Skip to main content

A Career as a Think-Tank Analyst is Worth Thinking About

You hear about a survey that shows that the waiting time for surgery in hospitals is up significantly across the country. You read about a study that concludes there will be no settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict until both sides make major compromises.

Both of those reports are examples of the work of think-tanks.

"A think-tank is an organization which scientifically researches public policy problems and tries to come up with the solutions that work best," explains Chris Kennedy. Kennedy is a media relations associate with a think-tank in Washington, D.C.

"The questions they answer can be virtually anything -- how high taxes should be, where to build and expand roads in order to reduce traffic, how to reorganize domestic security to prevent more terrorist attacks."

Some organizations calling themselves think-tanks are for-profit. That means the government or some other group pays them to come up with their ideas, says Kennedy.

"Most think-tanks...prefer to remain nonprofit so that their solutions can be viewed, for the most part, as unbiased," he says.

To put it in simple terms, Kennedy says, the main goal of any think-tank is to change people's minds about issues. "Whether it's a retiree watching the news at home, a high school student interested in politics or a United States senator, we...would love for them to be listening to us," he says.

"We put our ideas into papers and aggressively market them to lawmakers. And we are constantly talking to the media -- newspapers, talk radio and TV networks like FOX and CNN."

Barry Cooper is the director of a research center of a think-tank. His think-tank often finds its views being reported by the media, he says. The group puts out about 10 books a year as well as reports and bulletins.

"We do media briefings and we go and talk to government officials," he says.

Cooper points to the case of the hospital waiting lists to show what impact a think-tank can have on a government. Ten years ago, when his group first did the study, he says, government officials denied there was a problem. Today, he says, the government is working on the issue.

People who work at think-tanks are called analysts. They generally have at least a master's degree. They often have PhDs. They can be at a junior or senior level depending on their years of experience.

Most of the analysts at Cooper's institute are between 25 and 35 years old. Once they have experience working at a think-tank, they can find more lucrative jobs in government relations or in the private sector.

But many young analysts enjoy the work they do, Cooper says. "For someone in their 20s, they get to move in some fairly high-altitude circles. We typically deal with CEOs of fairly large companies," he says. "Analysts benefit greatly from the contacts they make."

Cooper adds it can be somewhat difficult to get your foot in the door at many think-tanks. "It is kind of a plum job to get," he says.

"We don't pay them as well as we might, but our other benefits are so attractive that people don't mind earning, say, 10 percent less. To do this kind of work, you are guaranteed to have an impact on public opinions."

In the United States, Kennedy says those in entry-level positions at think-tanks can make between $25,000 and $35,000. Junior analysts or professional staffers make between $35,000 and $50,000. Mid-level analysts earn in the $50,000 to $80,000 range. And senior analysts are in a higher range of $80,000 to $170,000.

"Most policy folk in Washington do what they do because they love it and they wish to serve," Kennedy says. "There are plenty of perks and rewards, but if you're purely into cash you should do something else."

The U.S. think-tank job market reflects the performance of the overall economy. But, as Kennedy notes, "It is a much more stable field than many that are out there right now."

To work in this field, you need good communication skills, both written and verbal. Classes in the social sciences are helpful as well.

There isn't, however, one set of courses that will make it easier for you to get hired by a top think-tank, says Richard Stoll. He is a former associate director of a public policy institute in Houston. He says policy studies is a good major to prepare for this type of work.

"On the other hand," he adds, "there is a need for people who speak languages of the Middle East, who understand the culture. I could see if that is what you want to do, you might be better off being a double major in anthropology and Arabic."

Kennedy says experience counts for more than book smarts. "Fancy degrees help, learn 99.9 percent of what you need to know on the job."

So what should you focus on? "Read the paper and watch the news," Kennedy says.

"Volunteer for a cause or campaign. There's always one going on somewhere, and you may even get paid."

If you do volunteer and like the work you do, a think-tank might be the place for you. It won't be an easy field to break into. But once you step through that door, the rewards can be great.


The Baker Institute of Public Policy
Check out what's being studied

The Heritage Institute
Get briefed on what's happening

Back to Career Cluster


  • Email Support

  • 1-800-GO-TO-XAP (1-800-468-6927)
    From outside the U.S., please call +1 (424) 750-3900


Powered by XAP

OCAP believes that financial literacy and understanding the financial aid process are critical aspects of college planning and student success. OCAP staff who work with students, parents, educators and community partners in the areas of personal finance education, state and federal financial aid, and student loan management do not provide financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice. This website and all information provided is for general educational purposes only, and is not intended to be construed as financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice.