How to Apply to a Think Tank Job (Or What I Look For)

Aspiring think tankers often ask me for advice in applying to internships or research assistant positions. As a hiring manager at CSIS, I have a good sense for what makes an application shine. Every think tank and research program will have their own priorities, but here's my general advice:

You should...

  1. Know your stuff. Read the research program's work, learn about their portfolio, and be prepared to talk about their recent projects. General knowledge about the field is also important. If you're applying to the the CSIS Missile Defense Project, for example, you should be able to name a few missile defense systems. Also be prepared to explain why you're interested in joining the team and working on these issues. Listen attentively, answer thoughtfully, and ask good questions.
  2. Show off your core think tank skills. At least 70% of entry-level work at think tanks is managing admin and events, conducting literature reviews, and supporting your boss's research. Do you have experience copyediting large reports? Have you organized events for college clubs? Can you work well in teams on joint projects? Can you get work done on time? Think through these questions and what related skills and experiences you can share.
  3. Show off your creative skills and comparative advantages. I love to see applicants who can make detailed maps, manage large databases, or have experience with Photoshop and graphic design. Other programs might seek applicants with Hill experience, web scrapping, or foreign languages. What creative skills do you bring to the table? What comparative advantages do you have over other applicants? And how you can apply those skills and advantages to think tank work, whether for research, event planning, or otherwise?
  4. Publish your work online. You've likely written dozens of papers for college classes. You should edit and publish the best ones. You don't need NYT-level outlets—The Diplomat, Defense News, FiveThirtyEight, and various others will publish good content produced by college students and recent graduates. And once you've published, share it! LinkedIn is okay. But better yet, make a website showcasing your work and highlighting your research interests. Increase its SEO so that your website is a top search result for your name, and plug the URL on your resume. This is a huge plus—it's one reason why I made this blog.
  5. Conduct your interview in-person if given the option. If the hiring manager offers an in-person or Zoom interview and you're based in the area, try to come in-person. Dress formally, and bring printed copies of your resume and cover letter. If travel to the office takes >45 minutes, disregard this point.
  6. Follow the standard guidelines on resumes and cover letters. A few common recommendations include:
    - Keep your application concise. Every line in your cover letter should be designed to keep the hiring manager's attention and make the want to interview you. Every bullet in your resume should start with active verbs, and you should quantify your achievements as much as possible. Relatedly, I see a lot of students—even mid-20's MA graduates—treat the cover letter like a college application, with long odes to the importance of diplomacy and policy research. Don't do that.
    - Discard the simple stuff. Hiring managers don't need to know that you're proficient with Zoom or Microsoft Word. We will assume you have that experience.
    - Standardize your file names and types. For example, I'd name my cover letter “SShaikh_CSIS Missile Defense_Cover Letter” and submit all application materials as PDFs, unless they're requested in Word.
    - Proofread everything. I frequently see mistakes in grammar and alignment, and applications addressed to the wrong program. Fixing these issues shows that you pay attention to detail. If I have 100+ applications for one position, which I often do, then I will reject good candidates for silly mistakes.

You should not...

  1. Lie in your application. It's deeply frustrating when prospective interns or RAs lie about their work availability or academic background to advance to the interview stage. They won't move to the next round so it just wastes everyone's time. To be clear, you can apply to jobs even if you don't meet all of the stated requirements, but you should clearly note those deficiencies in your cover letter or in your email accepting an interview request.
  2. Use the exact same cover letter for multiple applications. You don't need to make a bespoke letter for every job application, but you should edit your template enough that it doesn't read like a Mad Lib, with the hiring organization's name filled in at specific points. A cover letter that flows nicely is a big plus.

Basic etiquette reminders

  1. When scheduling calls with distant contacts, confirm time zone (e.g., EST, PST).
  2. If a contact gives you their phone number and asks you to call, don’t reply with your phone number and ask them to call you.
  3. If you're calling a think tanker for a paper consult, be ready to explain your research topic and question.
  4. Have a list of questions set.