Although the exact definition of a think tank varies from one source to another, at base think tanks are organizations dedicated to policy analysis. Most focus on national policy issues, strategies and objectives, but some also work on state issues. Think tanks might employ lawyers, ethicists, scholars, political scientists, social scientists or former military personnel.
Professional employees in a think tank are commonly known as analysts, and their primary function is to perform research on a particular issue. Whatever your profession, to get a job in a think tank you must be an excellent researcher, according to the University of Texas at Austin. Even an entry-level position requires attention to detail, extensive familiarity with research methods, the ability to use and understand statistics, knowledge of international issues and the ability to deal with strong personalities.
Many Paths to the Goal
Some professions naturally lend themselves to the tasks common to a think tank. Lawyers, for example, are taught to research, to look at issues dispassionately, to communicate clearly and to write detailed reports on their findings and recommendations. Political scientists and sociologists also use research and learn to analyze complex issues. The actual skills and knowledge needed might vary from one think tank to another. Think tanks working on political policy issues might prefer to hire political scientists, while those that focus on economic issues might prefer to hire an economist.
Get that Master's Degree
Whatever your chosen profession, you need a minimum of a master’s degree in the field to become an analyst, according to the College Foundation of North Carolina. A Ph.D. is often necessary to advance to senior level positions and might even be an entry-level requirement in some think tanks. The CFNC website notes that certain courses can be beneficial whatever your official major and recommends classes in social science, policy studies, anthropology and foreign language or culture courses. It can be particularly helpful to study the Middle East and the Arabic language.
Advance on Multiple Fronts
Competition for think tank positions is strong and positions are limited. You can increase your chances of being hired by gaining experience. For example, if your interest is in foreign policy in the Middle East, you might begin your career in the State Department, gain some experience and then apply to a think tank. Networking is another way to help get your foot in the door. Join organizations that have connections to think tanks, such as nonprofit foundations, or find a mentor who can help you. You might also volunteer for an organization that studies policy issues you're interested in.