What is a think tank?
There is no one set definition of a think tank. The Collins English dictionary explains it as a ‘a group of experts who are gathered together by an organization, especially by a government, in order to consider various problems and try and work out ways to solve them’. These problems are generally public policy questions on topics government typically has a role in solving or a responsibility for. Examples include taxation, foreign policy, welfare and healthcare policy among many others.
How are think tanks organised?
Most think tanks are organised around the research function. This will be a group of researchers ranging from tiny teams to groups in their hundreds. They generate the core offering of a think tank – policy research. To help disseminate their work, think tanks also produce events in many different formats including public panels, private roundtables and large conferences. In addition to an events function, think tanks also often have communications teams (to promote their research and events), operations (to keep everything running) and fundraising (to raise the money to pay for it all).
How are think tanks funded?
In the UK it is usually with a mixture of grants from foundations and trusts, individual donors and corporates. Typically, they are not funded by government. However, this is not the same across the world. For example, many think tanks in Germany receive government funding. A lot of think tanks are educational charities and must follow rules laid out by the Charities Commission.
Are there different types of think tanks?
Yes. We have seen that the definition of a think tank can cover tiny organisations to century-old large global institutions while also not being very defined at all. The difference mainly comes from the larger organisation the think tank may be attached to. Many think tanks are entirely separate organisations whose sole focus is to produce and disseminate policy research. However, some think tanks are housed within universities rather than being standalone, some are a function in a large charity whose main purpose is grant-making and some may have a corporate arm.
How does a think tank work?
The main purpose of think tanks is to research public policy issues and devise potential solutions to some of the big issues of the day. This includes looking at current government policy and its effectiveness as well as future policies. Ideas are disseminated through research reports and briefings as well as through public and private events. Think tanks do not generally implement their policy ideas but instead try to influence policymakers and politicians to take them forward.
How do think tanks influence policy?
Think tanks influence policy by disseminating their research and recommendations to interested stakeholders. This can be by presenting it directly to policymakers and politicians as well as more indirectly by influencing stakeholders, including journalists, to take an interest in their work through their events and commentary. They also will build links with government and opposition parties as well as other stakeholders including business, the civil service and journalists to spread their work.
Are think tanks charities?
Many of the UK think tanks are registered charities, but they can also be not-for-profit organisations or companies limited by guarantee.
How easy is it to get a job in think tanks?
Due to the exciting work and access to interesting and clever people, jobs in think tanks can be highly sought after – despite not being always well paid! Many think tanks are fairly small organisations and so don’t have a lot of openings. One popular route into a think tank job for someone with no experience is to complete an internship with the organisation first.
What types of roles are there in think tanks?
When people think of careers in think tanks, they generally think of a research career and while policy research is the core component of what a think tank does there are many other functions vital to the dissemination of policy ideas. You could work in communications and press (getting the message out to journalists), events (organising speakers, setting up venues and managing on-the-day issues), fundraising (raising those important donations) and operations (keeping the lights on, looking after staff and anything else that an organisation employing lots of different people with lots of visitors could need!).
Do you need a PhD to work in a think tank?
The short answer is no. Think tanks are not academia and therefore don’t generally have the same entry requirements. You can be a researcher with a degree and/or masters. For some roles (where there is, for example, a strong economics requirement) you may be required to have a degree or masters in a particular subject and there will be some sector specialists who will also have PhDs. You can read our guide on how to transition from academia to think tanks here.
Where are most UK think tanks based?
Most UK think tanks are based in London and often in Westminster. However, some have become remote-based organisations since the pandemic and there are increasingly offices set up in the North of England, Scotland and Wales to work on policy issues specific to those regions.
How do I get a job at a think tank?
It depends on how much experience you have. If you are a student or just graduating, then the best way to secure a job is to first start with an internship. This gives you a foot in the door and a chance to earn the vital experience to then be able to apply for a researcher or officer role when it opens up. Similarly, entry level roles in non-research functions are often open to those without direct experience and it is much easier to move around a think tank once you are already employed within it. So even if the entry level job isn’t exactly what you want to do it can still be a good first step. For more senior roles it is partly about keeping abreast of any new jobs being advertised, but also about building a good network so that when opportunities do come up the people hiring think of you first!
What policy areas do think tanks look at?
It varies! Most UK think tanks focus on domestic policy but within that it ranges from health and housing through to economics, trade, financial policy, welfare. Essentially, if government or society does it a think tank will cover it. The more international think tanks specialise in international relations, international development, foreign policy and security and defence. Some think tanks do both, but usually they will either have a domestic or an international focus.