Management Skills for a Researcher in a Think Tank

8 February 2016

In today’s world of fast tracking, building expertise has become one of the biggest challenges for a researcher. Several studies say that the future of think tanks may require an all-rounder. However, what does this mean? What does one have to do to understand this and make it happen?

Ideally a researcher has several required skills that are inherent and valued but most of this is not always well presented. Some of the key skills include developing a professional working relationship with stakeholders and peers, meeting deadlines and ensuring that escalations are made when expectations are not met. Due to the nature of work that a researcher undertakes, often, they work in isolation and need to manage their work well and on their own. This in turn ensures a strong work ethic and personal effectiveness that helps them to handle a wide range of challenging possibilities.

However, in today’s world most Think Tanks have begun to encourage and nominate researchers to engage with stakeholders, policy makers and funders and often also to address the media and are given the responsibility to manage key projects. While most researchers have excellent knowledge of their research and domain, many of them lack several basic skills which include professional effective communication and management skills.

Researchers as managers

Perhaps to start with, researchers require some basic management skills. Historically, researchers working in a think tankwere expected to primarily understand the:

  • Implications of the research being conducted on policy making processes
  • Suggest recommendations/solutions
  • Understand the importance of using media effectively
  • Keep abreast of new findings, especially with reference to policy making
  • Understand the cutting edge debates to provide implications for policy making
  • Know how to respond to media call-keep information organised

In addition, however, researchers also needs to be:

  • Independent in that they should be able to work without supervision and in a position to manage their projects and time
  • Critical thinkers to help evaluate their work and that of others. This involves being fair in their judgement of the information analysed and the conclusions drawn from the analysis
  • Capable of solving problems without having “a right answer” and also employing strategies to arrive at a suggested solution
  • Able of presenting findings in a professional way by defending their ideas/findings with evidence-based back up
  • Responsible and have ownership in executing projects and taking wise decisions
  • Excellent time managers, able prioritise tasks based on the need and be self-motivated

In addition to the above, several schools of thought and researches have also claimed that a typical manager also requires some soft skills. Some of the key ones include:

  • Being introspective and ensuring that appreciation is conveyed at the right time and with the right measure. Something said at the wrong time and overdone may not be well-received. A well-timed appreciation will go a long way.
  • Being impartial and keep personal emotions in check and avoiding unfair differentiations between team members. Some tend to be good while others tend to be difficult.
  • Being perseverant as often a manager is flooded with deadlines, meetings, impromptu requests, grinding pressure and above all the regular day-to-day activities. A constant control and follow up will help in overcoming stress. Sometimes even delegating responsibilities helps in focusing on more serious matters.
  • Being enterprising to ensure that the tasks and deliverables are on time. While micromanagement is important, understanding and acknowledging the larger picture is an imperative skill. Accoundability can be shared in all directions.
  • Being available and supportive offering help rather than waiting to be asked.
  • Being clear in communication by setting expectations, identify grey areas and discussing the same in an interactive manner.
  • Keeping to deadlines and targets, takeing a reality check to ensure that tasks are handled smoothly. Keeping a contingency plan in place, if required.

Researchers as communicators

Traditionally, it has been assumed that scientists are not good communicators. However, this is wrong, since in several think tanks, it is scientists who head the organisations and also are often the interface with stakeholders. However, slowly several think tanks have resigned themselves to the idea of engaging professionals to manage the communication and outreach activities and also often to engage with stakeholders.

The reason that scientists may not be good communicators could be because they are involved in their research very deeply and fail to see the need and importance for communicating the same to the required audience. They are wrapped in their work and are often unable to share and disseminate their ideas effectively.

By bringing in communicators to support them, researchers can focus more time on what they know best and communicators can help them maximise their impact.

This lacuna could be fulfilled by adapting/adding a few additional skills:

  • Avoiding jargons and acronyms and keeping information easy and simple to understand while communicating
  • Employing the Elevator Pitch style to convey brilliant ideas
  • Learning to choose appropriate medium of communication, for example, face-to-face, written, presentations, online, etc.
  • Networking


To be a successful researcher requires that certain pertinent qualities need to be enhanced as part of a daily routine.

A researcher as manager should be a good team player, who works with the team and not for the team. Many researchers find it difficult to transit from being a solo player to a team player in a research project. They also require understanding the strength of team members and using it to the full potential. For example, some team member may be technically strong and may not be able to make effective presentations, while others may be vice versa.

A researcher as communicator must recognise that it all begins and ends with effective communication. Lay all your cards on a desk and encourage others to provide their view points. Value other people’s opinion.