Corporate think tanks: experience, benefits and opportunities for young thinktankers

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

This post is part of a series that aims to understand what elements condition the quality of the work experience young researchers have while working at a think tank with the purpose of developing some practical recommendations that think tanks can take into account in order to attract and retain young talent.

To do this, I conducted a series of  interviews with several young thinktankers from prominent Peruvian think tanks to ask them what they expected from their workplaces, what was expected from them, and what they were aiming to do afterwards.

I found that a distinction between academic and corporate think tanks was crucial to understand the type of experience these individuals were having at their place of work. Academic think tanks are those orientated towards academic research, while corporate think tanks orient their research projects towards their client’s needs.

In the second post of the series I analysed what my interviewees from academic think tanks had shared with me, regarding the sort of experience, benefits and opportunities that were presented to them by their workplace. In this post I will do the same for those who work in corporate think tanks.

For academic think tanks, I found that, in order to understand the quality of the experience, benefits and opportunities that young thinktankers can gain from their workplace, it is useful to have a look at the type of relationship that is constructed between them and their senior researchers they work for, on one hand, and with the think tank itself, on the other.

I found that for corporate think tanks, one of the relationships matters more.

The two relationships in the swim-or-sink model

One reason the relationship between the young researcher and the senior researcher is more relevant in academic think tanks is because of the way they organise the division of labour. Commonly, academic think tanks work through research projects that senior researchers present, design and manage rather independently, with the support of the think tank. It is through these research projects that young researchers become part of the think tank as research assistants or in other roles. Therefore, the relationship that is built between them and their boss is crucial to understanding the kind of work experience they will gain.

Corporate think tanks, on the other hand, work in what we could call demand-driven research. That means that they work through projects that are oriented towards fulfilling their client’s need of information. In that sense, their work resembles that of consultancy firms.

The corporate think tank’s dependency on acquiring various research projects and delivering them efficiently leads them to develop standardised research techniques, or research methods, that thinktankers can specialise on and that are easy to learn, manage and apply –and, crucially, teach to the younger thinktankers in the team.

Consequently, the type of experience young researchers will have by working in corporate think tanks can be dramatically different from academic think tanks. Standardised procedures, research methods and division of labour means that the experience, benefits and opportunities young researchers may have does not depend (on a crucial level) on who they are specifically working with (especially because internal rotation in this think tanks can be high), but rather on how they relate to the institution itself (as it is also true for academic think tanks).

The young thinktanker’s experience in corporate think tanks

The swim-or-sink model creates the need for corporate think tanks to have a pool of researchers who can manage multitasking, can study different topics for short periods of time (and simultaneously) and can learn to use standardised research methods correctly and efficiently. They also need researchers who can have a watchful eye for new opportunities and develop good research proposals to win them.

In order to manage this, corporate think tanks in Peru have developed a somehow different division of labour between senior and junior researchers than academic think tanks. Ownership and management of the research projects are often awarded to research assistants, who are often responsible for the development of the project from start to finish. Senior researchers are in charge of the supervision of these projects, but most of their time is spent in intellectual leadership, searching for new opportunities, and developing new research proposals, in order to keep the flow of projects constant.

This is possible because the think tank itself acts more like a single entity (or corporation) rather than a gathering of research associates who seek funding for research projects using the think tank as platform (which can be the case with academic think tanks).

What do young researchers obtain while working at a corporate think tank

Experience in multitasking

In corporate think tanks, young researches’ workload is distributed between several research projects simultaneously. These research projects are handed solely to them, practically from start to finish. Each project may last from a few weeks to a couple of months. Usually, they follow pre-defined research methods to deliver outputs fast and efficiently. These methods guarantee the quality of the research in an environment where time is a valued resource.

Research assistants learn how to multitask and manage simultaneously multiple studies that usually run at different speeds. In my view, and reflecting on my own experience at both types of think tanks, having ownership of the research projects is crucial ability to multitask, as it acts as a strong motivator. During the interviews, it was common for them to refer to their projects as their “sons and daughters”.

