Demystifying think tanks: common misconceptions about the sector

Think tanks can be mysterious organisations. Even the name doesn’t give much of a clue as to what think tanks really do – are people being paid to just think all day? This failure by think tanks to communicate what they really do and what they are like as places to work is a real barrier to people who want to get into the sector, particularly those from working class or ethnic minority backgrounds.

Happily, think tanks have been making a more concerted effort recently to become more open and accessible. At the Institute for Government, we have been conducting research on the barriers people from underrepresented backgrounds face getting into the sector. Based on our work, we have found certain perceptions people have of think tanks can put them off applying, and we want to help clarify things and dispel some myths about the sector.

What do people in think tanks actually do?

Think tanks are research organisations that try to influence policy at the global, regional or national level. The exact area of focus will vary from think tank to think tank, but might include: social policy, politics, economics, security, the environment, science and technology.

To influence public debate, think tanks will publish their reports, host events, appear in the media and meet with senior politicians and officials. As such, there are lots of different types of jobs in the sector, from data science to event organisation to digital communications.

For research staff in think tanks, a typical day might involve reading government reports, downloading and analysing spreadsheets, conducting research interviews or writing a report. It might also involve talking to a journalist or speaking at an event to raise the profile of their research.

What sort of qualifications do you need to work in a think tank?

It is a common misconception that you need to have a Master’s degree or a PhD to work at a think tank. There are in fact lots of jobs you can do in the sector, including research jobs, without these qualifications, and not having them won’t hurt your career prospects when you get more senior. There are also some think tanks that have roles that don’t need a university degree at all.

Also, while many senior staff in think tanks are considered experts in their field, those starting out in the sector often don’t have a detailed knowledge of the policy area they work on. What matters most when starting out at a think tank is that you are interested in the research and eager to learn.

Does the work think tanks do actually make a difference?

One other common misconception about think tanks is that they are very academic places that just publish very abstract research without any interest in making a difference. In fact, think tanks care deeply about making an impact. In most think tanks, the ultimate aim is to change policy, and many are successful in doing so. The work of think tanks is often used by politicians, the media or industry when creating new policies or critiquing existing ones.

So if there’s an issue you care a lot about – whether it’s climate change, inequality, or even how parliament works and how laws are made – think tanks can be a great way to advocate for change on that issue.

Are there good opportunities for career progression in think tanks?

The exact path people take within think tanks from more junior to more senior positions will vary from think tank to think tank. But in general, because think tanks tend to be smaller organisations of between 5 and 50 people, there are lots of opportunities to take on more responsibility as you get more experience and learn how to manage projects or lead research programmes. Many people stay in the sector and within 5 or 10 years can move from being a Researcher to being a Programme Lead.

Other people may use a job in a think tank as a stepping stone to a different career in politics or public policy. At the Institute for Government, we run a yearly paid internship programme, and former interns have gone on to work for the civil service, for politicians, in consulting, and more. The skills you pick up at a think tank, whether it’s in research, communications or organising events, will be a great asset in a whole range of other sectors.

Whether you stay in the sector or move to other things, we hope we’ve explained why a job in a think tank can be exciting, varied and have a real social impact. You don’t need to have a graduate degree or loads of experience and expertise to work in think tanks, so do keep an eye out on the Smart Thinking website for job opportunities!

By Eleanor Shearer (Institute for Government)

15 March 2022

Join our mailing list for all the latest jobs and internships direct to your inbox

You may be interested in…