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Careers Centre

Think tanks

Sector Overview

This page has been written by Kristyn Emmer, the relevant Careers Adviser for this occupational area. To see how you can meet Kristyn, or any of our advisers, visit our website.

Think Tanks aim to provide the information and analysis that policy makers use to make decisions and that builds the wealth of “common knowledge.” Think Tanks are comprised of groups of experts and assistants who research issues and problems and then provide their findings. They will often then propose solutions or at least analyse the merits of previously proposed policies. They use publications and other forms of outreach to raise consciousness as well as influence policymakers.


While they can be independent, Think Tanks are often funded by partisan organisations. Some are stand-alone while others are affiliated with universities, advocacy groups, NGOs, governmental institutes, or private consulting organisations. They can be funded by foundations, corporations, endowments, domestic and foreign governments, private businesses, individual donations, sales of publications, government contracts, and private investors?. 
Each Think Tank is usually dedicated to a particular topic or range of issues. Sample areas include international relations, conflict management, the environment, the military, industry, social issues, education, food security, labour development, energy and particular regions of the world.


Think Tanks are usually staffed by subject matter experts who write reports, briefs, and publications; organise events, such as lectures, seminars and conferences; engage with the media; serve on task forces; and provide testimony to government committees. Entry-level employees often perform research, conduct field interviews, draft shorter briefs and grant proposals, network with other organisations, and provide support for senior researchers.


The following resources can be used to acquire an introductory understanding of what exactly Think Tanks do and how they function:

 

Think tanks attributes profile

 Key attributes/skills needed for the roleWhere you could develop these skills or attributes
The analytical skills to analyse complex problems

These are most likely to be developed and evidenced from your academic studies, especially any dissertation or research projects.

The ability to communicate with excellence, through listening, speaking and writing, and to persuade Presentations within your course, and mooting or debating experience. A student representative role is also likely to offer opportunities to develop these characteristics. CAPOD also offers courses on Communication Skills regularly within its Professional Skills Curriculum.
Research skills Developed through your academic studies and any relevant work experience
Language skills Improve your fluency in second or third languages. Evening courses are available.

Other key attributes/skills demanded for the role: do you possess them?

  • Awareness and interest in current affairs and trends

Nature of sector or roles

Entry-level employment in Think Tanks is limited as institutes tend to be small—the largest Think Tanks only employ around 50 people whereas the smallest employ only a couple of fulltime staffers—resulting in flat hierarchies with very few career Think Tank employees. A career at a Think Tank seems to be more of a stopping point or a finishing point rather than a place to spend 50 years. After all, Think Tanks are designed to be full of experts and it’s difficult to become an expert at something if you haven’t spent time directly in the field.

It is common for people to work at a Think Tank for a few years before moving to another industry or to leave the workforce to get a PhD. Alternatively, senior staff members join Think Tanks from academia, government, consulting and the private sector.

If your endgame is to end up in a Think Tank you should do all you can to become the best in a specified field. This might mean getting an advanced degree or spending many years working for more hands-on organisations. You could also start in a Think Tank, leave to gain more relevant experience, and then return later with even more to offer. Think Tanks offer no clear-cut track for employment and creativity and entrepreneurship will be necessary for a successful career.

Here are a few resources to start your research into working for a Think Tank:

Networks - why and how to use them

Networking is particularly important and can help you succeed with your applications. If you have been in contact with someone working for the organisation then you have extra information to assist you with your application. Use social media sites such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook (the Fast Stream has its own page) to connect with organisations. Recent St Andrews graduates have been accepted on the European and Generalist Fast Stream as well as jobs within the Scottish Government. Alumni can make extremely useful contacts, giving you an "edge" with your applications and interviews. There are several ways to make contact with alumni.

What to study/Relevant postgraduate study

Almost any degree could be applicable to working in a Think Tank. There are many different types of Think Tanks with a wide variety of interests and focus issues. International Relations, area studies, and history majors might work or politics or current events. But science majors might be needed to work on particular science-based issues. For example if a think tank was trying to develop a paper on climate change they might use someone with a sustainable development degree to discuss the science behind proposed solutions, but someone with an IR degree to discuss the political angle of implementing these solutions

Is a post-graduate qualification necessary or helpful?

The vast majority of people working in Think Tanks hold Masters degrees, if not PhD. A few entry-level positions are open to individuals with bachelor’s degrees, but most are restricted to candidates with graduate degrees. Like undergraduate degrees, there are many things you can study that would be applicable to a Think Tank. Think Tanks are looking for experts in their fields. The more you can specialize in a field and the better you become at it, the more of a chance you have as an appealing applicant.

