What Are Think Tanks?

Think tanks are research institutions that seek to improve public policy, inform policymakers, and elevate policy discourse. They do so by publishing research papers, hosting public events and and private workshops, and engaging with media and policymakers. Think tanks are commonly described as "universities without students."

Google offers a very broad definition.

Closer to Academia or Journalism?

Think tanks operate in the space between academia and journalism, taking on certain characteristics of each.

Academics vs. think tankers: Academics employ more sophisticated research methods and their publications must pass stricter peer review standards. The publication requirements for think tankers depend on their institution but are generally less intense. Think tankers therefore rely more on their personal and institutional reputation.

Journalists vs. think tankers: Journalists operate on tighter deadlines and typically focus more on current events. Think tankers have more time for publishing but their products should include more novel information that can only be derived through research. Think tankers may also have more work requirements spread across administration, fundraising, wargaming, executive education, and event planning. Both journalists and think tankers should know what's happening on the Hill and policymaker priorities. Both groups attend industry conferences and regularly speak with industry staff.

Categorizing Think Tanks

Nonpartisan vs. advocacy think tanks: I'm biased and personally think nonpartisan think tanks are the only real think tanks. But I risk falling to the No True Scotsman fallacy in this argument to protect the integrity of think tank research. CSIS, Brookings, and Carnegie are examples of nonpartisan institutions. CAP and Heritage are examples of liberal- and conservative-advocacy think tanks. respectively. To be sure, even at nonpartisan think tanks, the research director's political leanings may influence research topics or outcomes.

Centralized vs. decentralized think tanks: In a centralized think tank like RAND, research staff have greater job security and no fundraising requirements in exchange for decreased say over their research agenda. Decentralized think tanks like CSIS operate in reverse—each program director is king of their team. They have full control over their work under an "eat what you kill" fundraising framework.

Big vs. small think tanks: In a big think tank like CSIS, bureaucracies and risk management processes develop quickly. This is good for quality control but decreases movement speed. Small think tanks offer the opposite—you have speed in exchange for little oversight to keep you safe.

What I love about think tanks:

  1. The work is fun and diverse. At CSIS, I’m a writer, editor, designer, event planner, wargamer, and program/project manager.
  2. It's a great mission. You’re paid to read, write, and reflect on public policy issues for various audiences. Even at the entry level, you can affect real policy change. CSIS, for example, says its "dedicated to advancing practical ideas to address the world’s greatest challenges." That's just cool.
  3. Good colleagues. You work with smart, fun colleagues with similar interests.
  4. Work/life balance. Most teams understand that the best research comes from well-rested and happy staff.
  5. Good exit options. Many think tankers will leave for PhD programs or government. Other common paths include consulting, political risk, and defense industry.

What I dislike about think tanks:

  1. Poor compensation. You won’t make a lot of money this way. I was living in Alexandria, VA, with two roommates, and rent was still a good chunk of my salary.
  2. Job instability. Think tank stability is better than journalism, but less than the private sector. Funding can run dry suddenly, especially in economic downturns or if your program is dependent on a few donors.
  3. Administrative take-over. The admin work can get tedious. But you’ll have to do it until you’re at the Fellow level, at which point you replace admin work with grantmaking and fundraising, which honestly looks worse.

What I wish I'd known as an entry-level think tanker:

  1. Hourglass structure: Think tanks typically have lots of interns and RAs, lots of Research Fellows, and very few in between. Therefore, junior staff should not expect to stay at think tanks for more than 2-4 years. One year is not enough to develop networks and skills. More than four years and you're getting diminishing returns while unlikely to rise up the chain. Think tanks should be more forthright about this structure and average tenure.