Working at a (DC) policy think tank: Why you might want to do it, what it’s like, and how to get a job

post by US Policy Careers (Locke_USA) · 2021-08-31T16:50:23.815Z · EA · GW · 10 comments


  Summary and background
  1. What are think tanks, and why might you want to work there?
    1.1 Having a direct impact
    1.2 Building career capital
    1.3 Focus on DC think tanks
  2. Types of DC think tanks and their activities
    2.1 Think tank functions and activities
    2.2 The conglomerate question: “Think tanks” versus “programs”
  3. What kind of work can you do at a think tank?
    3.1 Assessing your fit for think tank life
    3.2 Types of teams and jobs at think tanks
    3.3 Career ladders (or lack thereof) for think tank staff
    3.4 “Non-resident” or “adjunct” fellow roles
  4. Getting a job at a think tank
    4.1 Which jobs should you apply to?
    4.2 Finding specific opportunities
    4.3 Internship programs
    4.4 Succeeding in the application process
    4.5 Relevant degrees and credentials
    4.6 Fellowships and bringing your own funding
    A. Further resources on DC think tanks
    B. Some EA-relevant think tank programs
    C. Sample of think tank job postings

Summary and background

Working at a think tank could be a great way for EAs to build policy-relevant skills and networks and to promote high-impact policy ideas, as 80,000 Hours has discussed in its think tank research career guide. This post complements that guide by explaining in more detail how the think tank world works, focusing specifically on US policy and Washington DC-based think tanks.

Our goal is to allow EAs to make informed decisions about (a) whether think tanks are a good place for them to work, (b) which think tank jobs they could/should target and why, and (c) how to find and pursue specific job opportunities. The post has content for both students and people further along in their career.

This post discusses (1) why you might want to work at DC think tanks, (2) the types of think tanks that exist in DC and what work they do, (3) some questions you may want to ask yourself if you’re thinking about think tank work, and (4) pointers on how to find and apply for jobs at think tanks. Appendix sections provide further resources on think tanks and EA-related DC think tank programs (especially in AI and biosecurity) and link to a database we put together with a sample of ~100 think tank job postings.

A few key takeaways that we elaborate on below:

The content of the posts is based on the authors’ personal experiences working on policy in DC for several years, background reading, and conversations with dozens of EAs and non-EAs with extensive think tank experience.

If you are interested in working in DC, you may also enjoy our companion EA Forum posts on working in Congress (part #1 [EA · GW], part #2 [EA · GW]). If you are seriously considering applying for think tank or related jobs, you can fill out this short form to get connected to other helpful resources or people.

1. What are think tanks, and why might you want to work there?

Washington DC is home to more than a hundred think tanks, running the gamut from rigorous and relatively objective research institutions focused on generating novel policy insights to more advocacy-oriented organizations seeking to justify and amplify certain predefined policy priorities. But all think tanks are united by a common goal: to inform and ultimately influence policymaking (more on this below in Section 2).

This focus on policy influence makes think tanks a promising place for EAs interested in (a) having a direct impact on US policy or (b) developing career capital relevant to policy careers. These goals are mutually reinforcing, though we expect that for most (especially entry-level) EAs, career capital considerations will weigh more heavily. As we will discuss in more detail in Section 3, working at a think tank could also be a good fit even for people who are not interested in being researchers.

1.1 Having a direct impact

Think tanks are often key players in the policy arena, in large part because their analysts have time to conceive, analyze, and advocate for specific ideas — and time is a scarce commodity in policy circles. As Phillip J. Crowley, an alumnus of the Center for American Progress and former Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, put it: “There’s a lot more sanity in the think tank world than there is in government. You’re not on the treadmill as much … . It is a chance to step back, to actually think. If you’re in government, you’re dealing with those boundaries that have already been set. In a think tank, you start with a blank piece of paper.”[1]

The potential for impact through think tank research is widely accepted in the policy world. For a concrete example, consider the following excerpt from Open Philanthropy’s brief investigation of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP):

In Appendix A, we link to a number of more detailed discussions of think tank programs — or in some cases individual think tank staff — that developed policy ideas and recommendations that eventually had major impacts. That said, there’s also a lot of think tank work that has very little impact or none at all. Whereas the potential for impact is widely accepted, the average level of think tank impact is far more uncertain.

Think tanks often do a combination of research and advocacy (see Section 2 for more details). For EAs interested in think tank work, the most likely path to direct impact may depend on their cause area(s) of interest. In some areas, such as AI, there is a lack of developed and shovel-ready policy ideas. There, using a think tank job to develop actionable policy ideas could be very impactful. In other areas, such as biosecurity or global health, there already exist a fair number of concrete policy proposals. There, it might be more productive to focus on advocacy-type activities, for example repackaging and tailoring ideas to specific policy audiences (e.g. certain constituencies in Congress). Regardless of cause area, policy impact requires a strong combination of ideas and advocacy, and working at a think tank can help you do both.

1.2 Building career capital

DC think tanks can also be great places to start or advance a career in US policy and government. Some of the core career capital benefits of think tank roles include:

Building a network, including mentors and sponsors. Think tanks are generally excellent places to grow your professional network. One way this happens is through internal collaborations and meetings with colleagues at your think tank. Whether you enter think tanks in an entry-level job or further along in your career, you will likely work for/with colleagues who are already well-connected. The expression “revolving door” is frequently applied to think tanks for a reason — think tank employees have historically secured top jobs in large numbers every time an administration changes:

By the same token, people often (re)join think tanks once they leave government (e.g. if their party loses power).

A common path for think tank staff is to get taken under the proverbial wing of a manager or senior colleague, who then functions as a “mentor” (providing career advice and feedback) and/or “sponsor” (advocating for you in your career advancement). If your mentor/sponsor moves into government they will sometimes try to bring you along, but they will also keep you in mind when others ask them for recommendations (which happens often in DC).

Think tank roles can also be an excellent perch from which to grow your network externally, especially if you become an established expert on a topic (see below). Whereas you often have opportunities to develop deeper relationships with direct colleagues, most of your external network will consist of “weak ties.” These contacts can still give you a career boost, but they are often more useful when you have a specific question than for general mentorship/sponsorship. In general, 80,000 Hours’ advice about networking also applies in the DC policy world.

