Results from the Think Tank Employee Survey 2021

For two years now Smart Thinking has surveyed UK think tank employees to get an understanding of what is happening in the sector and provide some overall analysis of the general working environment for those working in think tanks. In the 2021 survey we repeated some of the questions from the previous year as well as adding some new items to take into account any new issues we thought would be of interest.

The good news is that 89% of those surveyed would recommend their workplace to a friend which is a big leap up from last year when just 72% would recommend their think tank to a friend. What has been happening in the sector that could account for such an improvement?


Respondents were asked ‘when looking for a job what do you look at most’. Unsurprisingly, the answer that ranked first was salary, closely followed by opportunities for advancement. We ran some further analysis from data on our jobs pages to see what salaries think tank employees at various stages of their career could expect. We looked at the range of salaries think tanks offer potential employees and cross referenced that with the job titles and function.

Think tankers with Director or Head in their job title typically command an annual salary of £59k. This is broadly the same whether you work in research, communications or operations so it would appear that at the top levels of think tanks there is broad pay parity across the different areas.

This is not the case when looking below director level. Out of the main functions of research, communication and operations, fundraising and events research appears to be the highest paid. On average a think tank employee with Senior in their title commended a salary of £43k but this was £45k for those in research, £36k for communications and £26k for events (with much fewer jobs at this level in the latter two categories).

Someone with manager in their title could expect an average £39k salary but for research and operations this is £43k and £42k respectively. If you work in communications if drops significantly to approximately £31k.

Finally, for those at the more junior level of a think tank with a title such as researcher or officer, on average you can expect a salary of around £30k. This is higher if you are in research (at £34k) but £26k and £25k for those in communications and operations/events/fundraising.

Job stability

87% of employees in this sector are on permanent contracts, a small increase on last year’s 84%. Interestingly, whereas last year it was those working in research that were more likely to be on a permanent contract (90%), this year it is the non-research functions who appear to have more security. 90% of non-research staff are on a permanent contract compared to 82% in research.

Happily, when asked how secure they felt in their job most of those surveyed answered in the affirmative and this has not changed since covid 19.

Formal structures at work

96% of respondents had a formal appraisal process in place at their work which has increased from 83% last year. Overall, 85% also had professional development opportunities offered to them which was a big leap from last year’s 68%. Once again, however, you are more likely to be offered professional development opportunities if you work in research than the other functions (94% to 80%).

This year the question on bullying was widened to include whether people had experienced or witnessed any bullying at their workplace. This year 32% reported that they had either experienced or witnessed bullying. Last year 16% reported that they themselves had been bullied at work. On a more positive note, 80% of those surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that they would feel comfortable reporting the issue to senior management or HR.

Flexible working

Ranked as the third most important thing to look at when assessing a job, flexible working has become increasingly important since the pandemic. All the think tanks surveyed had to work from home during the various lockdowns and so we asked how many respondents had been asked to return to work, even if just on a part-time basis. 63% are back in the office as of September 2021 but nearly 19% said it had not yet been decided if they would return. 65% agree or strongly agree with the statement ‘I am happy to be returning to the office’.

Why work for a think tank

Given that the vast majority of those surveyed would recommend their workplace to a friend we asked what they thought was the best thing about working in a think tank. If you are thinking about a career in think tanks perhaps they can offer some inspiration!

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