What’s working in a think tank actually like?
By Sophia Donaldson, on 21 April 2017
Dr Jacob Parakilas has a PhD in International Relations, and is now Assistant Head of the US and Americas Programme at Chatham House, an international affairs think tank. Jacob contributed to our Careers in Government and Policy forum for researchers in February. For those who couldn’t make it in February, Jacob also kindly agreed to give us an insight into his career path, below.
How did you move from academia to your current role?
I moved straight from my PhD programme into policy work, first at an NGO and then to Chatham House. It was always basically my intention to go back into the policy world; academia wasn’t really the goal for me. I’d previously worked in think tanks and government in Washington, DC, so I had some lower-level experience in the field and good sense that it was where I wanted to be.
When I started applying for jobs in think tanks towards the end of my PhD programme, I heavily emphasised my research background, since it was what I was currently working on (and excited about). After a string of rejections, I re-focused my applications and balanced out my research background with my professional skills, which made all the difference in terms of being taken seriously.
What does a normal working day look like for you?
It depends enormously on the time of year, what’s happening in the world, and a variety of other factors. As a whole, my job involves roughly equal measures of fundraising, administration, management, research and public-facing work, but the balance isn’t consistent year-round. During the US elections, I spent a lot of time on public-facing work (TV and radio appearances, giving lectures, being on panels, etc.); at the end of financial years I tend to spend more time on management and fundraising activities. It’s almost never the case that my day involves just one category, so I’m rarely if ever bored.
What are the best things about working in your role?
We have a pretty direct line to policymakers – when we put out a piece of research, we can generally get it in front of relevant policymakers relatively easily. We also tend to be the first point of call for media when they need analysis on political developments, which means we have opportunities to speak to a much wider audience on a regular basis. Finally, my subject area means that I get to work on an amazingly broad range of topics – everything from US defence strategy to trade agreements to the potential role of artificial intelligence in geopolitics.
What are the biggest challenges?
We face a fairly constant pressure to fundraise to support our work. My institution is funded from a broad range of sources, which is the right approach for all sorts of reasons. But it also means that we have to develop and maintain relationships with corporations, governments, foundations and individuals – all of which require slightly different approaches, and which requires significant time commitments.
It can also be difficult to balance long-term, strategic goals against the need to respond to daily events. That’s been especially true in my role over the last few months, since things have been moving so quickly and unpredictably in US politics & foreign policy.
Is a PhD essential in your work?
Not absolutely essential but very useful. Many junior think tank researchers don’t have doctorates, and in mid-career research posts/middle management it’s a mixture of people with and without them. At the highest levels – research directors, directors of studies, institute directors – it’s much closer to universal.
The research skills are largely transferrable, though the style of writing is more different than you might think (I wrote a very policy-oriented PhD and it still took more than a year before people stopped telling me my writing was ‘too academic’). The biggest transferrable skills are fundraising, time management and project management, which all look a bit different inside and outside academia but rely on the same fundamentals. Finally, it’s not the biggest consideration, but having a PhD is also a helpful mark of credibility when you’re dealing with senior figures.
What’s the progression like?
Think tanks tend to be pretty flat hierarchies, which is good in terms of getting opportunities to do a range of different types of work, but less good in terms of offering a clear, predictable path upwards. On the plus side, they tend to be extremely well-connected, so from a think tank it’s pretty easy to make the jump to government, the private sector, self-employment as an independent consultant/researcher, or to NGOs. There are some examples of people who start out at the first rung of the think tank ladder and climb straight up to heading a programme or institute, but most people move up through the various sectors adjacent to think tanks. In other words, it gives you a lot of options.
What top tips would you pass on to researchers interested in this type of work?
Talk to people! On the whole people, in this sector are friendly and open to polite requests for informational interviews. It also gets you on their radar, which helps when it comes to applying for jobs or finding consulting opportunities.
I can’t stress the importance of administrative skills enough. A large portion of my average day isn’t directly research-related (despite the fact that I’m a researcher). That’s true throughout the think tank world: almost no one has a pure research job, so you have to be able to capable of doing a whole range of work – and to show that in your applications.