Increasing your understanding of the policy world. An important part of many think tank employees’ jobs is to keep track of what is happening in the policy world. Dan Drezner, an academic who has also held part-time affiliations at think tanks, puts it as follows in his book The Ideas Industry (p. 136):

“Indeed, the comparative advantage of think-tankers has historically been the informal scuttlebutt they glean from being based in Washington, DC. Compared to academics, policy analysts based at think tanks tend to know much more about the bureaucratic or legislative state of play surrounding a particular policy arena. I cannot recall an instance in which I knew more about the policy arcana of a particular issue than my colleagues based at think tanks.”

This “scuttlebutt” is an area of focus for think tanks because it is central to policy impact: if you want to pitch a policymaker on an idea, you need to know what authorities they have (or don’t), who their various constituencies are and what they might say about your idea, where in the policymaking or budget cycle the best opportunities for intervention are, what the history of a policy issue is, what political landmines you may accidentally step on, and much more.

All of these questions are complicated, and answering them may take just as much time — or more — as coming up with your original policy idea. Over time, think tankers build up a stock of “process knowledge” about how government policy is made and implemented, which is highly valued within other parts of the policy ecosystem (e.g. in government roles or policy-oriented nonprofits). This knowledge is also transferable to private sector jobs in “government affairs” (lobbying/advocacy) or that otherwise involve monitoring/affecting policy conversations (though if your ultimate goal is to work for a company, think tanks may not be the ideal starting point).

For young people in particular, the fact that think tanks interact with a large swath of the policy ecosystem is part of what makes them attractive organizations to start a policy career. Through research, meetings, events, etc., you can familiarize yourself with the activities of different organizations, which, in turn, can help you get a sense of your “fit” for many types of policy work. Comparable junior roles in government (e.g. an agency or Congress) are often more narrowly focused (e.g. on answering constituent mail) and may not allow for as much exploration.

Building policy-relevant skills. Think tank jobs also allow you to improve several policy-relevant skills. Depending on your role, this can involve research and writing, but also other important skills such as communication, project management, event planning, and other types of staff support.

While think tanks are research-oriented organizations, the majority of most think tanks’ staff are not researchers, and even research roles often involve a heavy dose of non-research work. We go into more detail on this in Section 3.2, but it is worth noting here that much of this non-research work is also highly valued within government and the policy ecosystem more broadly. For example, even relatively senior analysts in government can spend a lot of their time drafting meeting notes, talking points, and speeches for senior principals. Experience providing similar staff support to leaders at your think tank can be an asset when you apply for those types of roles. One person we spoke with in drafting this post described think tank jobs as “the policy equivalent of management consulting,” and there’s some truth to that description.

Becoming a recognized expert. Some think tank roles will allow you to become a recognized “expert”[2] on a topic. This applies mostly to those in (non-entry-level) research roles. Writing just a few high-quality policy papers — particularly if they say something novel — can be sufficient to establish expertise in a subject. Papers can also provide the basis for op-eds which broadcast both your recommendations and your existence as a policy researcher to a wide audience, and journalists may start reaching out to you for quotes if they’ve read your work and found it helpful. While gaining name recognition is often a tough battle early on, opportunities can quickly compound once you cross a certain threshold.

Becoming an expert is not only a great way to build a positive reputation, but it also can give you skills that may be directly applicable to other jobs. For example, if you go on to work in government after your time at a think tank, the knowledge you acquired during your research will be one of your most important assets. In the words of a former State Department official:

“When I did my time in State policy planning, I realized that no one was learning anything once they got into the government — they relied upon their intellectual capital [from] before they went in for however many years they lasted.”

Note the similarity to the Crowley quote in Section 1.1, which also emphasized the “time to think” as an important element of think tank jobs and impact.

Generally, the types of career capital you get to build at think tanks can vary significantly depending on your specific think tank and role. One goal of this post is to help you anticipate and think through the experience you would have at different think tanks and in different roles. For more on where you might end up after a think tank job, see 80,000 Hours’ write-up on think tank jobs.

1.3 Focus on DC think tanks

This post will focus exclusively on think tanks located in Washington DC. In part this is because it is the ecosystem we have experience with. More substantively, we think the US government is likely to be particularly impactful in many EA cause areas, and for US policy careers there is no substitute for being physically located in DC. Many of the benefits of think tank work discussed above (having a direct impact through advocacy, building a network and a granular understanding of the policy process, etc.) are much smaller when working outside of DC — even if you are at a research organization that advertises itself as working on “policy.”

Think tanks can play different roles in different countries and policy systems. Some of this post’s content will be relevant to other think tank scenes as well, but not everything transfers.

2. Types of DC think tanks and their activities

It isn’t always clear what organizations should be included under the “think tank” heading.[3] Heuristics for telling think tanks apart from similar organizations include looking at their mission statement (is research with policy impact the main activity/goal?), target audience (are published products aimed at/designed for a policy audience?), and key staff (are senior positions filled by people with government/policy backgrounds?). Think tanks can exist within universities, such as the Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET) at Georgetown, but most university centers are not think tanks.[4]

Even within the category of “think tank” there is a lot of variety. There are more than a hundred think tanks in DC alone.[5] Academics who study US think tanks generally group them into three overarching categories:

Different think tank models were popular at different times, so how old a think tank is often predicts which category it falls into (“universities without students” are generally older, “advocacy tanks” newer). The table below summarizes how these categories differ.[6]

We won’t go into too much detail here (see the sources in Appendix A if you want to learn more), but it’s worth emphasizing how large these differences can be. For example:

“differences among think tanks are evident, for instance, in the proportion of scholars at different institutions who hold PhD degrees. A review of publicly available data about the educational backgrounds of think-tank scholars ... suggests that those think tanks that were founded earlier [and thus more likely to be “universities without students”] tend to have significantly more scholars with PhDs today than do younger institutions. Among a representative group of think tanks founded before 1960, for instance, 53% of scholars hold PhDs. Among a similarly representative group of think tanks founded between 1960 and 1980, 23% of scholars have such advanced degrees. And among those founded after 1980, only 13% of scholars are as highly educated.”[7]

There are several ways one could quibble with the three-type typology, and some think tanks do not fit neatly into one of the three categories. But the typology highlights the critical idea that think tanks differ a great deal from each other. This also means your experience working at one think tank may be quite different from working at another.

