Thoughts from Think Tankers

Chris McNulty

Researcher, Institute for Government

What’s it like to work in a think tank?

‘Dynamic working environment’ is one of those horrible corporate clichés, but alas is my best attempt to describe working in a think tank. There are lots of moving parts across all the different teams, from research to communications and from events to operations.

The work you’ll be doing

The work itself has important reactive and proactive functions that are closely linked to each other. The reactive element is monitoring the policy and political landscape for news that relates to your research, to develop your own understanding of your field and to consider how your work fits in and might complement or benefit from the work of other researchers. You might react to a select committee hearing in Parliament, new data releases, the publication of another think tank’s report, or a story in the news.

The proactive element is publicising your own work to inform and influence policy debates. Tweeting is one way to do this in a general sense, but going to events and meeting policy people is a better way to get your work out there. Talking to people is also a key part of researching. For a particular project you might find yourself conducting interviews, facilitating roundtables, testing and socialising hypotheses and findings and much more besides.

There will of course be lots of desk-based research and administrative work too (if you’re looking to escape referencing in papers, then perhaps think tanks aren’t for you), but when I started at the Institute for Government, I was surprised by how much time I spent outside the office speaking to people from all sorts of different organisations.

The skills you’ll use

‘Skills set’ feels like another horrid corporate cliché that I am hesitant to use, but as you might have inferred from the nature of the work, a lot of your efforts will involve research and communication.

You will spend a lot of time researching whatever subjects your think tank or team is focussed on. At the IfG, we focus on improving the effectiveness of government, which as you can imagine encompasses a lot of different workstreams. As above, this research will take on different forms, from literature reviews and interviews on the qualitative side to data analysis on the quantitative side. A university dissertation offers a good grounding in some of these tasks; others you will have to learn.

Communication is also a big part of the job. Whether you’re pitching an idea for a project internally, writing up the findings of your research or explaining them to other people, you need a capacity to articulate your work in a way that is clear and accessible to everyone. If you’re going to have any impact or influence on government, the civil service and other policy people, it’s vital that your messages are easily digestible; if you’re producing thick, dull reports, then you’re going to struggle to get any traction for your messages.

There are always lots of opportunities to learn, and the IfG is particularly invested in helping its research team develop areas of weakness. That might be analysing and visualising data, writing, presenting or even tweeting, and think tanks will often facilitate your development through formal and informal training. Think tanks need their research to be robust and for the messages from their researchers to be heard, and they want to make you as effective a messenger as possible.

The environment you’ll be in

Your colleagues in a think tank are likely to be very interested and interesting people, doing all sorts of work. My experience of working at the IfG is that it’s an incredibly collegiate and collaborative atmosphere. People are genuinely interested in what you’re doing and how it might relate to their work, and you’ll undoubtedly benefit from engaging in the work of your colleagues; they will have all sorts of expertise and experience to lend you. The IfG is also a very supportive environment, where colleagues will help each other in various ways, from contributing to scoping discussions for new projects and providing internal review for reports to socialising together and liking each other’s punny tweets. From what I know of other think tanks, this type of environment is quite common.


Tips for before you apply


Read – read publications on different subjects from lots of different think tanks. It will give you a good sense of the policy landscape, which methodologies are rigorous, what policy issues you’re interested in, and where you might fit in. Additionally, you could look for mentions of think tanks in the news and consider the influence and impact they have.


Go to events – the IfG welcomes high profile speakers all the time; there is always a public event hosted by a think tank to go to. Not only is it a great way to learn about different subjects, but you can also meet people who work there and chat to them about their work. This will help you to…


Find the right think tank – although think tanks share some common features, each will have a unique perspective and approach to its work. Think tanks will want to know how your perspective aligns with theirs (that classic interview question of why you want to work here). Look into think tanks’ backgrounds: who established them and why? What’s their mission? How are they funded? Are they independent and impartial? There are no right answers to these questions, but you should find an organisation whose vision and values you agree with.

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