industries, from local government to other policy groups, think tanks and academia.

But don’t despair if you don’t have one of these backgrounds. I’m living proof you can apply with little past experience in policymaking or politics. What matters is that you can prove you have the competencies necessary to achieve the activities in Chapter 2. That means having great written and oral communication skills, deep sector knowledge, a strong understanding of the workings of government, and the ability to network and fundraise effectively.

Researcher (typical salary: £22-35k). Sitting just below Heads of Unit are researchers – sometimes divided into senior and more junior roles. Normally these are people with at least 2-5 years’ post-university experience. As their title suggests, they will spend much of their time dedicated to pure research, and they are likely to do the bulk of the heavy lifting of researching and writing for reports. If a policy unit is broad enough, they may well be their think tank’s specialist in their chosen niche, and have a reputation every bit as significant as HoUs, though this is likely to be the exception. Researchers may likewise come from a wide range of backgrounds, but some may have risen from being interns.

Interns (typical salary: minimum / living wage). If you’re looking to start fresh out of university, the bottom of the tree is the internship. As in all sectors, internships can be a great way to get a foot through the door. Be aware that the remuneration will almost certainly be very low, and you may spend a lot of time doing mundane tasks such as answering phone calls, stuffing envelopes and making coffee. However, given that many think tanks have relatively few staff, it’s likely you’ll also be given the opportunity to get involved in more interesting work, supporting events, drafting press releases, and conducting desk-based research and data analysis. The clear advantage of an internship, which may run for anything from a few weeks to several months, is that it will give you a first-hand view of what each organisation is like, enabling you to make a genuinely informed decision about whether it’s the career path for you.

Where to find think tank jobs and internships

There are a number of routes to find think tank jobs. To help make the process easier, the Appendix to this book (which starts just after this chapter) provides the details and descriptions of more than 120 UK think tanks, together with a link to their jobs pages. This is the only place you’ll find all these organisations’ details in one place. I’d recommend taking the time to browse through the list to develop a sense of which think tanks cover the policy issues you care about, and have a political or ideological leaning that you support.

In terms of other online jobs boards, two are worth checking. The first is w4mp. This was originally designed to detail positions with MPs and Lords. There are still plenty of those jobs advertised, but now it also lists positions with pressure groups, NGOs and think tanks. New positions at all levels within think tanks are added regularly. The second is On Think Tanks – an organisation focused “on a range of issues of relevance and interest to think tanks as well as their staff and supporters”.

The Guardian and Telegraph jobs sites are common venues for think tank vacancies – especially the more senior roles.

If you’re able to get to them, try and attend some of the dozens of events that think tanks hold each year. Such events – as described in Chapter 2 – are a great way to learn more about a think tank’s ideas and to meet the staff who work there. Getting to know them personally can only help in opening the door to work opportunities.

If you’re thinking about applying for an internship, there’s one more piece of advice I’d share. Like many organisations, think tanks get inundated with requests for work experience and internships. The competition can be fierce. When you’re trying to get your foot through the door for the first time, a sound strategy is to ask small. Instead of asking outright for an internship or a week’s work experience, ask to meet one of the heads of unit or directors for a coffee for half an hour. The idea is to ask for something so small that the other person would seem unreasonable to refuse. When you meet them for a coffee, ask about life in the think tank, show your interest and enthusiasm. If the conversation has gone well, ask about further work opportunities. If you’ve made a good impression, you’re likely to be one of very few names they’ll recognise when they receive dozens of CVs for the next internship position. It’s worked for me; I hope it will deliver results for you, too.

Preparing for an interview

As you might expect, an interview for a think tank is likely to ask you to demonstrate your knowledge of the organisation, your expertise in your chosen policy area, and your level of skill and experience in the core activities that make up the role. To prepare for a think tank interview:

1. Read the think tank’s reports. If the number is manageable, aim to read all or most of their past reports on your policy area. Ideally, read several from other units as well in order to get to know the house style. Come to the interview having thought about which reports you like and why. What did you think was strong about the arguments used? Was there anything they missed or could have done better? They’ll be looking for people who can prove they can think clearly, break down arguments and communicate their case clearly. Reading the think tank’s publications will also help you gain a much more detailed understanding of the organisation’s ideological leaning and viewpoints to check it’s one you wish to support.

