Thinktanks are often mentioned in academia and in current affairs – especially when the media tears apart a government’s policies – but what are they? What do they do? And why are they relevant to students?
“Public policy research, analysis and engagement institutions that generate policy-oriented research, analysis and advice on…issues that aims to enable policymakers and the public to make informed decisions about public policy issues”.
Whilst the Routledge definition is quite a mouthful, think-tanks can be summarised more simply as research and recommendation institutions. Since they are research-based institutions, think tanks are naturally geared towards employing university graduates which makes them especially relevant to students.
To gain an insight into what it is like to work for a leading organisation, I interviewed Rachel Kean from Chatham House. Based in central London, they are the highest ranked non-US think tank worldwide with main research areas of: Energy, Environment and Resources; International Economics; International Security; Area Studies; and International Law. As the Coordinator of the International Security Research Department, Rachel has used her expertise to develop the institution’s work on Gender and Security.
WS: What did you do to secure a position at Chatham House?
RK: Firstly, there is no set route into working at Chatham House. Staff come from a broad range of backgrounds; including academia, government, NGOs and the private sector. What they share is a passion for international affairs, a commitment to independent analysis, and developing influential ideas on how to build a secure world for all.
I identified my particular area of interest, Gender and International Security, while studying for my undergraduate degree. I took relevant courses, and then undertook an internship at the United Nations – which resulted in co-authoring a handbook for the Security Council and Member States. After graduating, I worked for the British Red Cross on Women and Asylum. I applied for the International Security Coordinator position at Chatham House as it was an opportunity to work on a broad range of international security issues, whilst also developing a work stream on gender and security. I believe it was my enthusiasm and commitment to the work and ethos of Chatham House that helped me secure the position.
WS: What does your role mainly entail?
RK: My role as International Security Coordinator is incredibly variable. I work on a diverse portfolio of research projects. Recent examples include work on women’s political participation post Arab-Spring, the humanitarian impact of explosive weapons in populated areas and First World War commemorations. I work to develop research activities that are in accordance with the International Security Department’s main themes, including International Security, Defence and Governance and Innovative Thinking in International Security.
I work closely with the research director, manager and researchers in the department to develop departmental engagement and outreach. I also provide general core and administrative support for research projects and departmental activities – this could be editing a publication, drafting budget plans and project proposals, or writing an expert comment on my personal areas of interest.
WS: What are the best and worse aspects of working for a think tank?
RK: Working for a think tank means you are at the cutting edge of international affairs. Chatham House is frequented by international leaders, UK politicians, diplomats, academics, media and other experts on a daily basis. Organising and participating in research seminars, workshops and discussion groups can be incredibly motivating and engaging. Recent examples include a visit by Hilary Clinton, participating with the the MOD on Women, Peace and Security, and organising a conference on warship HMS Illustrious. You are constantly challenged and encouraged to thrive.
Deadlines are often very tight. There is pressure to ensure that the work produced is of an exceptionally high quality. However, this is a small price to pay to work at such a prestigious institute.
WS: What is the salary range for people working within a think tank?
RK: Thinktanks are highly competitive and the salary ranges for junior staff is relatively low. However, those who join think tanks rarely do so for financial gain. The opportunities to work in the heart of international affairs reap their own rewards – the experience is invaluable. Those who work at more senior levels will be experts at the forefront of their fields, and their salaries are more reflective of this.
WS: What advice would you give to undergraduates that wish to pursue a career in think tanks?
RK: Make the most of opportunities that cross your path and if they do not appear, go out there and make your own. Develop the key skills that you’ll need, such as research abilities, analytical thinking, writing, and administration. Do voluntary work, join societies and follow up on your connections. Intern if you can, and obsessively read and discuss international affairs. Above all, identify what you are passionate about and pursue it relentlessly. Yes, the think tank world is competitive,but if you have the courage to stick to your convictions and put in the work, it is an engaging, rewarding and exciting vocation. I wish you all the best of luck.
A big thank you to Rachel Kean for taking part in the interview.