How to…transition from academia to think tanks

There are lots of good reasons to want to work in academia: research freedom, the opportunity to teach, and a community of like-minded scholars. But as a doctoral candidate or early-career postdoc researcher, you might not find those sufficiently compelling; or you might simply be put off by an academic job market where permanent or tenure-track posts are increasingly difficult to find. You might want to look for a career path that offers at least some of the advantages of academia along with the opportunity to exert more direct influence on public policy.

In short, you might consider a career in think tanks, as I did. The good news is, making the transition from academia (whether a PhD program or early-career lectureship) into the think tank sector is relatively straightforward. Below are a few guidelines to consider if you do want to make that particular jump.

 In the public imagination, universities and think tanks are often lumped in together: institutions producing research on a range of topics whose expert staff are called upon to advise policymakers and inform the public. But there are a number of significant differences between the work and structure of a university and a think tank, and accordingly, jobs and career tracks within the two are not precisely comparable. Understanding those differences is key to successfully transitioning from one to the other; this article will give a few broad pointers.

It is important to note however that, at least for early-to-mid career professionals, transitioning from academia to think tanks is generally a one-way street. Academic jobs are the more specialist of the two and have unique qualifications; it’s extremely difficult to amass the relevant teaching and publication experience necessary to be considered for teaching posts from outside academia. Some universities have public policy-focused schools which hire practitioners, but generally only at fairly senior levels; similarly, permanent or tenured faculty do sometimes get temporarily seconded to think tanks and then return to academia. But at the entry- and mid-level, it is generally much harder to get back into academia than to get out.

With that caveat in mind, there are four areas to consider if you are planning or completing a PhD or are early in an academic career and thinking to make the jump to a policy institute.

Understand what you’re applying for and where you fit in

Compared to universities, think tanks have relatively few “pure” research positions. Most think tank jobs are some mixture of management, administration, fundraising, public-facing activities, and research; almost no one in a full-time think tank job spends more than 50% of their time on research. Of course, most academic jobs are not purely focused on research either, but – especially since think tanks tend to be much smaller than universities – there is a much greater pressure on think tank staff to be generalists than there is on academics.

Think tanks are not generally looking for someone who has exemplary research skills alone. This is important to bear in mind especially if you haven’t started a PhD program yet. The pathway into academia for newly-minted PhDs without other work experience is straightforward (if not necessarily easy): if a permanent job isn’t available, get a postdoc or a teaching fellowship and keep applying for permanent or tenure-track gigs. But the route into think tanks for a new PhD isn’t necessarily so simple: most of the entry-level jobs at think tanks are heavily weighted towards administrative and managerial tasks. An applicant with a PhD may be seen as a less desirable candidate than a BA or MA grad, given that the former’s more advanced research skills will not be relevant to the vast majority of the work they are called upon to do, while their expectations of pay and seniority may exceed what the position provides. However, a PhD grad with at least two years’ worth of non-academic experience should be qualified for mid-level (Researcher or Research Fellow) think tank jobs and will find the benefits comparable to those of their contemporaries working in university settings.

Adjust your writing style

Academic writing is fundamentally different to think tank writing. From the outside, the distinction can be easy to miss, or to downplay: after all, think tank reports certainly resemble academic articles. There is also some genuine overlap: ranked academic journals like Foreign Affairs and International Affairs are run out of think tanks.

But the two types of writing are rooted in separate purposes. Academic research exists to stretch the boundaries of human knowledge about a specific topic or subset of topics; it needs no further justification (even if it can often contribute to debates that stretch outside universities). Policy research, by contrast, aims to inform and shape the decisions of policy-makers in as direct a way as possible; it must have a more focused and specific purpose and audience than academic writing.

In a similar vein, academic writing assumes a reader with substantial time to dedicate to reading; policy research is directed at readers who are generally overwhelmed with information. Concision is key, as is leading with a strong argument rather than burying it deep in the text. That is not to say that policy writing should overlook complexity – the trick, difficult though it may be, is to find ways to explain complex concepts efficiently. Academics who are considering a move into think tanks would be well advised to seek out opportunities to write in non-academic publications in order to refine their ability to work in both styles.

Rework your CV

An academic CV and a CV for think tank jobs are two very different documents. The differences start with length. Academic CVs are expected to be comprehensive listings of teaching achievements, publications, conferences attended and more. Think tank CVs are much closer to the professional standard outside academia: a topline summary of professional achievements, stretching to no more than two pages (though Americans often aim for one page whereas continental Europeans see up to three as acceptable).

Some common features of academic CVs which are not particularly relevant to think tank applications include conference attendance, details of courses taught, and a complete list of all publications. Remember to focus your CV to the extent possible on accomplishments rather than responsibilities, and to emphasize transferable skills.

Rethink what your skills mean – and how you explain them

None of this means that transitioning from academia to think tanks is impossible – far from it. But it requires a little creativity in how you describe your experience. Teaching, for example, is not a skill that think tanks require, but it requires component skills which are directly relevant to being a successful and effective policy researcher: time management, public speaking, critical thinking, and offering feedback, to name a few.

Bear in mind that it is highly unlikely that the specialist topic of your PhD thesis is will be relevant to your work at a think tank, even if you attended a relatively policy-oriented school and worked on a contemporary and relevant topic. Most think tankers end up working on a fairly broad range of issues; doctoral research is, by contrast, hyper-focused. But that doesn’t mean that a PhD is just a credential; far from it. The skills you develop in the course of doctoral and post-doctoral work – how to define a research question, survey and identify gaps in literature, develop and defend an argument, manage your own time and resources, and defend and advance your thesis – are as relevant in the policy world as in a university. If you can find a way to articulate that, you can make the transition smoothly.

Think tanks are not identical to universities, and there are some parts of academia which they simply can’t replicate, such as teaching. But between the varied nature of the work, the direct impact on policy and the engagement with a huge range of adjacent sectors, you may find a career in them at least as rewarding a place to put your doctoral experience to work.

By Jacob Parakilas

16 September 2020

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