Attracting and developing young talent: how can think tanks manage?

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

Among the many challenges think tanks face, one of the most important is their capacity to attract well-trained researchers. We have repeatedly addressed the question of how to attract and retain highly qualified staff for think tanks.

One way think tanks have of tackling this issue is to hire recent graduates in order to train them in a way that suits the think tank.

An increasingly competitive environment over funding for think tanks makes it hard for these organisations to pay the most competitive salaries. They do, however, need top professionals in order to function well and remain competent.

This opens up a series of challenges: how can think tanks avoid losing their best talent to competing think tanks or sectors? What other benefits, besides a competitive salary, can they offer to young thinktankers?

In order to answer this question, I conducted 19 interviews with young researchers working in prominent Peruvian think tanks. The purpose of this research is to put forward a list of recommendations think tanks can take into account to be better at attracting and retaining young talent.

The series is also aimed at recent graduates who are interested in pursuing a career in think tanks, but may not know how to take full advantage of the experience.

This is a first approach at a study that could be extended to other think tanks and replicated elsewhere.

This post, the first in the series, provides a brief profile of the young researchers I talked to and their think tanks. This is not representative of all young researchers nor of all think tanks in Peru, but provides a good-enough starting point to this discussion.

The series is structured in the following way:

  • In this post we identify two types of think tank: academic and corporate, which exist on the boundaries of academic research centres and private sector consultancies.
  • The second post explains the experience, benefits and opportunities presented to young researchers by academic think tanks. This analysis is based on two factors: 1) the relationship between young and senior researchers; and 2) the relationship between young-researchers and the think tank. We find that both appear to be equally important.
  • The third post does the same with young thinktankers from corporate think tanks. We find that the relationship between young thinktankers and the think tank is more significant to their experience and opportunities than their relationship with senior researchers.
  • Using these insights, the fourth post concludes with a list of recommendations for think tanks to maximise their chances of attracting and retaining the best possible talent.

We will publish a new post every week.

Who have we been talking to?

This investigation focused on young researchers between 25 and 35 years old and who had recently worked at or are currently working in prominent Peruvian think tanks. They come from the social sciences, with careers such as economics, sociology, anthropology, as well as natural sciences, like biology (depending on the orientation of the think tank). Interviews were conducted in September and October 2015.

On average, thinktankers I talked to had been at their workplace for four years at the time when they were interviewed. Most of them still lived with their parents and came from a middle or upper-middle income background. All of them had a university degree, either from a private or a public university. Two of them had finished a master’s degree and two more were on the road to finishing it:

Think tank Age Lives with Career University Graduated Works in think tank since MA?
GRADE 28 Alone Anthropology PUCP 2011 2008 No
GRADE 31 Alone Anthropology UNMSM 2010 2010 No
IEP 28 w/ parents Anthropology PUCP 2010 2011 No
CIUP 26 w/ parents Economy PUCP 2011 2014 No
CIUP 27 w/ parents Sociology PUCP 2011 2013 No
CIUP 29 w/ parents Economy UP 2010 2012 No
CIUP 26 w/ parents Economy UP 2011 2012 No
CIUP 22 w/ parents Economy UP 2015 2014 No
CIUP 27 w/ parents Economy UP 2012 2011 No
CIUP 24 w/ parents Economy UP 2014 2012 Studying
CIP 30 w/ parents Biology UNFV 2006 2006 Yes
CIP 32 w/ parents Biology UNMSM 2003 2005 Yes
CIP 32 w/ parents Biology UNMSM 2005 2008 Studying
CISEPA 26 w/ parents Sociology PUCP 2012 2015 No
Macroconsult 24 w/ parents Economy PUCP 2013 2012 No
Macroconsult 25 w/ parents Economy PUCP 2012 2011 No
Macroconsult 26 w/ family Economy UNMSM 2012 2013 No
Videnza 26 Alone Economy UP 2012 2014 No
Ipsos 28 Alone Sociology PUCP 2011 2011 No

Where do they work?

Based on the typical research projects they conduct, we can distinguish two types of think tanks from the list of interviewees above: academic and corporate think tanks.

These are ideal types of think tanks (in the terminology of Max Weber), which I am signalling based on the orientation that the think tanks usually give their research projects. In reality, think tanks exist in a place in between, combining at times aspects of both. The orientation and personality of each think tank will depend on how close it comes to any of these extremes. Of course, this categorisation is not absolute: there are other ways of characterising think tanks).

In this case, I found that categorising think tanks by their research orientation was useful to understand what young professionals gain while working there. I distinguish between academic (orientated towards academic and mostly supply-driven research) and corporate think tanks (dedicated mostly to demand-driven, client-orientated research) because this difference helps observing the way they organise the distribution of labour within them; which, in turn, determines the type of experience, benefits and opportunities that young researchers obtain by working at a think tank.

