Academic think tanks: what do they offer to young researchers?

17 November 2015
SERIES How to attract and retain young talent 4 items

If think tanks cannot offer the most competitive salaries in the market to attract the best talent, what else can they offer instead?

In the last two months I have been conducting interviews with young researchers from prominent Peruvian think tanks to ask them what they appreciate most about their workplace, what opportunities it presents to them, and what recommendations they would give to their employers regarding hiring and retaining young staff.

I’ve talked to young researchers from two types of think tanks, which ideally can be understood as two opposites: academic and corporate think tanks. I have explained the difference in the first post of this series.

I have found that this characterisation is useful to understand three key aspects of young thinktankers work: experience, benefits and opportunities:

  • By experience we mean the challenges young researchers face on a day-to-day basis, which depend on the kind of tasks they are required to do, the scope of their responsibilities, and the workload and work intensity they are subjected to.
  • The benefits are those elements which young professionals can take advantage of by working at the think tank; besides the salary, these include access to professional networks, the possibility of using the think tank as a platform for scholarships and research awards, and others.
  • Opportunities refers to elements of the think tank that condition the future of young researchers after working there, which mostly means opportunities for studying or working elsewhere.

Two meaningful relationships

Emerging from the interviews is the fact that the experience, benefits and opportunities young researchers gain by working at a think tank are strongly influenced by two meaningful social relationships:

  1. The first one is the relationship between young thinktankers, often research assistants, and the senior researchers they work for.
  2. The second is the relationship between young thinktankers and the think tank they belong to.

The impact these two relationships have can be very different for those working in academic or corporate think tanks.

I found that in academic think tanks, the relationship between the young thinktanker and the senior researcher is of greater importance. This is because of how these think tanks organise their work; that is, through extensive research projects that involve a single senior researcher and one or two research assistants. The way young professionals are hired, the distribution of labour, and the opportunities that may open up to them, can vary greatly from one to another, even within one institution, depending on the senior researcher they are working for.

The relationship between the senior researcher and the young thinktanker in academic think tanks

Ideally, academic think tanks work through research projects that are proposed by senior researchers; they develop a research proposal according to their academic interests and seek funding using the think tank as a platform. They then develop the research project using the think tank’s resources and later publish its outputs. It is also common for research projects to be developed according to calls for proposals from donors who want a specific topic to be addressed. In both scenarios, think tanks award ownership of the project to the senior researchers.

If the project requires it (which it commonly does), the senior researcher may choose to hire one or more young professionals to help with the project implementation. In the academic think tanks we explored, especially those from social sciences, it is the senior researcher’s sole responsibility to hire the research assistant; therefore, senior researchers act as a filter through which young professionals enter the think tank.

How does this affect the experience the young researcher will have?

a) Learning from daily tasks

It affects the kind of daily activities the young professional will have to perform. As we are focusing on young thinktankers, who are at the start of their careers, we can say that the diversity and the depth of these tasks are a crucial part of the learning opportunities that a think tank offers.

Because project ownership is granted mainly to senior researchers, which includes the project design, they end up determining the type of tasks research assistants will have to perform.

Typical research assistants’ tasks vary greatly. They usually include (but not always) developing and implementing data-collecting tools (for example, questionnaires or in-depth interview guides), conducting fieldwork visits, processing data, analysing it, and writing mid-term and final reports. They can also include administrative tasks.

For young professionals, performing these tasks provides the opportunity to learn how to do them with the guidance of experienced researchers.

In this sense, therefore, how much the assistant will actually learn from being part of the research project is determined by how the senior researcher distributes the responsibility of these tasks, as well as how much guidance he or she provides.

This does not mean that the learning potential for each young researcher is restricted to what the senior researcher is willing to offer. Many young researchers I talked to expressed that, as an assistant, one can develop strategies to increasingly gain the confidence of the senior researcher and “conquer” new spaces from which to learn new things.

This is another way of saying that the distribution power in this relationship is unbalanced, but not completely one-sided. There is a degree of agency from the assistant’s side, which she or he can use to acquire new responsibilities to learn from. Gaining responsibility for more interesting and enriching tasks is a manifestation of this agency.

b) Landing on the right project and on the right topic

Working as an assistant in an academic research project also provides the opportunity for young thinktankers to specialise in a particular field of study. Some use this opportunity to turn the experience into a thesis (if they are undergraduates) or a potential master’s dissertation. Many young researchers I talked to expressed satisfaction for being able to work in topics that are of particular interest to them:

I think the most important thing in a research centre is to let you explore the topics that you are most attracted to, or feel more curious about. I like researching about economic history. (…) As researchers, you could say we all perform as archaeologists, we dig data and we get obsessed with topics that may not be relevant to most people but, on a broader scale, they can be very important.

Undoubtedly, some research assistants work in projects that are unrelated to their areas of interest. So, what determines if a research assistant will work in a topic he or she feels fond of in an academic think tank?