2.1 Think tank functions and activities

All think tanks aim to leverage their expertise, network, and time in order to affect policy. But they do so in different ways, through varying combinations of:

Research. This bucket of think tank activities includes coming up with wholly new policy ideas, conducting original data collection and analysis, or (probably most frequently) publishing new syntheses or framings based on pre-existing research. The core feature of this work is that it is focused on ideas and truth-finding — with the goal of figuring out what policy recommendations to make or prioritize — and that projects are started without necessarily having a preconceived conclusion. Research efforts often lead to published reports, blog posts, or articles in popular outlets, but also occasionally other outputs such as non-public memos for specific policymakers, books, or interactive data platforms.

Research is what most people outside of DC (and many in DC) often associate with think tank work — in part because the outputs are visible and legible to them — but it is by no means the only thing think tanks do.

Outreach and advocacy. Outreach- and advocacy-focused work at think tanks centers on pushing existing analysis and ideas. Here, the core challenge is not coming up with something new, but identifying target audiences and (re)packaging ideas and arguments to persuade those audiences. These think tanks do publish “research,” typically to build credibility for the policy ideas they support. But much of their advocacy work happens behind the scenes, through everything from private briefings to conversations over coffee. Some advocacy-focused think tanks — which have historically been 501(c)(3)s with limits on political activity — have an associated 501(c)(4) organization that gives them more flexibility when it comes to lobbying. Examples of this include the Center for American Progress and Center for Budget and Policy Priorities on the left and the Heritage Foundation and Niskanen on the right.

Some advocacy-focused think tanks try to mobilize the public, whereas others choose to focus almost entirely on behind-the-scenes activities (see e.g. Niskanen’s conspectus for a discussion of why it “relentlessly focuses on Washington insiders”[8]). Advocacy-focused think tanks are often but not necessarily partisan. Non-partisan think tanks that do advocacy tend to be narrowly focused on specific issues, for example the Federation of American Scientists, World Resources Institute, Arms Control Association, or the Good Food Institute. (The lines between “think tanks” and advocacy organizations that do some research are often blurry — many examples here are hard to categorize.)

Networking. Finally, some think tanks aim to serve as hubs where policy professionals convene for discussion and education. These can involve activities focused purely on US policy audiences — such as the Congressional staff seminars organized by the Wilson Center, Heritage, and others — while others focus on international networking and convening — such as the Atlantic Council’s US-Turkey Congressional-Parliamentary Fellowship program. Many think tanks also host government staff for temporary stints as a professional development and networking exercise (e.g. CSIS’s Military Fellows, CNAS’s Senior Military Fellows, Brookings’ Federal Executive Fellows). These types of programs often reinforce think tanks’ other activities, for example by letting think tankers network with Congressional staffers and thereby making later advocacy more effective. “Convening” (the local term of art) roundtables of domestic and international experts is also an oft-used method for idea generation.

Many think tanks do all of the above in at least some form. In general, though, the DC think tank scene seems to be trending away from the heavily research-focused, “university without students” model of the oldest think tanks. The term “do tank” has a buzzword-y feeling to it, but is also used by serious organizations (e.g. by Beth Cameron to describe the Nuclear Threat Initiative) and reflects a shift toward more action-oriented think tank models. Part of what drives this shift is increased competition in the “ideas industry” and the feeling that bringing analysis and advocacy under one roof is often more effective from an impact perspective.

2.2 The conglomerate question: “Think tanks” versus “programs”

Another important dimension along which think tanks differ is how centralized or decentralized they are. Many of the biggest think tanks — and some smaller ones as well — are closer to “conglomerates”: entities that contain smaller entities, which often have functional independence and different cultures. At those think tanks, what really matters is what “program” you work in. Program A and Program B can differ greatly, even when they are both at Think Tank X.

An illustrative example of a think tank toward the “conglomerate” end of the spectrum is the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). CSIS has dozens of programs, many of which overlap in terms of their scope. For example, it has three separate China-focused teams (#1, #2, #3). These groups sometimes collaborate, but they can also compete for funding and projects; if you work at one of the teams, it’s not guaranteed that you would interact much with the other two teams’ staff — despite your overlapping interests. Programs can also differ greatly in what types of activities they focus on. For example, whereas many CSIS projects focus on traditional analysis, its Project on Nuclear Issues is almost exclusively oriented around training and network-building. For conglomerate think tanks like CSIS, stories you hear about one program may not tell you much about what another program is like.

In contrast, the Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET) is an example of a think tank that has a more central agenda. CSET’s “Reading Guide” lists the areas that its organization works on, and staff are hired to work on one or more of those areas. There is a lot of cross-team collaboration, and research proposals are approved by organizational leadership rather than program-specific directors.[9]

No point on the “conglomerate” spectrum is strictly superior. But if you’re considering working at a think tank, it’s worth asking around to know where it falls on that spectrum, as it will affect who you will (or won’t) get to work with, what work culture is like, who needs to approve papers and projects, who is in charge of fundraising and strategic prioritization, and so forth.

3. What kind of work can you do at a think tank?

What is it like working in a think tank? A Quora response to this question puts it well:

In some ways, this is akin to asking, “what is it like to work for a corporation?” You're going to get a very wide range of answers.

Ultimately, if you’re seriously looking at think tank jobs, you’ll likely have to spend some time doing research on individual programs and people (see Section 4). But there are some general questions and pointers that are worth keeping in mind. This section provides some further background on think tank jobs that will hopefully make your individual research easier.

3.1 Assessing your fit for think tank life

While think tanks vary greatly, there are some commonalities across most think tanks that are worth noting. Think tank jobs tend to be less hectic, with greater potential for work-life balance, and are typically more narrowly focused than other policy jobs such as Congressional staffer. Relative to, say, cultures at tech companies, think tanks are often more risk-averse and “old-school” in terms of culture (if you’re starting a think tank job, check with your manager before showing up to work in jeans and a hoodie!). Seniority and credentials, rather than pure performance, can weigh heavily in hiring and promotion decisions.

