Roles in the Policy Sector

While think tanks often grab the policy headlines there is a vast array of jobs and organisations out there that are both looking for similar skills and experience as well as helping to drive the policy agenda. A career in policy or the policy sector is never normally linear and you may find yourself at various times working in a think tank, working in politics or public affairs as well as in charities or the civil service. This short guide aims to provide an overview of the different roles and opportunities underneath the large policy umbrella.

Think Tanks

The obvious one! But it is not just roles in research that are available. Think tanks also rely heavily on the communications teams, operations staff as well as events and fundraising. So, if you fancy a career in a think tank, but are more interested in the media aspect or producing exciting events, then broaden your search to those areas. An entry level job in a non-research function is also, crucially, a foot in the door and can lead you onto other areas once inside the building. In addition to this, non-research roles are often more easily transferable across to other industries so don’t fall into the trap of thinking it’s a research career or nothing!


A well-trodden path is from senior think tanker to MP, however there are other routes between parliament and other organisations. More junior members of a think tank have often previously worked for an MP in parliament, usually as a researcher (read our interview with a parliamentary researcher here). This helps them build a network and get an understanding of how Westminster, government and think tanks all interact before moving across to a policy institute. Likewise, many researchers in parliament go onto roles in public affairs agencies or government affairs teams in business/trade associations where they can utilise the network they have built up.


Distinct from the Civil Service, this would typically be a role as a Special Adviser to a Minister. These generally either advise on communications i.e. press relations or are more policy/politically focused. The Institute for Government have a good explainer here about what SpAds are and how they are distinct from civil servants. As political appointees, these positions are rarely advertised publicly and tend to rely on word of mouth recommendations or people known to the Minister already. Many think tankers have used the network they built at their think tank to make the relevant connections so that when these roles do come up, they are well placed for consideration. There have been numerous examples, in particular, of comms staff in think tanks becoming SpAds as they have already engaged with many of the journalists they will need to know when working for a Minister.

Public Affairs

Public affairs covers a wide range of activities, but broadly speaking it is an organisation’s relationship with its stakeholders. These range from internal stakeholders such as shareholders to external ones, the most obvious being their clients. Other stakeholders include government, the civil service, regulators, press etc. Working for a public affairs agency or in a public affairs role means you could be covering public relations, strategic communications, government relations and many more. As you can guess from the various terms – relationships are key in this space! You might be lobbying government on behalf of a client or representing your organisation’s view on a crucial piece of legislation or trying to get a better understanding of a new regulatory framework to feed into strategy discussions in the company.

Government Relations

This often falls into the same bucket as Public Affairs, but we have pulled it out here to highlight the more specific government affairs teams you often find in large corporations. These are generally companies either working in a highly regulated environment or ones that bid for contracts or procurement from government. A good example for the first case would be a large, multinational bank. They will have a large team responsible for different regulatory areas and regions with the department lead often feeding directly into the board or CEO. Smaller companies, in comparison, may only have one person working on this brief. For those companies who bid for public sector contracts they will often have a government relations function who keep up to date with any changes in government procurement and generally keep a finger on the pulse of the public sector.

Civil Service

This probably needs no introduction! The UK has an independent civil service across a wide range of departments and many different regions. You can work for the UK Government as well as the Welsh, Scottish or Northern Ireland administrations. The civil service is not politically appointed in the UK and therefore you remain in post even while the government of the day changes. The Civil Service Fast Stream is a very common route for graduates to enter the service and has the advantage of offering a number of placements so you can experience many different departments and areas. There are also a large number of policy-specific roles available in the service across issues as broad as green energy policy to extremism in schools. Policy expertise nurtured in think tanks can often lead to a role in government (often outside the Fast Stream) or if you are looking to leave the Civil Service you may find the skills and knowledge you have learnt there will be of great interest to other policy organisations.


Like a lot of Westminster there is often a revolving door between all these different fields. The same applies to journalism. Quite a few senior think tankers have started their career elsewhere, often in the media and moved onto the corporate world, public affairs and/or think tanks. Read our interview with the Head of Communications at Chatham House who spent 26 years as a journalist at the BBC for a good idea of the crossover between the two sectors. A career in journalism can be very helpful if you are now responsible for the communications strategy for a large policy organisation. Likewise, working in the comms team or writing policy briefs at a think tank is a good grounding if you want to make a move across into commenting on policy issues in the media. A number of news shows from the main broadcast channels ask policy experts to join them to go through the papers or add expert views.

Charities/NGOs/Campaigning Organisations

It is not just businesses that lobby government! Charities, NGOs and other campaigning organisations need to raise their and issues with the Government and politicians from all parties. Some of the larger charities will have dedicated policy teams, just like in a think tank. These charities also have communications teams and advocacy staff and many of the functions you would traditionally associate with think tanks. If you have a specialism, e.g. green energy policy, you may find that you can build a name for yourself producing research at a think tank before moving to a charity that advocates for government to do more on green energy. The main lesson is that there are multiple different organisations and routes to ply your policy trade.


The policy and think tank world is often asked how it differs from academia. The distinction between the two becomes even more blurred when considering that there are think tanks that are housed within an academic institution. Broadly speaking, in academia your role tends to be a ‘stricter’ research role, often with a narrower focus. You will also be expected to teach. In a think tank the approach to research involves many other aspects such as fundraising, events, networking etc. Your end audience is also subtly different. Most think tankers are trying to influence policymakers and thus make their research more practically focused, often with recommendations that can be taken forward. Academia is more about ‘pure’ research. Despite often being grouped together by those outside the policy world, most people tend to stick to one channel. Although if you are considering a move from academia to think tanks, we have a guide on how you might do that.

In all the above roles and organisations people will often start in one sphere and migrate across to others as their careers unfold. By setting out all the many different areas you could work in under the policy umbrella we hope to demonstrate the huge variety of options available for a career in this space.

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

You may be interested in…