This profile is based on a range of online, book and published sources cited below, and interviews with two junior, and one senior, think tank employees.
What is a career in a think tank?
The think tanks we discuss here perform research and advocacy on matters of government policy. Common topics for them to write about include foreign policy and security, microeconomic policy and social policy. Some largely conduct impartial research and so most closely resemble academia, but with a stronger focus on concrete suggestions for members of government. Others have a strong pre-existing agenda and most closely resemble party political or grassroots campaigns. In future we may discuss these two kinds of think tanks in separate profiles.
Here we mostly consider the merits of working at a think tank for 2-5 years, for someone between the ages of 21-35.
We have heard that it is typical for young people to work at think tanks for a period of years and then leave to pursue further education or experience elsewhere; it can be hard to be promoted far up the organisation without leaving at some point.
We have also heard from people inside think tanks that in recent years think tanks have put more focus on promoting their ideas through online and social media, potentially creating better opportunities for people strong on research communication or outright popularising content.
Most think tanks are funded through private philanthropy or endowments. Some receive grants from governments or universities. A smaller number focus on contract research for others, including government, non-profits and for-profits clients, such as the RAND Corporation.
The most common form of employment in think tanks is as an analyst, forming part of the research process to determine what proposals the think tank believes should be adopted and why. They collect and analyse data, read academic papers, government white papers or news stories, and then contribute to reports that the think tank publishes. At the senior levels there are project directors, usually experienced hires with PhDs or who have held senior positions in government, academia or sometimes business. These leaders set the research direction for analysts, decide on the conclusions the think tank will adopt, and present the findings in the media, public lectures to supporters, and in meetings with relevant government decision-makers.
Immediate impact potential
The primary focus of think tanks is improved government policy. Some think tanks certainly do provide the opportunity to do valuable research and promote those ideas through one-on-one meetings and mass media coverage.
An example of this kind of work would be the Centre for Global Development, which among many topics has published research on the role migration could play in reducing poverty, which has been widely cited. CGDev claims to have had other kinds of impacts on policy. GiveWell has had many published conversations with research fellows at CGDev and recommended grants be made to them.
The Brookings Institution has many research streams, including one on African Growth. In foreign affairs, organisations such as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace research questions such as nuclear nonproliferation, while Chatham House has research projects on issues such as global health and emerging diseases. Both have research projects on climate change. A report by Chatham House on how the West should respond to Russia’s involvement in Ukraine was covered in over 2,000 outlets according to Google News, for example in the BBC.
While we are not commenting on the quality of these specific research projects or their ultimate impact, there is at least the potential for high-impact advocacy through think tanks working in these areas.
In addition to the ability to directly work on improving government policy, working in a think tank provides you with the opportunity to promote important ideas indirectly. Firstly, you will be moving in social circles with politicians, journalists and others with influence over government policy. Secondly, you will build your personal credibility, brand and perhaps even be given some public platform of your own (this is more likely in the UK or Australia). All of this creates some ability to advocate on important issues that you may not be researching directly in your work.
The advocacy potential of working at a think tank is probably higher than a civil service career, but less than entering party politics.
Which think tanks are most promising to work at?
Here we list a range of notable think tanks across the political spectrum; their inclusion should not be read as an endorsement by 80,000 Hours.
In the US the largest and most prestigious think tanks include the Brookings Institution, American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Council on Foreign Relations, RAND Corporation, Cato Institute, Centre for Global Development (also located in London), Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) and Center for American Progress (CAP). Among these the CBPP, AEI, Cato and CAP have a strong guiding ideology, while the remainder are more neutral.
In the UK some options include the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Adam Smith Institute, Institute for Fiscal Studies, Overseas Development Institute and Chatham House.
In Australia and Canada there are relatively few options, the larger ones being the Lowy Institute for International Policy, Grattan Institute and Fraser Institute.
Some think tanks seem to work a great deal on collecting and disseminating basic data. For example, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute compiles data on military spending, while the Migration Policy Institute pulls together data on the movement of people. While these won’t immediately provide opportunities for advocacy, they can provide you a place to learn more about the field, become credible and make contacts, which could open up opportunities for advocacy later in your career.