How to gain experience/internships


As with all careers, if you want to work at a Think Tank you should try to secure an internship. This will give you valuable experience and contacts. Furthermore, entry-level positions are generally filled by former interns. However, as there are limited positions, an internship does not guarantee a job offer. 
You should also have experience in the particular research field in which you’d like to work. For example, if you’d like to specialise in health policy, you would benefit from work at the Department of Health or the NHS. It is also beneficial to have done academic research in your area of interest. Many different types of internships can give you relevant experience for later working in a Think Tank so be sure to expand your internship search past Think Tanks exclusively.

How to get a (graduate) job

Full-time positions are highly competitive. To be a successful applicant, you must be a good researcher, an effective communicator, and have an excellent academic record. Strong writing skills are essential and you must be able to think analytically and quantitatively. It is helpful to be fluent in other languages.

Networking is an essential skill to develop when looking to enter this field. Start with an up-to-date Linked In profile. You can also make valuable contacts through internships and work experience.

To look for openings, start with the websites of individual Think Tanks as that is where most jobs are posted.  There are also occasionally advertisements in publications like The Guardian and The Economist, but you will most likely have to do the research yourself. Speculative Applications are an essential tool. Identify individuals and organisations you would like to work for and contact them about potential opportunities.

The Careers Centre has the Directory of Think Tank Publications (for UK Think Tanks) in its library, available to take out on loan.

Where to start your job search

In addition to being a good resource for finding an internship, the next section can also be used to start your job hunt and would be a good initial directory to send speculative applications to.

 

Internships and Sample Employers

This list is by no means exhaustive. It is simply designed to serve as a starting point.

Internships in the US - Think Tanks and Public Policy

 

