How do I become a "think-tanker"?
February 8, 2006 11:35 AM   Subscribe

What is the official name for a think tank type career? How do I get into the field, and where might I look for company that employs tank-thinkers?

I've been told a million times that the best way to enjoy your career is to find something that makes you happy and do it. What I enjoy most is coming up with new ideas relating to technology, the web, and useful products in general. The problem is I lack the connections and knowledge needed to create said products.

My Question: Where can I be employed to do this kind of work, and what is the official title of someone who does it?
posted by ThFullEffect to Work & Money (18 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Here's a list of think tanks in the US. Go to the webpages of the think tanks there and browse their employment / career sites.

Looking at the RAND Corporation's employment site, for example, you need a PhD in your field for 'research and analysis' positions and a university degree in your field for 'research support' positions.

So, get a degree (preferable an advanced degree) in the field you like, then apply.
posted by driveler at 11:57 AM on February 8, 2006

I've known more than a few people in this particular occupation, and they all fell into two categories: extreme genius type with Ph.d., or ahem, connected rich kid. Admittedly, all of the latter were in so-called "political" think tanks.

If you really want a serious job, you'll need to convince your potential employer of your worth. Without a proven track record or relevant degree, good luck!
posted by kungfujoe at 12:04 PM on February 8, 2006 [1 favorite]

Usually "think tankers" work in the field of public policy or economics depending on what fields you are interested in.

I used to work for a well-known "think tank" in DC and it had 10 separate "policy centers" that studied everything: housing, taxes, health, etc. Even had an international activities center which worked in developing nations and former eastern block nations.

Not all think tanks are alike. Some are very ideologically driven, and others (like the one I worked for) don't do any lobbying or take positions on pending legislation.

Entry-level public policy positions where I worked were usually filled with VERY smart people from good schools who were asked to crunch numbers (using SAS) and write/edit reports. Like academia, it is a publish or perish sort of job.

I worked in communications and the web.
posted by terrapin at 12:12 PM on February 8, 2006 [1 favorite]

The closest to what you're specifically looking for is the MIT Media Lab.

I hate to burst your bubble, though, but there are a million people like you who would love go get paid for that kind of thing. Think Tanks generally come find you (usually through college recruiting, or if you're a known expert in your field), not the other way around.
posted by mkultra at 12:20 PM on February 8, 2006

You have all been quite helpful, however the catch with getting a degree is that I cannot currently afford to go back to school, and federal financial aid is somewhat out of the question due to my parents' income and my non-independent status according to FAFSA Guidelines.

Is there any way to be self-made? I suppose that I am just getting tired of my current job. Call me an idealist, but I'd rather find a career that I love, than have a job that pays the bills. If I have to, I'll spend every spare dime I have actually developing one of my ideas if it will put me on the map. I don't mind putting in the work, I just don't know what direction to start running.

Failing working for a think tank, can anyone point me in the right direction when it comes to developing a product or an idea? I know that is rather vague, but should I patent the idea first? If I have an idea that would better a currently-existing service, how do I present the idea so that they don't run off with the idea without me?
posted by ThFullEffect at 12:27 PM on February 8, 2006

The reason, I think, people are pointing you toward Ph.D. programs is that you need to prove to them your ability to actually do research and produce interesting ideas/projects/proposals, etc. If you already do that for your job, and can legally get some examples to shop around, that might be a place to start.

If you don't, then you'll have to develop and/or research and/or deploy the ideas on your own. That's also a good way to make sure they don't run off with your idea first. Do your work, copyright/trademark/patent it, and post it online and shop it to journals. The best way to impress potential employers along these lines is to get known in the field as a guy who does 'good work'. Probably the most direct way toward that goal is the Ph. D, but doing 'good work' outside the academy seems possible, too.
posted by ChasFile at 12:38 PM on February 8, 2006

Why don't you become a consultant for a firm that focuses on technology issues?
posted by Kololo at 12:40 PM on February 8, 2006

I think it is difficult to independently develop something that will better an existing service unless you can develop and market the service yourself. If what your idea is for a new feature to an existing service, unless you work for the company that service, I think it would be very difficult to get anywhere with your idea.

On the other hand, if you've got a product that you yourself can develop - go for it. This is how lots of businesses start out - people investing their own time. Once you've built your product, then you might worry about a patent, or put together a business plan (there are lots of books to help with this) and try and get some investors to build your business.
posted by drobot at 12:40 PM on February 8, 2006

First, you have to get published. A lot. Preferably in mainstream publications - the bigger the better. One short op-ed in the NYT is worth more to them than a 1,000 brilliant, research oriented academic paper no one will read. (The op-ed is frequently just a way of getting people interested in your academic work).

And if you want to become a think tanker, frequently you have to find your own funding. A lot of think tanks will take on smart people with good academic/political reputations, but often they only provide the overhead i.e. the office where you work and a job title. Often your funding has to be secured independently through a foundation. Though I suppose some pay for your services outright, having your own funding or leads on funding is very persuasive if you want to get a think tank to take you on. But be careful about how you go about getting that funding -- see Michael Fumento's cautionary tale.
posted by Heminator at 1:07 PM on February 8, 2006

federal financial aid is somewhat out of the question due to my parents' income and my non-independent status according to FAFSA Guidelines.

Is there any way to be self-made?

Yes. The first step to becoming "self-made" is to stop being a dependent of your parents. Then you can get the financial aid you're looking for, get a degree, and make yourself.