If your interest is macroeconomics, central bank researchers are the main players. Entry into these roles almost always requires an Economics Masters and senior positions demand an Economics PhD.
For more comprehensive lists of think tanks see:
What are typical salaries?
Think tanks offer liveable salaries for young people at lower levels. Salaries can be quite high at senior levels for staff with impressive qualifications.
Salaries are typically a bit higher than equivalent academic positions and other non-profit roles. However, they are far below what people with equivalent experience or skills could earn in the private sector.
- “£25,000 for a new employee, rising to £50,000 for a senior manager.”
- From Think Tank Watch:
“According to Simply Hired, the average think tank salary is $56,000. According to SalaryList, the average salary at a think tank is $47,136. According to Indeed, the average think tank salary is $66,000.”
- Junior analysts and professional scholars and staffers at think tanks make between $35,000 and $50,000 annually.
- Mid-level think tank scholars and analysts earn from $50,000 to $80,000.
- Senior analysts are typically paid $80,000 to $200,000.
- For instance Cato Institute senior fellows are each paid about $160,000 as of 2012.
- “Low to start ($50-60,000), similar to the public sector at the middle ($90-170,000), and good at the top ($200-400,000).”
Can you actually influence policy?
A key question you might naturally have is ‘do think tanks actually have influence’? Are they key or peripheral to the policy-making process? Unfortunately, what research has been conducted on this question reaches only non-committal conclusions – sometimes it appears they influence policy, and other times they do not. Even in those cases where they apparently affect the outcome, it is hard to be sure. The best source we have found is Do Think Tanks Matter? by Donald Abelson.
However, political insiders we spoke to reported that they believed think tanks were indeed an important source of policy ideas and evidence to support them. This appears to be common sense in the field. Think tanks are thought to be particularly influential in the USA because of the relative freedom of members of congress, the lower prestige of civil service jobs, and the movement of staff between the executive and think tanks.
The authors of the book Lobbying and Political Change, while focussing on ‘interest group’ lobbying rather than think tanks themselves, found a lower impact of lobbyists in the USA than most would have expected, and strong pressure in favour of the status quo.
How do you get a job in a think tank?
- Study economics, PPE, social science, foreign policy, public policy, law, or do a thesis on a topic of interest to the think tank. Think tank jobs are largely closed to those without at least bachelor degrees unless they have by some other means gained extensive practical experience in the field.
- Internships in political parties, think tanks, or work as a research assistant can help you stand out from the pack as a recent graduate. These are often available to students from their second year of university.
- Attend conferences or other events put on by think tanks, and network with the people involved. People are often hired on the strength of their reputation and recommendations.
- Keep a blog, or publish articles or papers where you demonstrate your insight about a policy area you understand well, and try to come to the attention of people in think tanks.
- Graduates can get entry level jobs in think tanks, but senior positions usually require a master’s degree, PhD or even work experience as an academic or senior member of the civil service. Foreign relations think tanks are particularly competitive and usually require postgraduate qualifications or other experience for entry.
What are some upsides of working in a think tank?
- Your colleagues are likely to be intelligent, desire to improve the world, and have similar interests to you.
- There is the potential to advocate on or have insights about important issues that that are neglected by other groups.
- You gain an understanding of the public policy ecosystem, and how it can be shifted.
- You get to meet powerful or otherwise useful contacts.
- You can regularly see your work covered in the media.
- You can improve your desktop research and writing skills, which are readily transferrable to other careers.
- You get to co-publish with scholars, potentially as a recent undergraduate.
What are some downsides of working in a think tank?
- Early on in your career it may be hard to find a think tank which will hire you and also matches your personal values and policy ideas. Most think tanks have a pre-existing political stance and to begin with you will not have a great deal of discretion over the topics you investigate. Furthermore, some think tanks engage in direct political advocacy, and others are more academic in style, and it is ideal to match this with your own temperament. Working on a research topic you regard as unimportant is likely to be unfulfilling and have lower direct impact, though don’t forget that it may open up better options in the longer-term.