NameDescription
Advocates for Youth Advocates for Youth is dedicated to creating programs and promoting policies that help young people make informed and responsible decisions about their sexual health. Various paid and unpaid positions are available.
Africa-America Institute Internship Program This position is suitable for students, recent graduates, and young professionals who aspire to get a first-hand experience in working for and learning about managing an Africa-focused non-profit organization.
Alliance for Justice A national association of environmental, civil rights, women's rights, consumer, and other non-profit advocacy organizations. Interns will gain experience working with professional staff in the Grassroots, Communications, and Development departments. Additionally, interns may attend congressional hearings and public events, giving them the opportunity to network within DC's political climate.
The American Association of University Women (AAUW) AAUW aims to provide support and advancement for women in higher education, to conduct research on equity in education for women and girls, and to provide funds and a support system for women seeking judicial redress for sex discrimination in higher education. Various unpaid positions available in program, leadership, public policy and government relations.
The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) A not-for-profit institution dedicated to research and education on issues of government, politics, economics, and social welfare. Various unpaid internships offered in the areas of economic policy, foreign and defence studies, social and political studies, public relations and communications.
American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) ALEC aims to promote the principles of federalism by developing and promoting policies that reflect the Jeffersonian principles that the powers of government are derived from, and assigned to, first the People, then the States, and finally the National Government. Various internships with stipends are available on a rolling basis.
Arms Control Association Research internships available. Interns are expected to work 40 hours per week, although the program also considers applicants for part-time positions during the Fall and Spring terms. Interns are given a daily stipend for lunch and are reimbursed for commuting expenses.
ASPIRA A national non-profit organization devoted to serving Latino youth through leadership development and education, offers a public policy internship to an undergraduate or graduate student with an interest in issues that affect, and are important to, the Latino community in the United States. The intern will conduct research for public policy briefs addressing important topics affecting the Latino community, track federal legislation of importance to ASPIRA in the areas of education and human services, and assist in researching and developing new training materials and publications for programs.
Bread for the World Seeks justice for hungry people by engaging in research and education on policies related to hunger and development. Intern positions are available in Washington, D.C. in a variety of departments from three months to one year.
The Brookings Institution A private non-profit organization devoted to independent research and innovative policy solutions. Wide variety of internships available.
The CATO Institute A public policy research organization — a think tank – dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets and peace. Cato internships are for undergraduates, regardless of major, recent graduates, graduate students, or law students who have a strong commitment to individual liberty, private property, free markets, limited government, and the philosophy of classical, or market, liberalism.
Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) A non-profit public policy organization and the leading Internet freedom organization working at the critical edge of policy innovation. Hosts volunteer interns, both legal and non-legal, who wish to contribute to CDT’s work. Offers internships over the summer and during the academic year, in both the Washington, D.C., and San Francisco offices. Applicants do not need to be U.S. citizens, but funders may require U.S. work authorization. Unpaid positions.
Center for Science in the Public Interest CSPI CSPI is a national consumer organization conducting innovative research and advocacy programs in health, the environment, and nutrition. CSPI often stands alone in identifying critical food and health issues, alerting the public, and advocating changes in policy. Interns will work in a variety of areas, including nutrition policy, legal affairs, alcohol policy, food safety, grassroots organizing, and communications.
Center for Women Policy Studies Policy research and advocacy internships.
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) The Center is one of the leading organizations in the country working on public policy issues affecting low-income families and individuals. The Center specializes in research and analysis geared toward practical policy decisions. Seeks highly motivated interns in the following areas: communications; food stamps; health; housing; income security; international, federal, and state budgets and taxes; welfare; and other low-income initiatives.
The Child Welfare League of America CWLA CWLA, as part of its mission, sets internationally recognized standards for child welfare practice, proposes national public policy initiatives, publishes innovative child welfare materials, and provides consultation, training, and technical assistance to public and private child welfare agencies. Most projects relate to the program and policy areas and require a significant amount of research and writing. Interns often help staff monitor legislation, design and conduct surveys, develop funding proposals, and write issue briefs and other publications. Unpaid Internships.
Children's Defense Fund About 70 undergraduate, graduate and recent graduates intern in the CDF Washington, D.C. office each year and while a few of the internships give preference to certain majors, everyone with a strong interest in child advocacy is encouraged to apply.
Choice USA Seeks individuals who are passionate about reproductive/social justice to join our team. As an intern for Choice USA you'll get an inside understanding of the fight to attain reproductive justice both locally and at the federal level in the nation's capitol, as well as an opportunity to hone your professional skills in a fast-paced environment.
Citizens for Tax Justice Offers low- and middle-income working Americans a greater voice in the crafting of tax policy at the federal, state, and local levels. Interns will assist with lobbying and research efforts.
Competitive Enterprise Institute Open to undergraduates, postgraduates and recent graduates. Interns receive a modest stipend to cover living expenses.
Freedom Works Interns may have the opportunity to monitor hearings and press conferences on Capitol Hill and at the White House. You may also attend conferences and seminars, conduct research on economic policy topics, assist with grassroots events and mobilization efforts, assist with various publications, in addition to providing general office support to the staff.
Google Policy Fellowship Offers students interested in Internet and technology policy the opportunity to spend the summer working on these issues at public interest organizations in either Washington, DC, San Francisco, CA, Toronto, or Ottawa, Canada. First year, sophomore, junior, and senior students work at public interest organizations and conduct research and analysis, draft reports and attend conferences on issues related to the future of the Internet and its users. You must be eligible to work in the U.S. or Canada. Stipend for 10 weeks.
The Heritage Foundation Undergraduate internships and postgraduate fellowships in various policy areas. Paid positions.
Institute for Humane Studies-Charles G. Koch Summer Fellow Program The Charles G. Koch Summer Fellow Program provides students with the opportunity to gain hands-on experience in policy research, media relations, and opinion writing. The fellows intern in a market-based policy institute and work with top policy experts, journalists, academics, and their peers studying critical issues of public policy. Stipend available.
The Institute for Policy Studies The nation's oldest and largest multi-issue think tank promoting progressive thought. The internship program focuses on developing and nurturing future public scholars through comprehensive skills training classes and challenging research, writing, and advocacy in a wide range of foreign and domestic policy issues.
Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies Research major domestic public policy issues such as voting rights, employment, census data analysis, social and economic consequences of an aging population. Commitment to a minimum of 6 weeks in residence and a 25 hour work week.
Legal Momentum Accepts applications from undergraduate (non-legal) students, in New York City and Washington D.C., for internship positions in public policy and advocacy, communications and marketing, accounting, development, and other non-profit management areas. Positions are generally unpaid.
Manhattan Institute for Policy Research Open to undergraduates. Summer internships are full-time for 10-12 weeks adjustable to the student's academic schedule. Summer interns are paid a weekly stipend.
NASI A non-profit, nonpartisan organization made up of the nation's leading experts on social insurance, is uniquely qualified to provide students with challenging internship opportunities.
National Center for Policy Analysis NCPA internships are available during the fall, summer and spring for undergraduates and graduate students; though post-graduates are also encouraged to apply. Internship positions are located in NCPA's Dallas headquarters.
National League of Cities Internship opportunities are posted on the Job Announcements page as available.
National Organization for Women (NOW) Open to undergraduates, postgraduates, and recent graduates. Unpaid positions.
National Partnership for Women and Families A non-profit, non-partisan organization that uses public education and advocacy to promote fairness in the workplace, quality health care, and policies that help women and men meet the dual demands of work and family. Internships are unpaid, offered throughout the year, and available for academic credit.
National Women’s Center (NWC) Offers paid, sponsor-paid and unpaid fellowships, internships, and pro bono opportunities.
People for the American Way (PFAW) The organization promotes respect for diversity and a culture of opportunity and tolerance. Interns assist with grassroots organizing, media and online communications, tracking legislation, research, and writing.
The Potomac Institute for Policy Studies The Potomac Institute Internship Program (for undergraduate, graduate, or recently graduated students) hosts interns with a variety of academic backgrounds that relate to the science, technology, and national security missions of the Institute.
Progressive Policy Institute Internships available in various policy areas. Internships are unpaid.
The Project on Government Oversight Variety of internships and fellowships available.
The Urban Institute Although the Urban Institute does not have a formal internship program, it does hire research assistants on a temporary basis for full-time and part-time assignments during the academic year and during the summer.
Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) WOLA's internship program gives interns a wide range of exposure to the foreign policy-making process and aims to familiarize students with current events in Latin America through regular meetings with WOLA’s policy-making associates, NGO coalition meetings, brown bag lunches, and congressional hearings.
Women's Research and Education Institute (WREI) A non-profit and non-partisan organization that provides information and analyses on issues of concern to women, policy makers, and others interested in women's issues. WREI offers unpaid internships to current undergraduate students who have completed at least one year of college. Interns assist WREI staff on various projects.

