Who should work for a think tank (do you need a PhD?)

Ulrike FrankeUlrike Franke (2012, DPhil International Relations) is Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). She leads ECFR’s Technology and European Power initiative, in which she covers a diverse range of questions covering German and European security and defence, the future of warfare, and the impact of new technologies such as drones and artificial intelligence on geopolitics and warfare.

Ulrike joined us for our most recent Alumni Career Conversation held in Trinity term. Here she shares her advice on how to decide if a career in think tanks is for you, as well as her thoughts on whether a PhD is necessary to get into this field.

A career in think tanks could be perfect for you if you enjoy:

  • Writing! This is an absolute essential, as communicating ideas and research findings is a big part of the job.
  • Being part of policy conversations in the ‘intellectual ecosystem’ and having access to thinkers and policy makers in a wide range of positions.
  • Research (but not too much!) – you definitely do research but projects tend to span months rather than years. If you really want to spend a lot of time on a topic then academia might be more for you.
  • Flexibility – practically, in terms of being able to work from home/anywhere and also in the sense of being able to shape your own work and the topics you work on.
  • Motivating yourself – you won’t always be working in a group or team, and you won’t necessarily be told what to do, so you may have to shape your research quite a bit yourself.
  • Being a spokesperson – media work is sometimes a part of the job, so it helps if you enjoy talking about your subject. In turn, this creates an opportunity to ‘build your own brand’ and creates related opportunities.
  • Travel - a lot of travel can be involved in working for a think tank – you don’t necessarily have to do all of it and a lot of it is flexible to you, but it is something to consider.

Do you need a PhD to work in a think tank?

The short answer is no, but it does give you certain advantages. Two important advantages are:

  1. The expertise that comes from having a PhD: being able to say that you are one of a very small number of people in the world that really knows as much about this topic as you do. If the topic is in any way relevant to what the think tank does then this is worth quite a bit.
  2. With the title comes a certain standing, recognition, and gravitas.

However, if you are an MPhil student and are really keen to work in a think tank but you’re not particularly keen to do a DPhil, then you don’t need to do a DPhil in order to get there.