Introduction to Think Tanks

Structured as permanent bodies, in contrast with ad hoc commissions or research panels, think tanks devote a substantial portion of their financial and human resources to commissioning and publishing research and policy analysis in the social sciences: political science, economics, public administration, and international affairs. The major outputs of these organizations are books, monographs, reports, policy briefs, blogs, conferences, seminars, web-based reports and commentary, formal briefings and informal discussions with policymakers, government officials, and key stakeholders (source: TTCSP1).

Think tanks offer students a certain window into policymaking in DC. Think tank experts, usually individuals with years of government or international experience and a master’s or PhD degree, write policy reports and books, hold events on policy topics, and convene “thinkers” about policy areas. As an expert in a certain policy area, they may be called upon to testify to Congress. These publications and events are read and attended by policymakers in government and experts at other think tanks. The overall effect is a cross-DC dialogue about policy issues. Working at a think tank can feel like it has less of a tangible effect on policy because you aren’t directly involved in writing it, but the goal is to contribute to discussion and debate and hope that through effective communication and outreach, policymakers on the Hill and at agencies will hear your voice and consider your argument. Think tanks are therefore a good fit for students who enjoy the process of research, writing, and debate.

As you start to explore the many types of think tanks and opportunities that are out there, we encourage you to make an appointment with Career Education via Handshake to help you in your search.



Types of Think Tanks

There are many different types of think tanks out there and it is important to be aware of any special interests, political affiliations or profit structures they have before you begin applying to positions. It is important to make sure that you are familiar with each think tank’s mission and research goals.  Below is a list of the types of think tanks that exist:

  • Autonomous and Independent: Significant independence from any one interest group or donor and autonomous in its operation and funding from government.
  • Quasi Independent: Autonomous from government but an interest group (i.e. unions, religious groups, etc.), donor or contracting agency provides a majority of the funding and has significant influence over operations of the think tank.
  • University Affiliated: A policy research center at a university.
  • Political Party Affiliated: Formally affiliated with a political party.
  • Government Affiliated: A part of the structure of government.
  • Quasi Governmental: Funded exclusively by government grants and contracts but not a part of the formal structure of government.
  • For Profit: Public policy research unit located within a corporation or operating as a freestanding for-profit think tank.


Working at a Think Tank

Think tanks span a wide variety of political, social, geographical and economic interests which makes it possible to find a large variety of positions and jobs within the industry. Most think tanks focus on producing research publications and policy work, but some also host conferences and seminars and work closely with government and advocacy leaders to help advance their research and causes.  Most think tanks are funded through private donations, grants and in some cases, public funds.  

Many think tanks have some type of internship program for undergraduate students which can help you figure out if you are a good fit for the industry. Though senior positions at think tanks typically require a higher level degree (i.e. a Master’s degree or PhD), there are many entry-level junior analyst roles at most think tanks.

When deciding whether to intern or work at a think tank, it is important to consider the following questions (source: Oxford Career Page):

  • Do the think tank’s philosophy and its core research themes match your own interests?
  • Will the internship/job provide a range of experiences and contacts?
  • Will there be an opportunity to be involved in the research or publication of the organization’s scholarship? (Especially for interns)
  • Will the experience provide a tangible project to talk about in your resume and later interviews?

Essential Skills
Though the type of work done varies from think tank to think tank, it is essential to be able to think critically, have good quantitative research and writing skills, and synthesize research and information and communicate them in easily understood ways.



Directories: there are many think tanks both nationally and internationally. The following resources provide extensive lists and information about prominent think tanks in the US and abroad.

Additional Resources & Jobs Sites

  • Global Jobs:  NGO’s, Think Tanks, Government, Private Sector
  • Idealist: Nonprofit and public service oriented jobs, internships, and organization listings. Has most think tank jobs.
  • Policy Jobs: the latest research and policymaking jobs from around the world; also includes a World Think Tank list
  • Policy Library: A social, economic and foreign policy resource updated daily with the latest jobs, research and events
  • University of Pennsylvania TTCSP: conducts research and annual rankings of think tanks around the world
  • US Department of State: selected list of think tanks with job links