10 tips for moving from academic to think tank research

Jo Hills

Photo of Chatham House, 28 November 2016. Photo Credit: US Embassy London via flickr.

On the 15th of July International Affairs and Chatham House co-hosted an event with BISA and Bridging the Gap for those working in academia about the key components for building a successful career in think tanks.The panel included: Dr Lina Khatib, Director, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House; Professor Bruce Jentleson, Director, Bridging the Gap Project, American University; Dr Emma De Angelis, Director of Publications, Royal United Services Institute; Miss Mallak Al Husban, Researcher, STRATEGIEC and was chaired by International Affairs’ Editor, Professor Andrew Dorman. You can listen to a recording of the event here.

If you are an academic thinking of making the jump from academia to the world of think tanks and policy institutes here are ten key takeaways from the discussion.

1) Write in terms that are topic- not theory-focused

As a think tank researcher it’s crucial to be able to write in ways that speak to policy-makers. In practical terms this means being causally and empirically focused in what you write. While writing papers that engage effectively with the current theoretical literature is a valuable skill in the world of academia, in think tanks it can hold you back. Remember policy-makers who are the main intended audience of most think tank research are often under a great deal of time pressure, so convoluted theoretical discussions can often discourage them from engaging with what could be otherwise highly relevant work.

2) Prove you can produce accessible short form writing

Similarly, it is important for your writing to be structured to best capture policy-makers’ attention. While think tanks do publish longer reports, the ability to write short form pieces of less than 1000 words that clearly communicate key findings and recommendations is a vital skill. Building a portfolio of work in magazines, periodicals and blogs is one way to prove you can write in this manner, and can also boost your name recognition with potential employers in the think tank sector.

3) At the same time, avoid oversimplifying your research!

Writing clear, empirically focused short form research doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to oversimplify your work! Policymakers are coming to you as academics over journalists or civil servants because of your ability to provide in-depth empirical analyses of the policy challenges they face, so don’t sell yourself short! The key is to include nuance where it is directly relevant to the policy questions you want to answer, and to communicate them in clear language. If you focus on the empirical reality you’re communicating, while also linking this to clear policy recommendations and avoiding the use of technical jargon, you can produce work that effectively communicates the salient details of your research to policymakers.

4) Media and interview training is hugely beneficial

Being able to promote your research in ways beyond writing is highly valued in the think tank sector. The ability to provide concise 30 second soundbites of key policy recommendations can go a long way in confirming to think tanks that you have the skills raise the profile of your research as well as produce it. The same also goes for experience in journalism or communications, which can provide a highly sought-after track record of communicating research accessibly.

5) Understand how your research intersects with policy priorities

Another key skill think tanks look for is the ability to identify and communicate where your research overlaps with the current concerns of policymakers. This is useful both in ensuring that your research has impact and in allowing you to contribute effectively to think tanks as organizations that exist to influence the policy-making process.

6) Specialize first then branch out

When trying to establish a presence in the think tank world it’s crucial to develop a reputation for expertise on a particular subject first before branching out. This helps you establish a recognizable brand which can provide the reputational security to explore your wider interests at a later point. From a networking perspective, developing a clearly articulated specialization also helps in securing a regular group of research contacts around which you can build your career and future work.

7) Make sure the think tank you’re approaching is amenable to the politics of your work

Another crucial step is to make sure the think tanks you’re applying to are amenable the political outlook of the work you want to conduct. Whereas in academia there is relatively high degree of freedom to write what you want, think tanks often have specific research agendas or political positions. When looking to join such an organization it is important to ensure your goals don’t conflict. While the level of prescription can vary by organization, you shouldn’t avoid offering a new perspective, it is important to get a good sense of the kind of work your chosen think tank produces and how your research relates to it.

8) Networking effectively with think tank researchers is crucial for making the transition

The ability to network effectively with think tank researchers is also vital for effectively making the transition to a career in the policy sector. Numerous researchers are sufficiently qualified to work for think tanks so to stand out from the crowd you must build a clear brand with think tanks directly. Attending workshops and events at think tanks or gaining membership with them are good ways to make yourself recognizable to the people who may be your future colleagues and employers.

9) Collaborations with think tanks can be a good place to start

Beyond this, approaching think tanks for collaborations on specific research projects can be a useful way to help establish yourself in the sector. Research collaborations can also be a good way of gaining direct experience of working with your chosen think tank so you can decide whether it’s a good fit for you. It’s also worth noting that even if you are only pitching ideas this still helps make employers more aware of you and allows you to work out how well your interests align.

10) Research in adjacent sectors can be a useful way of gaining relevant experience

Think tanks aren’t the only place you can gain the kind of policy-oriented research skills needed for a successful career in think tank research. In particular major NGOs often have quite expansive research sections focused on creating accessible research that influences policy and thus can be good places to start.

Jo Hills is the Editorial Assistant for International Affairs.

This blogpost is the latest in International Affairs’ collaboration with the British International Studies Association.

Watch recordings of other BISA virtual events here.

All views expressed are individual not institutional.

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