 

US Foreign Policy Organisations

NameLocationDescription
American Foreign Policy Council Washington D.C. Unpaid internship positions are available year round
American Hellenic Institute Washington D.C. Provides various unpaid internships on a rolling basis
The American Jewish Committee LA, Boston, NY, DC, Dallas Offers college and graduate students unpaid internships year-round
Council on Foreign Relations NY, Washington DC Recruits volunteer interns year-round on a semester basis to volunteer in both the New York and Washington, DC, offices
The Eurasia Foundation Washington DC Interns provide research, clerical, and writing support
Foreign Policy Washington DC Provides paid, three-month editorial researcher internship for university students and graduates
The German Marshall Fund of the United States Fellowships Washington D.C., Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, Bucharest, Bratislava, Turin, Stockholm, Warsaw Offers a range of internships.
The Asia Foundation San Francisco, Washington D.C. Offers Junior Associate positions in the summer (June – August) and fall (October – December)
Middle East Institute Washington D.C. Unpaid positions are available on a full- or part-time basis with a minimum of 20 hours per week
National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) Washington D.C. with programs worldwide Various paid internships open to undergraduates, postgraduates, and recent graduates.
The Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship Princeton, NJ, but grants applicable elsewhere Offers both an Undergraduate and Graduate Program with financial support of up to $40,000 annually.
United Nations Offices worldwide Open to graduates and post-graduate students from diverse academic backgrounds
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy Washington DC Offers full-time and part-time unpaid research internships for current undergraduates as well as recent graduates

 

Security

NameLocationDescription
Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) Sally Yudelman Internship Program Washington DC Internship program seeks to give interns hands-on experience and broad exposure to human rights advocacy
American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research Washington DC Approximately fifty unpaid internship opportunities are available
British American Security Information Council (BASIC) London, Washington D.C. Applications open for the winter and spring terms in London and Washington.
The Brookings Institution Washington D.C. All internship positions are unpaid.
Business Executives for National Security: The Stanley A. Weiss Research Associate Program Washington D.C. Interns are given substantive research and writing assignments
The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) Washington D.C. CSBA offers a paid summer internship for highly motivated undergraduate (only rising seniors) and graduate students
Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Washington D.C. Offers full and part-time internships in the fall, spring and summer for undergraduates, advanced students, and recent graduates
Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe Washington D.C. Internships are unpaid and generally for one semester
The Heritage Foundation Washington D.C. Paid internships
Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellowship Washington D.C. Six to nine months and provides a stipend, health insurance, and travel costs to Washington.
Project On Government Oversight (POGO)'s fellowship program Washington D.C. Offers several one-year entry-level fellowships
The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) University of Maryland, USA. Offers unpaid research internship experiences on many of its large-scale research projects