Lessons from Think Tankdom

I've worked at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) for over six years. This is unusual for junior staff—including Research Assistants, Research Associates, and Associate Fellows—since our average tenure is around two to three years. However, I like to think that instead of pursuing an academic PhD in political science or public policy, I got a PhD in think tankdom. I don't get to call myself a doctor, but I learned a lot, worked on fun projects, hosted hundreds of events, and made (somewhat) more money than graduate students.

My ideal dissertation would explore how the best think tankers conduct their research, manage teams, fundraise, and support the policy community. Maybe I'll write that book one day, but for now, I can boil it down to 10 major principles:

  1. The best think tankers are good researchers. They constantly seek out new research sources, tools, and methods. They enjoy reading deeply on an issue, but are diligent enough to know when it's time to start writing. They ask good questions, talk frequently about their research, and welcome feedback and constructive criticism. And because they prioritize rigorous, relevant policy research, they offer clear, actionable recommendations in all major publications.
  2. They're plugged in. They present at conferences, converse with journalists, read relevant magazines and journals, and stay up-to-date on social media. They know which members of Congress work on related issues, and connect with their staff. They do this to share and inform their research and expand name recognition for their team. Twitter clout is helpful but not necessary.
  3. They schedule time for large research projects. They have regular blocks on their calendar dedicated to writing major reports, peer-reviewed articles, or books. They avoid letting day-to-day chaos and breaking news interfere with these blocks.
  4. They value project management. They understand the importance of regular team communication, tag-ups with project sponsors, tracking budgets, and submitting work on time.
  5. They value aesthetics. They carefully consider report design, layout, and readability. They know that policymakers do not have the time or patience to read ugly, jargon-filled text.
  6. They use events to fuel conversations. They host large, public rollout events for new reports, with keynotes by major government stakeholders to draw attention. They might also host smaller book talks and commemorations for historical events in their field. They advertise events well in advance and personally invite journalists and their network. They also take time to prepare, drafting several pages of questions to ensure seamless conversations. To make the best use of event time, they can politely shutdown an audience question if the questioner is monologuing or rambling.
  7. They keep an eye on the competition. They reflect on their competitive advantages, and build on them to be the absolute best. They also consider their competitors' advantages, and decide whether to catch up or avoid that specific lane. While they support a collaborative research community, they also recognize that that they're often competing for project funding.
  8. They build and use their network. In addition to their internal team, they have a network of non-resident advisors willing to read, edit, and comment on papers before they go to print. They host private workshops with their network to discuss ongoing projects. They may also use their network to support fundraising, perhaps through their participation in executive education programs. Although Senior Fellows are typically the main networkers in think tanks, junior staff should consider how they can contribute to this mission.
  9. They collaborate with real thinkers, and avoid the phonies. Real thinkers develop novel ideas and present actionable policy recommendations. The phonies will regurgitate those ideas but fail to develop their own. They also tend to haphazardly connect the topic of the day (e.g., AI or cyberwarfare) to their field of research. The phonies are often confident and well-spoken, perhaps even moreso than the real thinkers, but they are not good researchers. Collaborating with them is a waste of time.
  10. They build research materials to support their community. This might come in the form of a website like Missile Threat, an active Discord that connects researchers around the world, or informative graphics that others can reuse. These resources support the wider research community and encourage others to make their own contributions. They may also expand a team's name recognition and influence.