Six tips for think tanks wanting to offer career progression

2 December 2019
SERIES Ideas, reflections and advice from future think tank leaders 17 items

Employees are more engaged if they believe their employer wants them to grow and is willing to help them achieve their career goals. So, it’s worthwhile for think tanks to invest in staff progression.

A good career development path gives employees opportunities to enhance their skills and knowledge, seek promotions and/or transfer to different positions.

Here are six tips for think tanks to give their staff a clear career path and support:

1. Start early

Encouraging young researchers to think about their career goals when they first join your organisation gives you (and them) time to develop the skills and experiences needed to fulfil them.

2. Expand horizons

Senior researchers and management play an important role in helping junior staff understand and think through their career path options. Many researchers may have moved from undergraduate studies all the way through to postdoctoral research within the same department and may not know what else is out there. Support from senior team members can help broaden their horizons.

3. Make career progression work for your organisation

Career development shouldn’t be seen as separate – or even rival – to researchers’ day to day work. Supporting researchers to identify and achieve their career goals can also help your think tank achieve its mission and goals.

Here are some questions to ask with research staff when assigning project roles: What specific research skills can they develop as part of this project? Are there other areas of the project they could assist in to support career goals? Would involvement in the financial side of the project give them valuable experience? Can they attend conferences to build their (and the organisation’s) experience and profile?

4.  Don’t exclude non-academic career paths

Within the research sector, there is sometimes a divide between those who follow strict academic career paths and those who venture out into more practitioner- and policy-oriented roles.

Some research managers from the academic side can view with suspicion, or even hostility, junior researchers who express interest in looking outside the academic world.

But if you really want to support and develop your staff, it shouldn’t be a competition. Let junior staff decide what they want and help them to develop the skills to pursue their goals. In a think tank, having a mix of skills and interests is actually very beneficial.

5.  Don’t forget about non-research staff

It’s important for senior think tank staff to not forget about non-researcher staff progression – in areas such as IT, communications, human resources and finance. They also should have training and growth opportunities, clear pathways and mentoring programmes. In an increasingly competitive market, keeping talented staff will depend on this.

In some think tanks, managers are implementing formal rotations between key functions – such as finance services and admin – that can help improve talent retention and demonstrate to employees that the organisation is invested in developing them.

6.  Communicate clearly and honestly

Finally, managers must communicate clearly to their teams how the organisation can help them grow and develop. They must handle conversations carefully and honestly, not creating false expectations or commitments that can’t be fulfilled.