Consider, also, whether the mission and target audience of think tanks are a good fit for you. In any think tank job, you will be working in an environment oriented around policy. While think tanks are sometimes compared to universities because of their focus on research, the “writing for a specific audience” part of the job is actually closer to journalism, teaching, and similar professions. And, unlike in academia, political agendas loom in the background of most think tank work, even if they don’t directly dictate output. For example, as Dan Drezner writes:

“The think tanks I worked with felt like a hybrid between an academic department and a law firm. The substantive discussions were just as serious and analytical as those I would have encountered at the University of Chicago or the Fletcher School. But there were some uneasy moments as well. On at least one occasion, I felt like my think tank boss was trying to reverse-engineer a report I was writing. He knew the conclusions he wanted the report to draw and just wanted to make sure that my analysis was consistent with that conclusion. There were also additional discussions about the presentation and marketing of ideas that simply did not occur in the academy.”[10]

People who primarily enjoy writing for other EAs, or whose favorite part of the research process is getting that fun historical detail in footnote 25 just right, may not enjoy think tank work very much; instead, they may be better-suited to work in more academically-oriented organizations such as the Future of Humanity Institute or the Global Priorities Institute.

On the flip side, others may find think tank research overly academic: if you are eager to get involved directly in the execution of policy, roles within government may be a better fit for you. There are also many advocacy and lobbying jobs available at civil society organizations, companies, trade associations, or lobbying firms. These can provide valuable experience and career capital as well.

For many people, however, it’s not possible to resolve the “fit” question in general terms. You may be a good fit for an advocacy role at a think tank but a bad fit for a research role. You may like working at one program, perhaps due to unique features of its culture, but dislike working at another one. You may enjoy yourself more when Congress is active and it feels like your work can materially impact policy, while feeling bummed during election years when everything seems stuck and politicized.[11] There isn’t such a thing as a generic “think tank experience.”

3.2 Types of teams and jobs at think tanks

It’s worth exploring the full breadth of possible think tank roles and experiences before deciding whether you might be a good fit for think tanks. To help readers get a more concrete sense of the types of roles that exist and the responsibilities those roles entail, we collected a spreadsheet of think tank job postings. It breaks down the qualifications and responsibilities of ~100 jobs spread across 15 think tanks, as well as links to archived versions of the original postings. The postings are not a random sample; we aimed for a diversity of postings — illustrating the range of jobs that exist — rather than a sample that is representative in terms of frequency. We’ll pull out just a few examples to highlight our main points here, but if you’re seriously considering a think tank job, it’s worth browsing the full dataset.[12]

Broadly speaking, it can be useful to distinguish between three categories of think tank work (note: these are our terms and they're not widely used; there's also typically some overlap between these areas):

Research jobs are those most commonly associated with think tanks. They may involve writing reports, op-eds, and private memos, as well as briefing policymakers on the issues. In some research jobs, you can build a portfolio and establish yourself as an expert. Unfortunately, though, jobs focused solely or even mainly on research are relatively rare, especially at junior levels. Consider, for example, a recent job description for a junior research (“Research Associate”) role at the Council on Foreign Relations. It lists the following duties, alongside research responsibilities:

You will specialize more as you gain seniority. But even many senior researchers are required to spend a fair bit of their time fundraising (not unlike in academia). Indeed, the constant need to hustle for money permeates work at most think tanks. Successful researchers will also do a fair amount of external affairs/communications, as they will be in demand for events, media, and policy engagement. You may also specialize more at larger think tanks than at smaller ones, though this depends on the specific organization.

External affairs teams and staff may (a) help edit researchers’ work for readability; (b) handle social media and media outreach to promote events, research work, etc.; and/or (c) coordinate outreach and advocacy to Congress, the executive branch, and other policy stakeholders. Some well-resourced think tanks are also launching new efforts in the digital realm (see e.g. the CSIS iDeas Lab) that fall somewhere between research and external affairs (somewhat analogous to “product” or “content” roles in industry). A few sample tasks from our database of job descriptions (different jobs):

Internal think tank roles include development, finance, HR, and other administrative roles. These range widely in their skill demands; for example, many development roles require strong communication skills in order to maintain and improve relations with potential donors, whereas HR roles require more experience with particular software tools. These internal roles may have considerable overlap with roles that might be found in the private sector. A few sample tasks from our database of job descriptions (different jobs):

Research teams often get most of the spotlight. But there are several reasons to consider working in non-research roles at think tanks if they’re potentially a good fit for you.

First, even those in non-research roles can leverage their think tank experience and network for government work (see Section 1.2). The key goal here would be building career capital. For many policy roles, communications and management skills are just as important as (and sometimes more important than) in-depth issue expertise. These include executive / special assistant, spokesperson, communications director, chief of staff, and other office / program management roles. All else equal, external-facing roles may be easier to pivot into impactful government jobs than internal-facing roles — but operations work could still be the better choice for specific individuals.

Second, even if you’re not excited about working in government, expertise at the intersection of (a) operations or communications and (b) policy is rare in the EA community.[13] In the future, as more EA policy projects are launched, we expect there to be significant demand for highly-skilled EA operations and communications staff who are also familiar with DC culture and who understand the US policy ecosystem. Non-research jobs at think tanks could be a promising path for developing career capital tailored to this niche.

3.3 Career ladders (or lack thereof) for think tank staff

One unfortunate aspect of think tank work is that there is often little room for growth for entry-level or early-career researchers. In theory, the research career ladder at think tanks would look something as follows:

In practice, however, it’s rare to climb this ladder at a single institution. The hardest step (especially at large think tanks) is moving from the first rung to the second — from an entry-level role to a research job with more responsibility and autonomy. This is because those “middle rung” jobs are relatively rare, a consequence of think tanks’ project-based funding model and small-scale programs, which often can’t reliably support mid-level researchers. And leadership roles almost always require significant government or policy experience.

This means that junior researchers typically leave their think tank job after 2-3 years, either for junior roles in government, (further[14]) graduate training, or other policy-related jobs (if they decide to stay in policy at all). If you are considering junior think tank jobs, it is safer to assume that this will be your trajectory, too, though internal promotion (for those who want it) does happen occasionally.

The career ladder for non-research roles is typically better, with a relatively well-defined internal promotion path. However, as with those on the research track, it’s common for junior staff to leave after 2-3 years to go to graduate school or a non-think tank job. More senior non-research staff also often have extensive experience outside of the think tank world.