- The number of think tanks that work on the kinds of cause areas regarded by 80,000 Hours or the Open Philanthropy Project as the most important, neglected and tractable is relatively small. Many work on policy issues on which most politicians or voters people already have established views and where it appears relatively hard to shift policies. Some appear to advocate for policies that would help the relatively privileged, and are funded by people from those groups.
- It is possible to work for significant periods of time, and potentially your entire career, without identifiably influencing government policy. In this sense the career track is ‘risky’, as you will rarely be able to point to a concrete outcome you caused.
- Because they rely primarily on philanthropy, future funding for some think tanks is frequently in doubt. However, on balance think tank jobs are reasonably secure.
Where might a job in a think tank lead?
It is common to work in think tanks for only a few years before moving on to another job. There is rapid movement of people between academic jobs, political jobs, civil service jobs, and work in related industries. Senior staff typically have experience in two or more of these sectors.
- Other think tanks.
- In some think tanks you can move upwards within the organisation, though in the most prestigious this will require a PhD or more.
- Work in a political party.
- Policy-oriented public service.
- Work in a related industry (e.g. someone studying energy policy in a think tank could take their expertise into an electricity generation company, or gain experience there before returning to the policy world).
- Other forms of lobbying, such as for corporations or charities.
- A PhD, for example in economics, public policy, foreign policy or social science.
- At this point you could enter academia or return to a more senior position in a think tank. If you are confident that you want to be an academic and can get into a suitable PhD program, working in a think tank first would not be a natural option. However, it can improve your application by giving you research experience, letters of recommendation from good researchers, and co-publications.
- Roles within think-tanks differ quite widely. Some roles call for outstanding quantitative research ability and would suit people who would otherwise go into academia. Other roles require a sophisticated understanding of a particular policy area, often built up over years of experience in the sector. Other analysts primarily synthesise and communicate research already conducted by others, in which case their ability to write well and influence others through good social skills would be more central.
- Someone who might be incredibly successful in the think tank world would be both excellent at producing research and communicating it in a compelling way.
- A personal interest in politics or public policy in general is very valuable, as well as a sustainable concern for the issue you would be focussing on. Of course, if you regard the work you are doing as valuable, you will probably develop an interest once you are working on it.
- While outstanding academic results are not strictly necessary to become an analyst, other than at the most selective think tanks, think tank jobs are in high demand and so you will often need something, like a publication record or a personal recommendation, to set you apart.
- Many think tanks are small (under 20 total staff) and so can make good use of staff who are flexible or all-rounders.
Typical work hours are 40-60 hours a week.
Whether the role provides the characteristics of the job satisfaction will vary greatly by seniority and the specific group you are working in.
- Skill Variety
- At senior levels, high. At junior levels, this will be highly variable.
- Task Identity
- Think tanks often work on specific research reports and then taking advantage of the resulting attention. This creates a reasonable level of discrete projects.
- Task Significance
- There’s the potential to work on a topic you intrinsically care about, but you may not be free to choose your project. The results will usually not be quickly visible.
- At senior levels autonomy is high. At junior levels it will depend on the style of your manager, but research is not an easy task to micromanage.
- This is also highly dependent on your manager. Think tanks working on a popular topic usually get public or media feedback on the quality or persuasiveness of their work. However, as in other research careers, this feedback is not usually immediate.
Remaining top questions
- Can we find better research out there about the cases in which think tanks do or do not have the potential to influence government policy?
- More information on foreign policy and security think tanks, which make up a large share of all think tanks. What paths could lead you into these, and where would they take you?
- What kind of people tend to have high job satisfaction in think tanks?
- Are think tanks a good early career move for career in government, compared to policy-oriented civil service, party politics or direct activism?
Abelson, E. (2009) Do Think Tanks Matter?: Assessing the Impact of Public Policy Institutes. McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Steelman, A. (2003, March 22). Do Think Tanks Matter? Assessing the Impact of Public Policy Institutes. (Book Review). The Cato Journal.
Baumgartner, F. (2009). Lobbying and policy change: Who wins, who loses, and why. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.