Working for a Think Tank: how to get a job, be effective and influence policy

by Eddie Copeland

This article is about the creation of my book Working for a Think Tank.

It was late June 2013 and I was in a state of complete panic.

Having left a secure and well-paid job in fundraising the previous year, I’d been working on my own start-up business that aimed to build web and data products to help commuters. But having gone through different iterations of various ideas, including the clichéd start-up pivot, I’d suddenly come to a firm conclusion: I could create a product, but not a viable business.

This was disappointing enough. But now an extra stress loomed: how I was going to pay the mortgage? Jointing down some figures on my personal finances, I realised that I wouldn’t be able to keep up the payments if I didn’t have a salary in the next three months.

But what job could I do?

My career to date had been pretty eclectic: parliamentary researcher to an MP; Congressional intern, business and IT consultant specialising in the oil industry; fundraiser for a school in Cambridge; and now, a failed entrepreneur.

When I thought about it, two key strands ran through my previous experiences: politics and technology. (This was true even for the fundraising job: working in Cambridge my top donors were the CEOs of the city’s famed tech companies.)

Almost without thinking I found myself googling the term “Jobs involving politics and technology”, with little hope of returning any relevant results.

Instead I hit the jackpot.

Staring back at me on page 1 was an advert for the vacancy of Head of Digital Government at the think tank Policy Exchange.

Reading the job description my eyes widened: it combined literally everything I loved doing.

To apply, it stated you needed to be able to write well, be confident in public speaking, know how to fundraise and have deep knowledge of the UK political system and technology. Tick, tick, tick!

I applied, got the job, and have loved every moment since.

Yet, looking back, I now realise how woefully unprepared I was for that role. When I first began as a think tanker, I didn’t really understand what think tanks were for. Did they exist to create a media storm? To raise the profile of an issue? Or change government policy? I had no idea how many think tanks there were or how they differed from one another. I didn’t know how I was meant to come up with ideas that were credible but hadn’t already occurred to people who worked on the area they concerned. And I had no idea how a report bursting with policy recommendations could translate into actually changing government policy.

There was no manual to help.

Several years on, I’ve learned the answers to these questions by working in the world of policy making for myself, by asking questions of many talented colleagues, and by witnessing how the very best in the industry operate. With that information, I’ve tried to write the guidebook I wish I’d been able to read when I started.

Working for a Think Tank: how to get a job, be effective and influence policy is now available on Amazon Kindle.

Chapter 1 explores the current landscape of UK think tanks, defining what they do and how they differ from one another. I outline the many functions that think tanks perform and how they distinguish themselves from the world of academia.

Chapter 2 provides an insight into day-to-day think tank life, including a deep dive into the activities that policy professionals perform as part of their roles, from fundraising to designing policy events, and from blogging to networking.

Chapter 3 investigates the core challenge for policy wonks: how to come up with ideas and insights that haven’t occurred to people who work at the coalface of a particular policy area. I discuss the tools and techniques I think tankers use to think about old problems in news ways.

In Chapter 4, I share my observations about what makes the best in the business so effective at shaping the policy agenda, detailing the methods and behaviours they use to have impact.

Chapter 5 outlines the steps others can take to secure their own job working for a UK think tank. I provide information on the different job roles available, where to find the latest job adverts, and how to best prepare for a think tank interview.

In the Appendix, I’ve listed the details of more than 110 UK think tanks, including their descriptions, Twitter handles, and links to where they advertise their latest job vacancies.

Having enjoyed think tank life so much, my hope is that this concise (125 page equivalent) guidebook will help graduates seeking their first step on the career ladder, or those looking to make the leap into policy making from another profession.

Working for a think tank book

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