The upshot is that it’s probably better to think of think tank work not as entering a “think tank career,” but as one part of (exploring your fit for) a “policy career.” Your broader policy career could involve later work in government, business, or nonprofits. As discussed in Section 1 (and in line with an aptitude-focused view [EA · GW] of career choice), we think that think tank work is especially attractive for being able to get a broad view of the policy ecosystem, for building transferable skills, and for testing whether you like particular types of policy work.

3.4 “Non-resident” or “adjunct” fellow roles

If you’ve ever browsed think tank program or staff pages, you may have noticed the large number of people with terms such as “non-resident” or “adjunct” in their title. Such affiliations are typically not paid, or perhaps involve ad hoc contract-based work up to 0.1 or 0.2 FTE. These kinds of roles are mainstays of the think tank world, but are often (and justifiably) confusing to outsiders. What purpose do they serve, and could/should you try to get one?

Often, you can think of these “non-resident” or “adjunct” affiliations as mutually advantageous reputational trade. For the fellow, it’s a nice line on the CV, a convenient by-line to publish under, and an extra perch from which to network. For the think tank, non-resident fellows can make programs look more impressive than they actually are; a program with ~2 FTE of paid staff can easily have >10 people listed on its website.

This is not to say that non-resident fellows never do useful or interesting work. Sometimes programs do bring them on with specific projects or goals in mind, drawing on their expertise and networks. But in many cases, it is safe to assume that non-residents fellows won’t really know what is going on in, or be actively involved with, the programs that they are nominally affiliated with (and the more senior the non-resident fellow, the safer this assumption).

If the option is open to you, it can be useful to shoot for a non-resident role. But that’s a fairly big “if” — most non-resident roles go to mid-career professionals in one of the following categories (though some think tanks also give affiliations to a small number of more junior people):

Moreover, virtually no think tanks advertise for non-resident roles. Instead, think tank leadership typically brings on people they know (or are referred to) on a somewhat ad hoc basis. If you’re interested in getting a taste of the think tank world through a non-resident affiliation, your best bet is to network with think tank staff and program directors and see if you have something to offer them. The local DC EA network may be a helpful starting point. Because these roles are not full-time or advertised, we won’t discuss them in more detail below.

4. Getting a job at a think tank

Now, if after all that information you are still interested in exploring think tank work, how would you actually go about applying to — and getting — a think tank job?

4.1 Which jobs should you apply to?

Some of the first questions you will encounter in your job search are (1) how widely to cast your net and (2) what criteria to use to assess whether specific think tanks and jobs are the right fit for you. These are difficult questions to answer in the abstract, but here are some suggestions that might be helpful.

One idea to explore is whether it’s possible for you to bring your own funding to ease your job search process (see Section 4.6). But for regular job applications, which we’ll focus on in this section, perhaps our primary recommendation is to apply broadly. One reason to do this is that think tank jobs are generally very competitive. As one junior think tank staffer writes:

My primary advice would be to apply everywhere. ... As you mention, the D.C. national security arena is hard to break into. I think getting your foot in the door is really important, but too often I find fresh college grads self-select out of certain roles. So unless you’re sure you don’t want to work in a certain space, perhaps for political or work culture preferences, I recommend applying. And relatedly: don’t lose morale when rejections come in. I was rejected from at least five CSIS positions before even landing an interview.

Applying broadly especially makes sense when one of your reasons to get a think tank job is professional development, which we expect to be true for many readers of this post, especially those early in their careers (see Section 1.2). The skills you can gain in a think tank job — writing, communication, project management, etc. — are highly transferable across policy areas. Once you get your foot in the door, you can quickly gain experience, skills, and mentors/sponsors, all of which could later help you pivot into other roles that are more closely aligned with your interests.

This also means you probably shouldn’t limit yourself to roles directly related to EA cause areas, even if you want to work at a think tank for EA reasons. Think tank jobs that are purely focused on AI, biosecurity, animal welfare, etc. will be very rare. And by focusing your short-term search only on those areas, you may actually limit your ability to make a medium-term difference in the field. Many of the best ideas and opportunities will come from combining your interest in your cause area(s) with in-depth knowledge of other policy domains.

Take two examples. If you build expertise at the intersection of AI and federal R&D policy, you could be one of the few people able to come up with actionable plans to improve AI research funding. Or, if you know about both animal welfare and government procurement, you’d be well-positioned to help improve food procurement in the federal, state, and local public sector. If the policy area that your first think tank job is focused on is not itself an EA cause area but still relevant, like federal R&D policy or government procurement, you can later turn this into a unique niche where your counterfactual impact is more likely to be large.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you should apply indiscriminately. If you want to eventually focus on biosecurity, working in a national security-related program is probably preferable to working in education policy. If you have absolutely no interest in a job, skip it. You should also do at least some minimal CV and cover letter tailoring for each application (see Section 4.4), which will quickly become impractical if you’re applying to too many jobs.

Other factors to consider when narrowing down what jobs you apply to:

Some of this information you can get through simple online searches (e.g. the political reputation of a think tank), but other things you will almost certainly have to learn about via word of mouth. Look at your extended network to see if you know anyone who knows anyone who has worked at think tanks, especially ones you’re interested in. Make liberal use of resources like your university career service or alumni network, and the DC EA community.

4.2 Finding specific opportunities

Unfortunately, a think tank job search will probably require you to track a large number of individual think tank job pages. We don’t know of any high-quality and frequently-updated aggregation websites that capture most DC think tank job postings.[15]

The largest think tanks — those with hundreds of employees, such as Brookings, CSIS, or the Urban Institute (links to job pages) — may have two or three dozen job openings at any given time. That sounds like a lot, but most of those will be for non-research roles (administration, fundraising, communications, etc.) or for junior research roles. Opportunities for non-entry-level research positions may be rare even at these large think tanks (see Section 3.3). Many think tanks are smaller (dozens or even just a handful of full-time staff), and will have proportionally fewer job openings.

Almost all full-time think tank jobs (especially junior or mid-level positions) are filled through an open and competitive hiring process. But, as discussed elsewhere in this post, you can also proactively create your own opportunities, either by networking and getting your foot in the door with an adjunct/non-resident affiliation (Section 3.4) or by organizing your own funding (Section 4.6). In those cases, hiring happens on an ad hoc basis and you wouldn’t be competing with potentially hundreds of other applicants.