Exposure to different topics and to valuable information

Researchers from corporate think tanks I talked to mentioned that being exposed to several research topics, which are constantly changing, can be a highlight of their job, as it keeps them in a constant learning frenzy:

I value greatly the opportunity to be able to see different things at the same time. I couldn’t imagine being pigeon-holed into a single topic. As long as you have me looking at different things, I’m happy. When a project starts to extend in time, I start to go crazy. It’s not my thing. I want to see new things, even projects some might consider crazy, I’ll get into it.

Although the information they produce is often private and confidential, many expressed satisfaction for being able to work closely with information that they consider of great importance. For instance, social conflicts in mining areas are a big problem in Peru today, and most mining corporations approach corporate think tanks to supply them with information from the conflict areas themselves. Depending on the prestige and trajectory of the think tank they work for, young thinktankers can be involved in an overall process of very relevant decision-making. Their input may be quite limited, but it still acts as a motivator.

In comparison to the type of research conducted in corporate think tanks, young researchers from academic think tanks mentioned that, because it is client-orientated, it could be less “pure”, as opposed to academic research. This is an idea that was also expressed by some, not the majority, of researchers from corporate think tanks. Others considered that this was just another kind of research, different yet not less robust.

In the end, though, many researchers in academic think tanks (and many academic think tanks) follow a demand-driven model and work with the same clients as their corporate peers.

Experience in administrative tasks

As I said on my previous post, learning from preforming daily activities is an important part of any job, especially for young professionals who are at the start of their career. Developing administrative skills is a strong component in the experience of working in a corporate think tank. The pressure of delivering research outputs efficiently leads corporate think tanks to delegate many of the stages of the research projects, both within and outside the organisation, which consequently marks the daily experience of research assistants. Much of their workday goes to having to be in constant communication with suppliers and colleagues:

You are on the phone a lot. Is your fieldwork done? Have your surveys arrived? Are they being processed correctly? When will results be delivered to you? You sometimes need to pressure suppliers to be first in line, as they can be just as full of work as you.

High work intensity

Because work intensity tends to be high, it is common for young researchers in corporate think tanks to work long hours on a regular basis. This makes the job as a research assistant quite absorbing and limits the possibilities of conducting extra-work activities, such as personal research projects, or taking up different courses:

In general, you do have a high workload, staying long hours is quite common. Besides, because we have flexible hours, if you want to study something, it can be quite complicated. For instance, if you want to take a course from 7 to 10, there will be days that you will simply not be able to make. Or if you do, you’ll have to finish what you were doing at home. We sometimes take work home for the weekends.

Different future opportunities

This kind of work is orientated to producing data for strategic decision-making in an on-going process for private and public clients. This keeps young researchers working closely with their clients, which opens the opportunity of working for them afterwards. Because of the variety of clients these think tanks have, the options can be quite broad. Corporate think tanks work for private corporations, national and international public bodies, national and international NGOs, international cooperation institutions, among others. Although this means many of them will stray away from the path of research, the prospect of following a more profitable (and even influential) career after can be quite appealing.

This is also good for corporate think tanks. Although they may complain when a researcher they trained leaves them, it can also mean they are “sending out” allies or friends to their future client (provided that they maintain a healthy relationships with ex-workers). As we all know, networking is important to all organisations, and think tanks are no exception.


The experience, benefits and opportunities young professionals gain by working at a corporate think tank are strongly tied to the nature of the research they conduct, which is client-orientated. This affects the work intensity, the division of labour and the skills they earn while working.

There are different motivators as well. The experience of working in corporate think tanks can be seen as a crash course in research. Besides, the feeling of ownership over the research projects for young researchers is a strong one in corporate think tanks. High work intensity makes the job quite absorbing, but the prospect of working for clients, may result in a more profitable career than permanently doing research.

Coming up next…

Next post will offer a list of recommendations think tanks can apply, based on these findings, in order to make themselves more attractive and better at retaining young talent.


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