Recommendations for think tanks: How to attract and retain young talent?

2 December 2015
SERIES How to attract and retain young talent 4 items

How can think tanks become better at attracting and retaining young talent? This is the question we’ve aimed to answer in this series. To do this, we talked with several young researchers from prominent Peruvian think tanks.

In the previous blog posts in this series, we analysed their answers in order to understand what drives the quality of the experience, benefits and opportunities they gain by working in some Peruvian think tanks.

We found it useful to distinguish between academic and corporate think tanks, based on the main orientation of the research they conduct (academic think tanks are orientated towards academic research, while corporate think tanks orient their research projects towards their client’s needs).

In academic think tanks, we found that the relationship that young thinktankers have with their senior researchers can be as important as the one they develop with the think tank itself (and perhaps slightly more important). This is because in academic think tanks, senior researchers have a high level of independence and control over the research projects they conduct. In corporate think tanks, projects tend to be shorter and understood to be the responsibility of the organisation as a whole. This allows ownership to be granted to young researchers, which makes the quality of their experience less dependent on their relationship with their superior and more reliant on that with the institution itself.

Regarding the experience itself, we found that young researchers working in academic think tanks tend to focus on one or two long term projects, which results in a daily low work intensity and available time to pursue personal projects. In corporate think tanks, young researchers handle several projects at a time, and work intensity is high, which leaves little or no time to handle extra-work activities.

At academic think tanks, researchers appear to focus on fewer tasks that at corporate think tanks: so on-the-job learning is different, too.

The future opportunities that open up for young researchers are also different. While in academic think tanks, researchers tend to follow the academic path, corporate think tanks offer the possibility of moving on to work for one of their wide range of clients.

Here we present a series of recommendations think tanks can take into account in order to make themselves more attractive to young talent and to be better at retaining them. None of these recommendations are specific to academic or corporate think tanks alone, mainly because these two concepts are not absolute (we can distinguish patterns, but most think tanks exist in a place in between, as I said on my first post).

[Note: the question of how to attract and retain talent concerns other actors from the third sector as well. For example, here is a survey that asks about recruitment challenges facing Charities]

Attracting young talent: Thin tanks should create formal mechanisms for entry

  1. Formal mechanisms for entry: Clear hiring procedures (that apply to all posts and at all levels) signal that the one who is hiring is the think tank and not the senior researcher. This can have an important effect in improving the overall experience of the young thinktankers.
  2. Have a work for us section on the think tank’s webpage that includes all calls for candidates. We have seen that young researchers are usually hired through connections with senior researchers -this also happens in corporate think tanks. This limits the potential talent think tanks can get hold of and creates a bias towards always hiring from the same universities and closed circles. While difficult, think tanks should not be afraid of opening up to new talent from outside your usual circle of trust.
  3. Introduce standardised job descriptions: Calls for candidates which outline the roles and responsibilities of the thinktankers as well as the duty of care of the think tank towards the young researchers can enhance the importance of the relationship between thinktanker and think tank.

Retaining young talent: Think tanks need a strategy towards young thinktankers

  1. Reward them for entrepreneurship: For example, some think tanks offer lower overheads for young researchers that develop their own research projects and find funding for them. This creates an interesting line of work for the think tank and awards ownership of short and long-term projects to young researchers, which we have seen is a key motivational tool.
  2. Use them as representatives: Think tanks could send young researchers as delegates to international conferences -happening locally or abroad. In 2014, Peru hosted the COP20 climate conference and the IMF-World Bank meeting took place in 2015. How many think tanks encouraged and supported their young researchers to participate in these events?
  3. Generate various spaces and channels in which thinktankers can publish their work: Restricting publications only to academic outputs limits the amount of documents the think tank produces and can exclude young researchers from the process of publication. Consider other types of publications, such as background notes to conferences and events, literature reviews, and blog posts.
  4. Create and institutionalise more exchange spaces where young researchers can mingle and converse with senior staff: Young thinktankers can take advantage of these spaces by presenting their work or by attending. It also helps create a culture of openness and sharing within the think tanks.
  5. Create special research or innovation awards for research assistants: These can have a monetary prize or not, as they can also offer publication and diffusion of the work produced.
  6. Promote the participation of young researchers in the courses think tanks offer to outsiders: This can be achieved by giving them special rewards or offering them for free.

Offering a brighter future: Think tanks should not leave this to “them”

  1. Acknowledge the fact you are a stepping stone for young researchers: A healthy turnover of young thinktankers can be between 2 to 3 years working for the think tank, and then leaving for other workplaces or to study. This is perfectly acceptable and think tanks should encourage young thinktankers to grow and develop as professionals. This will maximise the chances that they will return to them.
  2. Measure your success by where your young researchers go to work or study afterwards: Maintaining a healthy relationship with former employers, especially if they are at the start of their career, strengthens the think tank’s networks. There are still few (or no) indicators of think tanks success in this respect.
  3. Offer help to young researchers who seek to pursue postgraduate studies: Facilitate information and offer assistance for instance by hosting guests from universities, offering talks about the senior researchers’ own alma matters, providing grants for one or more research assistants you are accepted to leading universities, etc.


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