4.3 Internship programs

For students and recent graduates, think tank internships are an excellent way to both assess your fit for policy work and boost your competitiveness for full-time policy jobs, both inside or outside of think tanks (they’re also assets for e.g. entry-level congressional roles). As an intern in a research program, you will generally be tasked with a combination of research, communications, and operations-type work, not unlike entry-level full-time jobs (see Section 3.2). You can also intern on external or internal affairs teams.

We strongly recommend interning, even after graduation, if you’re unable to secure a full-time job. But know that DC think tank internships are notoriously competitive. You may need to apply to many positions in order to secure one, and you probably have a better shot if you’re in a graduate program — it’s common for think tank interns to be master’s students, or even recent master’s graduates. Students at DC universities generally have an advantage in applying for internships, as their career offices have a lot of experience supporting students with these applications. If you are a student applying to think tank internships, definitely make use of career services available to you; your university may have a “Semester in DC” program with staff who are connected to think tank (and other DC) hiring managers.

Appendix B lists a handful of think tanks that run named internship programs which have permanent webpages and open applications on a regular cycle (often following a semester schedule). However, most think tanks and programs offer internships on an ad hoc basis (e.g. only at times when funding is available or projects are ramping up). The availability and timing of opportunities can therefore be somewhat unpredictable; the only way to spot these is to track the relevant intern or jobs pages.

4.4 Succeeding in the application process

So, you’ve found some promising openings and you’re ready to start applying. How can you improve your chances of actually getting a job?

One tip is to emphasize your skills rather than accomplishments. As one PhD graduate who transitioned into the think tank world reflected:

“When I started applying for jobs outside of academia, one of the toughest things I had to do was to translate my academic CV into a resume. While a CV showcases your accomplishments, e.g., publications, awards, conference presentations, a resume focuses on skills, namely, it tells your potential employer what you can do, e.g., research, analyze, synthesize, code, design surveys, teach, present in front of diverse audiences, write and publish impactful work, speak a foreign language, coordinate multi-stakeholder workshops, conduct qualitative interviews, etc. Translating your graduate school accomplishments into a skill set is harder than it sounds, so the earlier you start the better. Doing so will allow you to figure out your strengths as well as identify your areas of weakness while you still have some time to work on those.”

To get a sense of skill demands for particular roles, be sure to read the job description carefully, and perhaps browse our spreadsheet of job postings for other descriptions of roles that seem related to yours (in case those job descriptions are more detailed/helpful). In general, though, it’s worth emphasizing a few qualities that most think tank hiring managers will be looking for a combination of:

If you’re applying for jobs right now, emphasize relevant skills in your CV and cover letter, explaining how your past experiences are relevant. If you’ve got some time before you’re planning to apply (e.g. if you are still a student), try to build and demonstrate your skillsets in these domains. For example, work as a research assistant, take writing classes, practice public speaking (e.g. Toastmasters), organize an event series for a local/student group, and so forth. More specialized skills relevant to specific roles include foreign languages, web development, and much more (see spreadsheet).

Due to the importance of writing skills, it is worth investing significant time in your writing sample. It’s best if your writing sample resembles the type of work that you’d be doing at the think tank. One recent graduate we spoke with during our research for this post said that they were surprised by the importance of having a strong writing sample. They wound up spending lots of time creating a short piece that showcased their research, data analysis, and writing abilities. If you can do this as part of a class, you’ll thank yourself later. More senior researchers (e.g. PhDs) should consider trying to get a piece published in a relatively well-known blog or outlet (e.g. War on the Rocks or Lawfare for those interested in anything national security-related). You’re trying to demonstrate that you can write for policy audiences, so don’t submit a journal article or academic paper (unless you have nothing else). It’s also possible that you will be asked to demonstrate your writing skills on the spot in a timed test.

Overall, applying to think tanks is relatively similar to applying to jobs in industry, so most of 80,000 Hours’ generic advice on how to get a job apply here as well (unlike in e.g. Congress where there are a lot of highly specific application/hiring norms [EA · GW]). But two points are worth emphasizing.

It bears repeating that think tank jobs are hard to get. Probably the best thing you can do to increase your chances of success is to apply widely (see Section 4.1) or bring your own funding (Section 4.6). We know of recent graduates from top schools who have spent months applying for entry-level think tank roles without success. Patience, hard work, moral support, and luck will be your friends throughout this process.

4.5 Relevant degrees and credentials

When we’ve talked to EAs interested in policy and think tank work, some of the questions we get most often relate to degrees and other credentials. Some broad notes on these topics are below, but we strongly encourage you to get individualized advice — what the right educational or professional choice is for you will depend mostly on your specific interests, personality, background, skills, etc.

Is my degree relevant? What kinds of classes / majors are most useful? Think tank work is typically not so specialized that it has very specific degree requirements (most postings simply say “relevant field/degree”). Different backgrounds have different trade-offs. A political science or policy degree will teach you some relevant things, but you will also be a dime a dozen in DC. On the other hand, a STEM degree lacks policy content, but you’ll also be considered special. All else equal, a degree that combines policy and a technical subject is probably ideal (e.g. a double major in public policy and computer science for an undergrad), but it is by no means a requirement.

If you want to tailor your specific class choices to a potential post-graduation think tank job, consider building a combination of (a) basic domain knowledge and (b) core skills. Basic domain knowledge will help you think and talk in broadly sensible ways about policy, history, and government. Your skills (e.g. writing and data skills) should also be a central selling point in your application materials (see Section 4.4).

Should I do a graduate degree? What kind of degree? The three most common types of graduate degrees among think tank staff are: (1) professional policy-focused master’s degrees; (2) PhDs, most often in the social sciences, and (3) law degrees. You can also work at think tanks with other (e.g. STEM) graduate degrees, but we’ll focus on these three here as these are the ones people most often consider getting when their plan involves working at a think tank. Note that if you are considering doing a policy-relevant graduate degree for EA reasons, you may be able to get your tuition funded, e.g. by the OP longtermist scholarships (#1, #2, #3).

4.6 Fellowships and bringing your own funding

Note: If you are interested in working at think tanks, consider applying to Open Philanthropy’s new Technology Policy Fellowship (September 15th deadline), which has think tank fellowship opportunities for both entry-level (“junior fellow”) and more senior (“fellow”) roles.

