How to work for a think-tank

Think-tanks can influence prime ministers. But in the ideas industry you need to be more than just a bright spark, says Tim Walker

Most of us think without thinking about it. Most of us probably didn't think we could make a career of it. But while you might think that the thought of think-tankery is all very New Labour, think-tanks exist to stimulate debate and influence government policy by generating new ideas, and as such have been around (in one form or another) for as long as government itself.

Tim Lawrence, 24, is a research assistant on the sustainability team at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), working on their 18-month low-carbon programme examining international, EU and UK domestic energy and climate policy. "Sustainability was a subject very close to my heart from a young age," he says, "and it appealed to my values. I studied geography at Bristol University, so I had the right expertise."

It is important for a young thinker to work in an area for which they feel an affinity. After researching the opportunities available to him in sustainability, Lawrence joined the IPPR on one of the many internship programmes offered by the think-tank and its peers, which is the main point of entry for the profession. He was even awarded a bursary to allow him to live in London while completing the internship, which led to his current job.

There is no well-trodden path to such an offbeat vocation, but the in-depth research that is bread and butter to most think-tanks attracts graduates and academic specialists most of all. The ideas industry also enjoys a high rate of personnel exchange between the worlds of politics and journalism. Think-tanks are businesses like any other, and as such need recruits with conventional management expertise, too, including those with experience of running their own businesses.

IPPR and Demos, the leading centre-left thinktanks, emerged alongside New Labour in the mid-Nineties and have previously employed the services of the ministers Patricia Hewitt and David Miliband, and the former No 10 strategist Geoff Mulgan, among others. Journalism or public relations experience, meanwhile, is desirable to a think-tank looking for new recruits in today's media-driven political environment. Demos, for example, runs a separate media and communications internship programme. While a head for research is vital for a professional thinker, the object of any think-tank is to exert influence on policymakers. Thus good PR and communications are at the core of the operation, and media exposure is essential to success. Most think-tanks hold conferences and other events to complement the published research and recommendations.

One of the youngest think-tanks is the economically liberal Reform, which publishes weekly policy briefings on topical issues to sustain media coverage of its arguments. Reform was established in 2002 by a small group of thinkers disquieted by the Government's emphasis on higher taxes and increased public spending. "Our mission is to find a better way to fund public services and achieve economic prosperity," explains Reform's director, Andrew Haldenby. "We're working on ways to reform the structures of the major services - the health service, education and crime."

Haldenby's former partner, Nick Herbert, is now a Conservative MP, and many young world-beaters rightly see working in a thinktank as a springboard to Westminster. "Most of the people working at Reform are at the beginning of their careers in politics and policy," says Haldenby. "They're all very good graduates, so I'd be deeply surprised if they didn't move on to other things. I, however, intend to spend my life doing this."

Tim Lawrence's decisions thus far haven't been particularly motivated by thoughts of a future career. "I just wanted to work in a field that I'm interested and excited by," he says, "and to know that I can make a difference by influencing the people that matter." But if he so chooses, professional thinking holds variety enough to keep Lawrence occupied for an entire career, especially working in a think-tank with a wide brief.

Jonathan Carr-West is the programme development manager for the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), which means that he generates and oversees a range of different projects. The RSA's official remit, since its establishment in 1754, is "to embolden enterprise, enlarge science, refine arts, improve our manufactures and extend our commerce". Its traditional focus is the relationship between business and social progress.

"You might say our ethos is that commercial activity and the public good needn't be antithetical and can go hand in hand," explains Carr-West. This ethos has a long reach. The RSA's work currently includes a pilot scheme in 50 British schools testing a curriculum based on competencies rather than subjects; a programme in two villages in Andrapadesh, India, trying to fund water supply and sanitation with a private investment model; and an investigation of the best way to balance international migration to the benefit of both the West and the developing world.

News
people

Top Gear presenter is no stranger to foot-in-mouth controversy

Arts and Entertainment
Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films
books

New essay by JK Rowling went live on pottermore site this morning

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie Sheen said he would
tv

Charlie Sheen could be set to revive his role as a hedonistic womaniser

Life and Style
Jamie Oliver’s version of Jollof rice led thousands of people to post angry comments on his website
food + drink
PROMOTED VIDEO
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

KS1 Teacher Cornwall

£20000 - £45000 per annum: Randstad Education Plymouth: Randstad Education Ltd...

Early Years Teacher - Jan 2015 - China

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Position: Early Years TeacherRequired: J...

KS1 and KS2 Primary NQT Job in Lancaster Area

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education is urgently...

Trainee Recruitment Consultants

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35K: SThree: We consistently strive to be the...

Day In a Page

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes