Often students and graduates ask how they can gain that crucial first bit of experience that will help them secure a job or internship. Aside from direct experience, there are a number of other skills you can work on during your studies and in other work experience that will stand you in good stead come application time. We’ve listed a few to think about below:
Written skills – write write write! If there is one thing you can do to help secure a role, whether in research or communications, it is to develop your written skills. Many internships/starter roles now have a written assessment as part of the application process which carries as much if not more weight as your CV. Practise by writing for your university newspaper, a blog or anything that takes your fancy. Developing these skills will also help you to impress when in your first role which can only help when looking to make it permanent.
Communication skills – a fundamental part of any career in think tanks is the ability to convey what are often large and complicated areas into a concise persuasive summary. Vital to this is the ability to adapt to whichever audience you are currently targeting. In the policy sector communication can be verbal i.e. media interviews or events; written, such as reports or data; or through various social media channels. While no think tank will expect a new starter to have acquired these skills in any great depth, you can stand out from other applicants by highlighting any relevant expertise you may have developed from student societies or work. For example, many think tanks operate on a small budget but want to keep up with ever changing social media trends. If you know how to edit video content or produce a podcast (to take two of many examples) a small organisation will give your CV a closer look. Just be sure to highlight it!
Data analysis – similar to communications skills this is an area that you can start to develop long before you secure that first interview. Policy roles use a mixture of quantitative and qualitative data and if you can gain an understanding of different methods and practise sifting or analysing data, either in your degree course or with other training you will have an advantage. Typically think tanks don’t require the same level of stats ability as a more academic role, but being able to spot and tell a story from data is a sought after skill. Our How to do data visualisation guide explains a bit more about the various ways to present data, but don’t worry if you aren’t very experienced in this area as a lot of organisations will provide training.
Find out about the wider sector – think tanks and policy sit in a wider political sector that has many different career paths so look at the work experience or internships available in those and see what skills can transfer across. Helping your local MP, for example, helps you gain important experience and understanding of Westminster that you can then talk about in your application. Likewise, experience at a public affairs firm will help you start building your network as well as giving you an excellent grounding in policy and communications. We have a handy starter guide on the range of roles available here.
Know your reasons – why do you want to work in policy? Why do you want to work in a think tank? Why do you want to work in this particular organisation? It is staggering how many candidates can get to interview without having formulated a coherent answer to these questions. Hopefully, you will have a rough idea of why you are applying to this industry/organisation but make sure you have practised explaining it to those who will ask you.
The right attitude – think tanks are generally staffed by people who are pleased to be working there. They therefore tend to want interns or graduates who are also excited about working there. New joiners who pitch up enthusiastic to join in with whatever is happening are the ones who tend to get taken on at the end of the internship. This is particularly true in many of the smaller organisations where the ability to rub along happily in a small team is a skill that will go a long way.
Resilience – the policy and think tank sector is a very competitive field and you will be up against other very bright, engaged individuals so if at first you don’t succeed try, try again. You may not land your dream position at your first attempt and you may need to apply for other roles in the sector, but it is crucial that you get that first experience. Getting your foot in the door is the biggest step. It is much easier to move around a think tank or the policy sector once you are in there and building your network and reputation.