Most think tank programs are cash-strapped. Program directors will have more ideas than they have staff to execute them; the key thing that generally holds back programs’ growth is funding. This situation creates a large appetite for free (to the think tank) labor, which you can take advantage of to sidestep the highly competitive regular application process.

First, you can apply for an established fellowship program that would pay for your think tank salary, meaning you get paid but are still free to your host program; several examples are listed in Appendix B. These fellowships may provide not only funding but also support in matching with a think tank program whose activities are aligned with your interests and skills (or at least some limitations that constrain your search space). This is an important benefit, especially for someone who is new to the policy space. The downside of established fellowship programs is that, like regular think tank jobs, the application process is often very competitive.

Second, you could also organize your own funding. Potential funders for a self-funded think tank fellowship include Open Philanthropy (see longtermist scholarship programs: #1, #2, #3) or EA Funds. Our impression is that these funders are generally interested in supporting EAs with policy career aspirations, including for think tank placements. (Note that you may need the funds to cover not only your own salary but also some overhead for the think tank, so budget accordingly.[17])

If you got (or think you can get) fellowship funding but don’t have a strong personal background or network in the think tank world, we strongly recommend getting in touch with the DC EA community first. People there can give you feedback on your think tank plans and, if those plans are good, potentially introduce you to relevant contacts. If you send cold emails to think tanks about placement opportunities when you’re unfamiliar with the relevant norms or your target program’s culture/priorities, you run a significant risk of making a bad first impression or joining an organization where you have poor fit.

Overall, coming in with pre-secured funding will make your search for a think tank job a lot easier. Internships may be an exception to this rule, as the key constraints on intern hiring are often non-financial (management time, desk space, etc.). Our sense is that think tanks typically want a placement to last between 6-12 months (or longer), so that there is time for them to reap the rewards of initial investments in onboarding/training a new employee (which typically take up most of the first ~2-3 months).


A. Further resources on DC think tanks





Women and people of color can also access mentors with think tank experience through WANBAM (for EAs specifically) or the CNAS Make Room initiative (for people interested in national security work generally).

B. Some EA-relevant think tank programs

This appendix presents some think tank programs and fellowships that could be promising places to begin your exploration of think tank work. We focus on AI- and biosecurity-related programs because these are the EA cause areas that we (the authors of this post) know best. Even there, our lists are not comprehensive — and, as we discussed in Section 4.1, we generally recommend you search and apply widely — but we hope they are still helpful as starting points. (We encourage readers with knowledge of think tanks in other EA cause areas to comment on this post with their own lists; we’re happy to add or link to them here.)

AI-relevant think tanks and programs

Biosecurity-relevant think tanks and programs

Fellowship and internships programs

This section lists a handful of DC think tank internship and fellowship programs that you might consider applying to. Again, this list is not comprehensive, but we hope it will give you a sense of the types of programs that think tanks have for people at different career stages.

These are all existing and recurring opportunities. Recall from Section 4.6 that you can also create your own ad hoc opportunities by arranging for your own fellowship funding.

C. Sample of think tank job postings

This spreadsheet breaks down the qualifications and responsibilities of ~100 jobs spread across 15 think tanks. The postings are not a random sample; we aimed for a diversity of postings — illustrating the range of jobs that exist — rather than a sample that is representative in terms of frequency. Data in the spreadsheets include:


  1. McGann (2016), The Fifth Estate. ↩︎

  2. We put the word “expert” in scare quotes because, in DC, gaining recognition as an expert can happen remarkably quickly, possibly well before you have achieved real mastery over your area of expertise. This may be a somewhat scary part of think tank work for those with EA-type epistemics. ↩︎

  3. For an overview of some writing on the definition of “think tank,” see e.g. here. ↩︎

  4. Political and other consultancies, such as the Eurasia Group, often publish glossy policy-related reports that look similar to work happening at think tanks. Career service organizations therefore sometimes group think tanks and risk consultancies on their websites. But their incentive structures, audiences, and cultures differ significantly from those at most think tanks. The boundaries between advocacy-oriented think tanks and general advocacy organizations can also be blurry. ↩︎

  5. Exact counts are hard to come by, in part due to definitional issues. The 2020 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report puts the number of think tanks in DC at 148 out of 2,203 total in the US (here). However, McGann (2016, p. 49) lists 398 in DC. ↩︎

  6. Adapted from Weaver (2013) and McGann (2016); see Appendix A. McGann has a fourth category of “party-affiliated” think tanks, which is not relevant to the US context and which we thus omit here. ↩︎

  7. Drezner (2017), The Ideas Industry. ↩︎

  8. The relevant excerpt is here: “Hence, the Niskanen Center relentlessly focuses on Washington insiders (and when working in the states, with those state political insiders), the real drivers of near- and medium-term policy change. These insiders work most effectively through stable but porous governing networks composed of legislators and their staff, presidential appointees, career civil servants, mobilized special interests, and somewhat close-knit, politically well-connected policy specialists: researchers, congressional committee staff, people in planning, evaluation, and budget offices, academics, and interest-group analysts. These insiders determine which reform ideas live and which die, so they are the main audience for our policy work.” ↩︎

  9. CSET’s CyberAI project is somewhat separate (and has independent funding), but otherwise CSET is mostly an integrated organization. ↩︎

  10. Drezner, The Ideas Industry, p. 129. ↩︎

  11. Don’t underestimate how much Congress does even when news reports suggest things are gridlocked. See Matt Yglesias’s recent post on “Secret Congress” for some examples of behind-the-scenes activity, in which think tank staff often play important (low-visibility) supporting roles. ↩︎

  12. We put together the spreadsheet for analytical and illustrative purposes; the jobs themselves are probably already expired by the time you read this, so it’s not useful as a job search tool. See below (Section 4.2) for more on job search tools. ↩︎

  13. Operations skills generally were also previously considered rare in the EA community as a whole, although that seems to have changed somewhat (see here [EA · GW] and here). Our point here is specific to policy work, which has unique substantive and cultural elements. ↩︎

  14. Entry-level think tank roles are increasingly filled by people who already have master’s degrees. Those who love research or aspire to think tank leadership positions may choose to do PhDs. ↩︎

  15. There are some job boards that do include think tank jobs but (a) are far from comprehensive in their coverage of think tanks and (b) also include many non-think tank jobs. See e.g. the 80,000 Hours job board, the Policy People newsletter, and TechCongress’s policy opportunities for technologists. ↩︎

  16. For a longer list of US policy schools (as well as some international schools) with professional master’s programs focused on international affairs, see the APSIA Members List. ↩︎

  17. Overhead could include funding for office space at the think tank, IT support, editorial team support, etc. — in our experience, these costs typically fall between $5,000 and $35,000 / year, depending on the think tank and your planned activities (e.g. costs are higher if you plan to publish a lot of reports that will require the think tank to provide you with editorial, design, and PR support). ↩︎


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Pablo (Pablo_Stafforini) · 2021-09-19T13:32:05.943Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for taking the time to write this valuable report.

