OTT School for Thinktankers 2024: a student thinktanker’s perspective

4 March 2024

The School for Thinktankers is one of the few places where a student can connect with the brilliant minds steering global think tanks and those catalysing societal change. I would whole-heartedly recommend this School to anyone considering starting a new think tank, wanting to develop their skills further, or for those wanting to gain an insight into thinktankers’ perspectives.   

As a student thinktanker at Cambridge University’s The Wilberforce Society (TWS), when I received the invitation to spend a week deep-diving into the world of think tanks in the heart of European policy-making, Brussels, I was surprised but excited.  

Despite the mere four-hour train journey from the United Kingdom (UK), the academic distance between the two locations was palpable: I had travelled from the comparatively narrow world of student think tanks to the global think tank ecosystem.  

When I arrived at the School, I was struck by the wealth of experience and connections there. 

The week was filled with interesting conversations and insights into the think tank industry. My highlights were the visits to the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) and the European Parliament, and a candid conversation with Goran Buldioski, a funder from the Open Society Foundation 

What does a student think tank do? 

Our primary goal as student thinktankers is to demystify public policy and make it relatable to the younger generations. We also offer students a platform from which they can take their first steps into the world of think tank research and policy briefs.  

Like other student think tanks, TWS is run by student volunteers and it receives small amounts of institutional funding from the university and alumni.  

Most student think tanks necessarily have a narrow focus because of their limited funds and the limitations on student volunteers’ time, for example, TWS focuses on UK-specific concerns 

But having such limited economic pressure also allows us to be very independent and – as another participant of the School described us – “the rebels that can dare things, other established institutions could not even think of.”  

Lessons for student thinktankers 

Whether or not the student thinktankers present at this year’s School pursue a career in the think tank world, many of the lessons offered can be applied to any organisational context: how to structure companies, engage in networking, find funding, marketise your product or discover your niche.  

This experience really showed me the skills a think tank must possess to thrive in an ever-more competitive and complex environment.  

What particularly resonated with me was the quote I heard during the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM) visit: a thinktanker should “think like an academic, act like a diplomat, write like a journalist, fundraise like a businessman.”   

From my perspective, the following sessions and lessons were particularly relevant for student thinktankers. 

1. Challenge your preconceived notions of think tanks 

One of the first lessons that we learnt was to challenge our preconceived notions of ‘the think tank’ itself.  

As most participants of the School were either in the early stages of their think tank careers or were about to start their own think tank, many had an equally open mind to the way think tanks operate.  

We learnt that local context and area matters a lot, something which the participants from all around the world could agree with.  

The conclusion was that what a think tank does is more important than what it is, which is another lesson that resonated with me.  

2. Communicate clearly  

One session that I thought was particularly relevant to the student think tank experience was a talk by Stuart Coles, the Head of Media and Communications at Chatham House.  

He talked about how to integrate communications into the early stages of the research process so that the final output targets the intended audience. At TWS, this is something that we need to improve upon.  

Social-media-savvy Gen Z is our primary audience, so a policy paper of 60 pages or more is not the most appropriate output with which to engage them.  

This is a significant challenge for our communications team; one of the key learnings I will take to TWS is a diversification of outputs – next time, we’ll use a one-minute YouTube explainer or a podcast episode to reach our audience! 

3. Future-proof your think tank 

The second session that stood out for me was the one about governance by Dr Sonja Stojanović Gajić 

A rapid turnover within student think tanks is normal, as students leave when they finish their degrees or decide to pursue different activities.  

Therefore, talking about building institutional memory through the better integration of board structures was very helpful; it could help to futureproof TWS and other student think tanks.  

Dr Gajić also showed how student think tanks can utilise their surrounding support network to do this, both internally and university-wide.