As I said before, the hiring process of research assistants in think tanks is highly dependent on the senior researcher. Many of the young researchers I talked to (especially those that were satisfied with the topics they were working on) stated that, prior to being part of the research project, they had developed a relationship with the senior researcher. In most cases, it was a teacher-student relationship, in others it was as an assistant to other consultancy projects.

This helps match the interests of young thinktanker with the project they are working on and guarantees the senior researcher a good level of involvement from the assistant. But it limits the opportunities for young professionals who didn’t manage (for whatever reason) to connect with prominent senior researchers that work in the areas they are interested in.

It has to be said that this hiring process can be seen as biased against young researchers who don’t have the right networks (for whatever reason), and it also limits the talent that think tanks can get.

The relationship between the think tank and young thinktankers in academic think tanks

The other relationship that is crucial to understanding the experience, benefits and opportunities young professionals can obtain by working at a think tank is the one between them and the institution itself.

Think tanks need research assistants in order to maintain their research projects active, as they are usually responsible for daily activities. This enables senior researchers to work in several research projects at the same time, enhancing the think tank’s capacity, income and productivity. In exchange, young researchers receive a salary (which is regarded by my interviewees as not very competitive) and other benefits as well. Which are they?

a) Immersion in an academic environment

Think tanks are institutions dedicated to research and, ideally too, to communicating it effectively to generate an impact on public policy. Young professionals who seek work at a think tank may do it because of a particular interest in developing an academic career. Working for a think tank, therefore, gives them the opportunity to become immersed in an academic environment dedicated to producing research.

The opportunity to share the space with prominent researchers from their own area of interest was a feature mentioned by several of my interviewees.

As a professional, it’s a bit complicated to get promoted here. This is not a long-term job. It’s a stepping-stone for becoming a researcher. You work here, you earn experience and they give you time to study, so that later you can go and study a PhD. It’s sort of a catapult. It also links you to a network of researchers. You get to be known, you get to work with people who see the topics you are interested in, you develop your own network of contacts… like any other job, really.

This can be especially true in think tanks that have institutionalised spaces that promote exchanges between its members, such as weekly round tables where senior and junior researchers present the progress of their work or conclusions from their research projects. These spaces were very much appreciated by the young professionals I talked to (and missed by those working in think tanks that didn’t have them).

Here, there used to be monthly “talks” from researchers that belong to this centre. There aren’t any more. It was a good chance to meet new [possible] coaches. It was a good chance to make new contacts.

Needless to say, sharing the space with prominent researchers also provides young thinktankers with the opportunity to get good recommendation letters.

b) The think tank’s prestige

Belonging to an organisation with institutional prestige is another important aspect appreciated by young thinktankers. This is because it is common for young professionals to use their time working at a think tank as a stepping-stone for future projects.

The think tank’s prestige is useful for young thinktankers because it enhances their CV but also because they can use the think tank as a platform to secure capacity-building grants or scholarships and to win research awards they can apply to with their peers.

c) Horizontal work environment (potentially)

Finally, many young thinktankers we talked to mentioned that they appreciated the work environment of their organisations. A fairly horizontal treatment between senior and junior staff, accessibility of prominent researchers, flexible working hours, having time to reflect on the issues the research involves, being able to work from home, and not having to dress formally, were among the most highlighted points on this subject.

This, of course, does not happen in all academic think tanks. But in those where it does, it is highly appreciated by young researchers, even to a crucial point:

I used to work for a private consultancy firm, but I quit because of the stress. Here, there is no work schedule, you can come at any time you want, or stay at home if you wish. No dress code, as well. Those were important things to me, more than the salary or anything else.

The think tanks may not be as appreciative about this as the young thinktankers are –but it goes to show that much of this is about perspective.

In conclusion

Which relationship is more important? Is it the relationship between young researchers and their boss or the one they have with the institution? Based on this limited sample, it appears that in some Peruvian academic think tanks, both matter a great deal –and possibly the relationship between senior researchers and thinktankers matter only slightly more.

The dependence on the senior researcher for what tasks and responsibilities the young researcher will have, as well as how much guidance he or she provides, are crucial factors to how much the young researcher can gain from the experience. There is a level of agency from young researchers, but it is manifested in how much they can influence their superior. In the end, it’s the senior researcher’s call.

The think tank itself can also offer a broad range of benefits and opportunities that young researchers can take advantage of. Weekly round tables where senior and junior staff interact, regardless of which project they are involved in or who they are working for, are useful to break the dependence of the first relationship. But these appear to be stronger in the more institutionalised of these think tanks.

The opportunities to use the think tanks as platforms for scholarships and research awards, alone or with peers, can also have this effect. The level of agency young researchers are willing or able to use will determine to what degree they will take advantage of these benefits.

In the next post I will deal with these same issues regarding corporate think tanks. We shall see that the nature of the research they conduct and the way they distribute labour offers other kinds of challenges and opportunities to young researchers, which in the end can turn their careers into quite different paths.