Do you happen to be familiar with systematic attempts to estimate the impact of think tanks on policy, or to identify the main paths to impact?  I am aware of various anecdotes and case studies—you discuss the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, Rob mentions the Center for Global Development and others, and I would add the Institute of Economic Affairs—, but it's unclear to me what can be inferred from this type of impressionistic evidence.

Replies from: Locke_USA
comment by US Policy Careers (Locke_USA) · 2021-09-20T02:45:39.389Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think the basic inference we can draw from those anecdotes (and lived experience in DC) is this line from the post:

Whereas the potential for impact is widely accepted, the average level of think tank impact is far more uncertain.

The best-known studies on the question of impact (to my knowledge) are included in Appendix A, but I don't know that they'd fully satisfy you (they don't fully satisfy me either).

Questions about average impact (or "systemic estimates") are tough to answer, in part because all the concepts involved are rather underspecified. "Think tank work" involves many things, and varies widely in quality. Some types of work and some think tanks could be quite effective, whereas others may not be. "Impact" can also mean many things, most of which are by definition hard to observe and measure (I myself work at a think tank and probably >50% of the impact I've had is talking policymakers or government staff out of bad ideas, which means 0 observed action in the world).

Even if you had months to collect data, or had the ability to run an RCT, I'm not sure (a) what variables you would include in a regression model or (b) even if you did manage to come up with something, what useful things we could learn from the coefficients/average relationships. Due to the wide variety of think tank work that exists, the relevant reference class for any given think tank-related decision (e.g. if you are a funder assessing a specific proposal or an applicant considering whether to take a job) is going to be rather narrow (much narrower than "think tank projects" or "think tank jobs" writ large).

Replies from: Pablo_Stafforini
comment by Pablo (Pablo_Stafforini) · 2021-09-20T14:12:17.371Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the answer.

By the way, I relied on your report and some other literature to write a brief EA Wiki entry on think tanks [? · GW]. If you decide to read it and have any critical feedback, feel free to leave a comment or get in touch.

Replies from: Locke_USA
comment by US Policy Careers (Locke_USA) · 2021-09-20T19:25:08.989Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Cool, great to see, thanks!

comment by Nathan Young (nathan) · 2021-08-31T22:34:58.853Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I weakly suggest that Twitter is also underrated by EAs interested in policy. I'm happy to write something fully if people upvote this.

The sketch of my argument is that lots of top staffers are on Twitter and it's not hard to get access to them. Many EAs are followed by big academics, pubic figures etc, I've had several chats to movers and shakers (Noah Smith, David Shor, Tyler Cowen). I imagine someone who sought to talk to staffers in a particular area could after about 6 months of posting for 3 hours a week.

Replies from: Locke_USA
comment by US Policy Careers (Locke_USA) · 2021-09-01T15:25:05.430Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I agree Twitter is probably underrated in the EA community. However, I would disagree with (or at least strongly caveat) this statement: "I imagine someone who sought to talk to staffers in a particular area could after about 6 months of posting for 3 hours a week."

One meeting with a staffer is not difficult to get if you've been in DC for a while. The question is what you do in that meeting and what you want to get out of it. Twitter is a tool that you can use to promote ideas/research/etc., so you need those pieces before Twitter is useful. Staffers won't find it very helpful if you meet with them and you can't go deeper than Twitter-level conversation. Typically, real impact from staffer engagement comes only after the third or fourth meeting, and those follow-ups require trust and deep analysis.

So I think Twitter is useful, but I don't think it's a substitute for more "traditional" think tank work, and I would discourage people who don't have much of a policy background from using Twitter in order to get a meeting with a staffer — I'm not sure if you were suggesting that, but it's possible to interpret your statement that way, so I just want to flag that before people start rushing to Twitter en masse. :)

comment by Nathan Young (nathan) · 2021-08-31T22:28:17.063Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I assume this makes much more sense for US folks than others. If this isn't the case correct me.

Replies from: Locke_USA
comment by US Policy Careers (Locke_USA) · 2021-09-01T01:12:52.807Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think that's correct. The same arguments apply if a non-US citizen has a plausible path to becoming a US citizen, but, if not, much of the career capital (DC networks, understanding the US policy process, etc.) does not really transfer across borders. (Though I can also imagine some exceptions, for example a European who wants to work on transatlantic issues from Brussels or their national capital and who could leverage their time in DC for those purposes.)

comment by geoffrey (geoffreyyip) · 2021-09-05T16:39:30.230Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

How would you categorize the schedule flexibility at think tanks?  Do you believe it varies by the three categories you've mentioned or by seniority levels? My well-being and productivity are much higher with a later start time

I can think of one factor that encourages a rigid schedule. Government work starts at 8am or 9am, sometimes by mandate. Think tanks will have their workday earlier to maximize overlap with bureaucrat schedules

But I can also think of another factor that encourages a flexible schedule. "Ideas industry" work have deliverables that may not be time-sensitive. This means less hard deadlines, less need for "putting out fires", and less need for everyone to be on the exact same schedule

Replies from: Locke_USA
comment by US Policy Careers (Locke_USA) · 2021-09-06T00:41:52.753Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Overall, I would say there's a fair bit of flexibility in the think tank world (certainly more than in government). But it does vary across think tanks, and across teams within think tanks.

As far as I know, the variance isn't strongly correlated with the type of think tank. The nature of the work/team may be more predictive — if you're in an external-facing communications role, you may have to be available/monitoring your email at certain times. Research and writing roles tend to be more flexible, but you could still end up on a team with a strong 9-to-5 culture.

If this is important to you and you're considering think tank jobs, I'd encourage you to ask around — former or current employees of specific think tanks should at least be able to tell you about the norms at that think tank, even if they can't give blanket answers.