I don't mean to be (overly) snarky, but a rewarding career starts with getting off the family dole and doing what it takes to get the career you want.
posted by JekPorkins at 1:29 PM on February 8, 2006

You might try for a job as an analyst at Accenture, or Gartner, Forrester, or IDT. These companies do analysis of industries and technology trends and stuff. This would not let you build out ideas of your own, but to assess the ideas of others. But it might lead somewhere good -- to you being an expert on telco, aviation, automotive, healthcare IT systems and trends. And then you could spin that into a job at a think tank.

What you're describing is not a think tank, at least not most of the ones that I'm familiar with (exception here is the RAND corp, but...). What you're describing sounds most like a VC fund / Group / Company. These companies take ideas and fund them (and sometimes help "run" them). Or you need to write up one of your best ideas into a business plan. This plan will explain your idea and will explain how it will make money. Then you shop this idea to VC firms. If funded, you're set, at least for a couple of years to have a go and see if you can make the project happen. Either it works out, begins to make money (or at least stops losing money), and you leave to pursue other things (so that the company can get a "real" CEO. Or it fails and you move on anyway.
posted by zpousman at 2:08 PM on February 8, 2006

What I enjoy most is coming up with new ideas relating to technology, the web, and useful products in general. The problem is I lack the connections and knowledge needed to create said products.

This isn't a job description, it's a loafer's dream. You need to acquire some connections and/or knowledge; the place people do those things is called "school."
posted by ikkyu2 at 2:39 PM on February 8, 2006 don't actually need connections or knowledge if you want a cushy job at the Heritage Foundation.
posted by johngoren at 3:35 PM on February 8, 2006

Occupied Iraq was just as Simone Ledeen had imagined -- ornate mosques, soldiers in formation, sand blowing everywhere, "just like on TV." The 28-year-old daughter of neoconservative pundit Michael Ledeen and a recently minted MBA, she had arrived on a military transport plane with the others and was eager to get to work.

apparently you do need connections.
posted by b1tr0t at 6:44 PM on February 8, 2006

apparently you do need connections.

And a graduate degree. (and a recently minted MBA)

And she speaks three languages. Oh, and she worked in a publishing house in Eastern Europe for a year. And she's an AEI scholar.

So apparently even if you're a well-connected rich brat, you still have to get your degree, go to grad school, and build a good resume. And only then will you land the sweet job in the war zone.
posted by JekPorkins at 6:59 PM on February 8, 2006

Perhaps I am simply perceiving JekPorkins' post a little more negatively than was intended. I would like to point out that I am, in fact, quite on my own. If you were to spend 3 seconds reading the FAFSA page I linked to, you would understand that I am just not old enough, orphaned enough, veteran-ed enough, etc to be considered independent by their standards.

I apologize for responding in such a negative manner, but I work a full time job just like everyone else here, and I really don't appreciate anybody trivializing my situation or my goals.

As for everyone else, thank you for the information. I have been a MeFite for some time, but this is my first question. I am actually very excited by how much of a response I received. Thank you.

I believe I will take the advice of zpousman and write up a business proposal for a venture capitalist firm and then sell it like there's no tomorrow and hope they fund my ambitions.
posted by ThFullEffect at 10:07 PM on February 8, 2006

Sorry -- didn't mean to be down on you, and I didn't realize that FAFSA used a different way of determining whether you're a dependent than the IRS does.

That said, I know a few people who have done very well as "idea" people, starting their own businesses and coming up with all kinds of crazy tech ideas, business ideas, inventions and marketing junk. Most of them put themselves into the hole pretty good financially for many, many years before coming out on top. Without exception, though, they did it on their own and didn't sell their ideas to anyone.

One friend, in particular, started with a small business, never went to college, and parlayed the small business into one that dominated a small niche market. Then she hired herself out to other businesses to help them to develop the same way. She gained part ownership of the companies as she went, and basically has made an obscene fortune by being an idea person who jumps from company to company helping them, consulting, and being paid in stock. Not a bad deal if you can swing it. I think a lot of it is her personality, organization and drive. She gives lectures at business schools all the time, and is always careful not to tell them that she never spent a single day in college.

Best of luck!
posted by JekPorkins at 10:17 PM on February 8, 2006

What I enjoy most is coming up with new ideas relating to technology, the web, and useful products in general. The problem is I lack the connections and knowledge needed to create said products.

I'm struck by this part of your question. I'll tell you straight: Think tanks do not create products. Even the Media Lab (or the fabled Xerox PARC) isn't known for building stuff people actually use, with a few exceptions.

For web technology, places like Google Labs are where the really interesting things are happening (and Yahoo, and Microsoft, and smaller startups -- probably the majority of such jobs).

If your interests are more tangible, and you fancy yourself an inventor, then you probably either know a field that interests you terribly -- and what you want to become is an engineer. Or you want to get into a product-design firm like frogdesign (famous for their work on many Apple products) or ideo. These are places that bring together interdisciplinary teams -- people with some experience building things, some experience in marketing, some experience in psychology, that sort of thing. That would be an exciting career in some ways.

I wouldn't count on being an independent "inventor" unless you're obsessive about toying around with stuff in your garage workshop. This guy took 11 years to invent something seemingly simple: colored bubbles. In the end he is getting rich, but it wasn't easy or overnight. On the plus side, it didn't require him to have the strongest academic resume.

Anyway, I suspect that "think tank" is the wrong way to go for you. Think tanks -- especially the political kind -- are in many ways not destinations but waysides and parking spaces. Policy think tanks are theoretically where people from the party out of power get jobs until their party gets in power again (unless they want/need to make money, then they go to K Street). Even people like Ms. Ledeen are using their think tank stint as a period of networking before starting a more lucrative "real" career.
posted by dhartung at 10:24 PM on February 8, 2006 [1 favorite]

« Older Please help me find Immortal - Sons of Northern...   |   Help me dump my agent Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.