Remote internships at think tanks: Research, Outreach, and Diplomacy

7 November 2012

One thing has become undeniable over the last couple of decades, especially since the beginning of the current global crisis: Getting a foot on the career ladder is increasingly hard. Well qualified students and graduates need to build an ever greater portfolio of internships and volunteering experiences to set themselves apart from the rest. This has especially been the case in international and intellectual work in economics, development, sustainability and the like. In these areas, having a Masters degree in the subject is usually the absolute minimum requirement and  practical experience is a pre-requisite to getting a job, but finding descent research and other opportunities to facilitate that success—that do not require a full-time obligation and can be worked around their studies and other commitments—is difficult at best. By offering remote, home-based internships think tanks can fill a niche and not only offer valuable experience to bright and committed young people, but draw tremendous benefits that build research, outreach and diplomacy capacity of the institution and host country itself.

This is exactly the policy that we are currently enacting within the Institute of Advanced Development Studies (INESAD) international communications and outreach (ICO) team that: a) carries out academic research for INESAD’s Center of Environmental and Economic Modeling and Analysis (CEEMA); b) writes for the institute’s English language blog Development Roast and; c) implements a comprehensive social media, communications and outreach strategy.

Research and writing

Think tanks and research institutes are great at producing academic and technical output. Meanwhile, getting published as co-authors in peer-reviewed publications or institutional working papers is a huge draw for would be interns looking to boost their resumes. However, in order to survive, thrive and influence policy and opinion, think tanks also need to have a strong online presence and be able to engage wider audiences. This requires more accessible, shorter forms of writing for blogs and mainstream media channels that are published much more frequently. This is where interns can be really useful.

For instance, INESAD’s Development Roast blog is themed every month. October was a Fun Economics month and November is focusing on Environmental Accounting and Sustainability. The interns are currently working on an academic meta-analysis and an annotated bibliography of national environmental accounting experiences from around the world to date that will be published early in 2013. Throughout November they will post Live Research Updates to give a flavour of the most interesting findings so far and, along with INESAD staff and directors, will add other theoretical and policy pieces to widen the debate. This serves several purposes; Readers are engaged in one of INESAD’s main working themes, the summary articles will later serve as good bases for staff op-eds to be published in policy and popular media, and current and potential funders are impressed with the level of output the institute produces.

Currently INESAD is posting at least four articles of original materials a week and we are building up to daily postings that range from thought-provoking analyses by INESAD staff and Guest Roasters to lists of initiatives that work on the ground, from interesting carbon footprint infographics to economic cartoons, from book reviews to news of staff publications elsewhere.

Interns can also help in engaging with media not only by researching media outlets of interest to the institute, but also in drafting and tailoring op-eds and other pieces for different strategic publications as co-authors with senior think tank staff, and by contacting publications that may be interested in re-posting blog articles. At INESAD this has been very effective in increasing institute’s media mentions, without adding to the workload of senior research staff. Just in the last week of October, Development Roast articles were re-posted to half a dozen different media publications including ZeitNews, Global Economics Intersect, and The Elephant and have received media mentions in half a dozen more. This adds to the INESAD in the Media portfolio that will be used to attract future funding, while allowing our interns to build their own publications list that will help them in their future endeavours.


External outreach is vital to any communications strategy, but it also takes a lot of leg-work to do well. Having several interns work together makes this process simpler and more effective, while diversifying their working schedule. At INESAD each intern is a member of several groups on social media sites like LinkedIn and Facebook. One of their ongoing outreach tasks is to publicise Development Roast posts in those social media circles that would have an interest in the topics under discussion. They then monitor all discussions and debates that result and engage with every single person who is part of them. This allows INESAD to spread its message further and build a much more loyal following by engaging with readers on a deeper level. These are tasks that cannot be done effectively by one person and senior researchers are often too busy or may not have an interest in working this way. Interns also benefit as they build their own networks around the topics that interest them.

The same strategies may not work for everyone or everything. The added advantage of having many hands on deck is that it gives ample room to experiment, learn, and find what works for you. INESAD interns produce monthly reports on their outreach activities and report back on what works and what doesn’t. We also encourage them to undertake remote courses and webinars that will be good for their professional and personal development and to share their learning points with the rest of the team to help everyone grow. This way they pick up and generate ideas to foster institutional development that may otherwise be out of reach.


Nothing fosters mutual respect, understanding and peaceful relations between people and nations than exposure to other ways of life and being. At INESAD we are proud and conscious of our standing as representatives of Bolivia. For this reason the INESAD remote intern team is incredibly diverse and is currently composed of an American Anthropologist in the U.S., a Brazilian studying International Development in Canada, a Canadian studying International Relations in Argentina, and a German student of Chinese in England. The breadth of intern backgrounds and locations was purposeful. Not only does it allow INESAD to expand to different linguistic zones and increase its inter-disciplinary offering, it also fosters wider diplomacy and promotes Bolivia into the future as the team will learn much about the country as a result of their experience and take that with them into their careers.

The remote ICO team at INESAD has been instrumental in advancing the interests of the institute with measured gains and can be a way to provide tremendous benefits to other institutions, as well as young people from around the world.