Think Tanks - What Are They?

Career Administrator

Thinking about changing the world? Do you like discussing hot topics on the news with your friends? Are you intrigued by anything government-related? Then consider working at a think tank!

What are think tanks?

First, check out this 90 second video.

Think tanks are research institutes that engage in influencing public policy about the economy, education, the environment, military analysis, technology, international relations and a variety of other fields. There are nearly 6,545 think tanks operating worldwide, and they’re usually run by anywhere between 5 to 40 or more people who are passionate about making a change in the modern political sphere, usually by creating innovative ideas and conducting research to solve current problems in government. Because think tanks advocate for current “hot take” policy issues, they usually identify with a particular party on the political spectrum such as left, right, green, or liberal. As far as where the money for think tanks come from, most are funded through private philanthropists or endowments, with a few receiving grants from universities or the government.

What does working at a think tank look like?

There are a variety of positions people can hold when they work in think tanks, but the most common job is being an analyst. Analysts are often involved in the part of the research process that determines what proposals the think tank should consider taking on and the benefits of doing so. Analysts try to simplify data so that experts can understand the existing problem and potential solution.

Once you move up in the think tank sphere, you can often work as a project director who decides on what analyst ideas should be adopted, present such findings to the press and public through lectures, and meet with important government decision-makers. If neither of these positions sound interesting to you, keep an open mind! There are plenty of other ways you can work in a think tank- ask about them in your interview!

What are think tanks looking for from me?

To prepare for being a successful contributor in a think tank, you should practice public speaking or communication, have developed writing and research skills, be open to teamwork, and be passionate about public policy and current affairs.

Major and degree wise, most think tanks require novice staff to have at least a bachelor’s degree. As you move higher up to senior positions, you will need a master’s or PhD with some experience working in government, higher education, or even business.

If you don’t have much research experience, summer or semester internships are a great way to get exposed to how think tanks work so you can start networking with people in the field. Short internships usually consist of doing a little research and then administrative work so that you can have some knowledge about every task.

What Impact will you have working in a think tank?

You can gain a lot from surrounding yourself with dedicated, passionate people. You’ll build your personal credibility and gain transferable skills useful for any job. In addition to talking with co-workers, you’ll often be jumping between different social circles with politicians, journalists, and others who influence government policy.

Examples of think tanks*

The Brookings Institution

Center for Strategic and International Studies

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Heritage Foundation

Peterson Institute for International Economics

Urban Institute

Wilson Center, FKA Wilson International Center for Scholars

Center for American Progress (CAP)

Atlantic Council

RAND Corporation

Hudson Institute

Council on Foreign Relations

Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

Cato Institute

Center for a New American Security 

American Enterprise Institute (AEI)

*These represent the Top 16 Think Tanks in the US for 2019 as defined by the Global Go to Think Tank Index. The full report includes a list of 107 US think tanks as well as rankings for international think tanks by region.

What does the pay look like?

It really depends on each think tank and position level, but mid-level position holders and analysts earn between $50,000 to $80,000. Junior analysts, professional scholars, and staffers at think tanks make between $35,000 and $50,000 annually. Senior analysts are typically paid $80,000 to $200,000. Keep in mind that every think tank is different though, so these numbers are bound to change.

Tips from the Career Center

Whether you are looking to start building experience in this sector or already have some to market, tailoring your resume is crucial. Potential employers want to see that you’re passionate and capable of thriving in fast-moving environments.

In your resume, make sure you highlight relevant coursework to the specific think tank field you’re entering. You also want to pay special attention to how you describe each experience you have on your resume by mentioning the transferable skills you’ve gained, such as initiative, creativity, marketing knowledge, or leadership.

Stop by the Career Center’s drop in hours at Newcomb 170 or 1515 Monday-Friday from 12pm-5pm for more advice! A counselor or Career Peer Educator can help you get your resume started, give you some interview tips, and refer you to all of the resources we offer.

Check Out These Links

If you want more information on think tanks, these websites are a great resource:

Oxford Career Service - What are Think Tanks

80,000 Hours - What are Think Tanks

On Think Tanks

Penn Libraries - What are Think Tanks and Lists of Think Tanks by Country

Think Tank Search - Harvard's Custom Google Search of 1200+ Think Tanks and Research Centers

NIRA’s World Directory of Think Tanks

U.S. Department of State's List of Think Tanks

Global Go To Think Tank Index Reports (Rankings of Think Tanks Worldwide)

American Enterprise Institute Presentation