Academic think tanks

Academic think tanks are those orientated to academic research. They tend to generate impact publishing and communicating it in specialised academic or policy circles. The topics their research explores usually come from within their senior thinktanker’s interest and judgement of what is important and relevant (or, in some cases, by responding to what their donors are looking for). This can be understood as supply-driven research.

From our sample, Grupo de Análisis para el Desarrollo (GRADE)Instituto de Estudios Peruano (IEP)Centro de Investigación de la Universidad del Pacífico (CIUP)Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas, Económicas, Políticas y Antropológicas (CISEPA) and the International Potato Centre (CIP) can be understood to be academic think tanks.

Think tanks in this group are not entirely homologous. GRADE, IEP, CIUP and CISEPA specialise in research from the social sciences, while CIP focuses on natural sciences. On the other hand, CIUP and CISEPA are university-based think tanks, which is a crucial element considering the question of funding and of finding new talented staff (though not representative, the table above hints that CIUP and CISEPA rely on graduates from their host universities). CIP is part of the CGIAR partnership, which connects it with a global network of research partners and funders. GRADE and IEP are non-affiliated think tanks -yet with strong personal links with local universities.

Researchers from these think tanks often combine their work with teaching roles. This relationship can be formal (as in the case of CIUP and CISEPA) or informal (some researchers from GRADE and IEP often wear “two hats”). Senior researchers at all these think tanks also combine their work as thinktankers with brief periods in the public sector –something that is often emulated by younger researchers- and may carry out consultancies for the private sector (independently or through the think tank).

Corporate think tanks

Corporate think tanks, on the other hand, produce demand-driven research that is orientated to fulfil their client’s need of information for decision-making. The impact they produce is mostly direct, in the sense that their research is delivered directly to those that require it; that is, through a private consultancy contract that usually includes confidentiality. The topics these think tanks research about are dependent on the consultancy contracts they can get hold of (and on the orientation of the think tank itself, of course).

Having said this, what defines them as think tanks and not just consultancies, is that they attempt to share their research and the lessons they learn beyond their direct clients.

From the list above, MacroconsultVidenza consultores and Ipsos Perú can be characterised as corporate think tanks.

Many corporate think tanks follow what could be called a swim-or-sink business model, in which constant production is vital to the survival of the institution. They don’t rely on international Aid or charitable donors for funding, but rather produce their own income to fund their thinktanking activities. This makes the work intensity within them high.

Since many academic think tanks are also dependent on short term funding and consultancies, a key difference between these two types of think tanks lies in the kind of outputs they strive for. While the academic think tanks tend to be driven towards an academic product (like a journal article, a research report, or a working paper), corporate think tanks accommodate their products to their client’s needs, which allows them to produce, in most cases, shorter and more practical outputs (such as research reports, policy or decision briefs, and presentations). This also means that the duration of the research projects in each one is significantly different. While research projects in academic think tanks may last from several months to even years, in corporate think tanks projects last from two or three weeks to a couple of months top.

What does this mean for young researchers?

These differences have a strong impact on the type of organisational culture the think tanks have. As we shall see in the following posts, they also condition the experience, benefits and opportunities young researchers have by working in a think tank.

First, the experience they gain is different. Since the daily activities and responsibilities young researchers have differ in academic and corporate think tanks, learning from preforming these tasks (on-the-job learning) is also different. Other differences include the level of work intensity and the level of ownership they have over the projects they work on. All this can make the experience of working at an academic think tank significantly different from that of a corporate think tank.

The benefits are also different. Because work intensity is seemingly lower, young researchers in academic think tanks have more spare time to pursue personal research projects (for which they can use their think tank as a platform) or to follow courses from other institutions. Long and intense working hours make it harder for those from corporate think tanks to pursue extra-work activities; however, the dynamics of the work there mean that they can explore, on the job, various issues and sectors.

Finally, they also condition the kind of future opportunities their institution promises for them. Though they hire professionals from similar careers, the opportunities that open up to them are quite different. This is by no means absolute, but young professionals who seek work in an academic think tank tend to be focused on following the path of academia (early master’s degree, followed by a PhD). By contrast, it is not uncommon for young researchers who work in corporate think tanks to go and work for one of their clients in the private and public sector, leaving behind the world of research (which actually makes the career prospects more profitable).

We think that behind all this there is are few lessons that all think tanks can learn from; all in favour of making themselves more attractive to young professionals.

In the next post I will explore more closely the two main drivers that condition the experience of young researchers in academic think tanks, comparing the relevance of their relationship with senior researchers (and immediate superiors), as well as with the think tank itself.  We will find that each relationship determines different aspects of the young research experience, making them equally relevant to this discussion.


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