2. Investigate their policy impact. Has one or more of the think tank’s recommendations been especially influential? Are they known for shaping the debate in a particular field? Make sure you’re aware of what the think tank regards as its own greatest achievement. As well as showing the interviewer that you’ve done your research, it will also give you a better understanding of what the organisation views as success, whether that be in changing government policy, raising the level of public awareness of an issue, or promoting a particular world view or philosophy.

3. Research who’s on the staff. Look up the profiles of those who work in the think tank to get a better sense of the typical level of expertise and background of their personnel. Focus especially on anyone who’ll be interviewing you. You’ll find the profiles of most staff members on the think tank’s website; others you can track down on sites like LinkedIn. From my experience, people are always flattered if you’ve done your homework on them. You can also avoid the not minor interview faux pas of saying anything negative about one of their former colleagues or organisations!

4. Bring some example writing. Perhaps the single most important skill for any think tanker is the ability to write well. Expect to be asked to show examples of your written work if you don’t already have a track record in the field. If you’re planning to apply for a think tank role, start as soon as possible to create a portfolio of your most impressive work. One word of caution: if you’re coming fresh from university, heed the point made earlier in this book that think tank writing is not the same as academic writing. To put it bluntly, it needs to be in plain English. If all your past written work is in academic style, consider writing an example blog post about your policy area to demonstrate how you’d go about writing for the think tank.

5. Be able to demonstrate your policy expertise. If the role is for a specific research unit, make sure you can demonstrate deep knowledge of and enthusiasm for the policy area. Be able to articulate why it attracts you and why you’re the kind of person who has interesting things to say about it. When I went for my first think tank role, I hadn’t previously worked in policymaking. I therefore decided to go the extra mile by preparing a simple four page outline of a report I’d like to write, including why I’d write it, some example recommendations, together with an explanation of why the think tank would be the best organisation to make the case I proposed. It was a few hours well spent. Think hard about the top issues you’d like to research if you were offered the role.

6. Convey your political awareness. It goes without saying that if you want to work for a think tank, you need to have a strong awareness of – and an opinion on – current affairs. Make sure you read a number of different newspapers, magazines and websites before you go in. For insider gossip on the Westminster bubble, consider Guido Fawkes’ blog. For more objective analyse, the Britain section of The Economist magazine provides well-argued commentary on the issues of the day. Otherwise, reading a range of quality newspapers will help keep you informed.

7. Be ready to give a presentation. Given the amount of events that think tankers are invited to speak at, it’s important that you can show your ability to speak in public. Consider preparing a five minute presentation that you could give on a policy issue of your choice.

8. Articulate why you want to work for their think tank. Given that there are over 100 different UK think tanks to choose from, each differentiated by size, structure, policy focus and ideological learning, make sure you have a considered answer for why you want to work for the organisation you’ve applied for. In what ways does their work interest you? To what extent does their political leaning mirror your own views? It’s not only vital to have a clear answer for the benefit of your interviewers. It matters hugely for you and your job satisfaction. If you’re committing to working hard to push the policy agenda in a certain direction, make sure it’s a direction you really believe in.

Making the role your own

I mentioned in the introduction to this book that think tank life can be deeply rewarding. For anyone who loves exploring complex issues, seeking out answers, communicating new ideas, and aiming to change the course of policies that affect the lives of their fellow citizens, few professions can rival it.

But beyond those things, working as a think tanker also entails another element that I’ve grown to believe is absolutely key to job satisfaction.

Consider for a moment how we introduce ourselves to strangers for the first time. Our profession is one of the very first facts we convey. And the way we convey it is revealing. We don’t say, “I work as a think tanker / a doctor / an accountant”, and so on. We say “I am a think tanker / a doctor / an accountant”. I work therefore I am. Our work is our identity.

Which leads me to a theory.

The theory is that if our job is so fundamental to our identity, then it’s vital that we seek out roles where it matters that we are the ones doing it; where an identically skilled person would not produce an identical end result. For our work to have meaning, our identity has to be expressed in the output of our labour. Otherwise we quite literally lose who we are.

My message to you is that life in a think tank lets you put your identity into your work. It’s about your ability to see the real problems that lie behind the complexity of what government does, and offer your own interpretation for how they can be addressed. It’s about using your unique set of experiences to develop powerful recommendations. It’s about your ability to track down the real decision makers behind the scenes and persuade them of the validity of your arguments. Those arguments may not be better or worse than the next person’s, but they will be yours. There’s great fulfilment in knowing that.

So if you plan on becoming a think tanker, I wish you every success.

The world of politics needs all the great ideas it can get.

You might just be the person to provide them.

September 2016