How think tanks can help launch your global dev career

Three women in a discussion. Photo by: rawpixel

Think tanks provide high-level research and analysis critical in shaping policy and decisions in global development. While research is a core function of think tanks, they are made up of a range of professionals, with expertise in project management; analysis and insights; communications and advocacy; as well as subject-area specialists.

“Think tanks can be a great way to transition into global development.”

— Payal Chandiramani, communications director, Chemonics International

Working with a think tank, especially in the early days of your global development career, can help you understand what influences policy and how this impacts the actions of governments, multilaterals, and agencies in the global development space. As independent bodies, think tanks work with a whole range of organizations and institutions and are a great way to get familiar with key players in the sector.

Devex spoke to three professionals who interned with think tanks to find out how their experience helped them develop their skills for a career in global development.

Figure out where you fit within the sector

For many recent graduates, an internship or fellowship with a think tank can be that first job out of university. This was the case for Ayobami Egunyomi, now project assistant at EnCompass, who, at the time, was deciding between pursuing a doctorate, going down the specialist route, or moving into more project-management roles.

Upon graduating with a degree in international relations, Egunyomi spent nine months as a research intern at the Council on Foreign Relations, where she was predominantly working on research for a book, followed by five months as a project assistant at The Atlantic Council. This was where she realized she enjoyed project-based work. She also felt there were more opportunities for career progression in this area of global development and so switched her focus from foreign policy to project management.

Payal Chandiramani, now communications director at Chemonics International, also found that interning with a think tank helped her change career direction. Previously, she was working in fundraising for a national marine conservation nonprofit but left this role to pursue a master’s in international development. During her studies, Chandiramani interned at the Woodrow Wilson Center as part of their environmental change and security program. A year later, in 2013, she landed a job with Chemonics, where she has since worked in a number of different roles.

“Think tanks can be a great way to transition into global development, as I did,” Chandiramani told Devex in an email. “They can also be [a] great place to ‘do’ development,” she added, “through contributing to thought leaderships around trends and themes, and raising awareness of successes, challenges, and solutions.”

Similarly, through interning with a think tank, Amy Dickens, a doctorate candidate, was able to move from a fundraising job to working in research. “I had always known I might be interested in pursuing a job in policy or research and was looking to develop my skills in this area,” she said in an email to Devex.

Working with the think tank Polygeia fueled Dickens’ interest in health and human rights, she said, which she is now pursuing in her Ph.D. This wasn’t always her plan, and Dickens is still considering returning to policymaking and research, she said.

“Think tank jobs are extremely competitive,” she said, “so I hope my Ph.D. could be a useful stepping stone towards this.”

Build expertise

Many internships focused on supporting research, these experiences can allow young professionals to build their expertise and network on specific subject areas.

During her time at the Council on Foreign Relations, Egunyomi, who was born in Nigeria and had a strong interest on issues related to development there, worked under the supervision of a former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria.

According to Egunyomi, your experience with a think tank can really depend on the fellow you work with. For her, it was a privilege to work with someone who not only had years of experience with the Department of State but also encouraged her to gain as much from the internship as she could. With the support of her supervising fellow, Egunyomi published a number of articles for the think tank’s Africa in Transition blog.

Chandiramani also produced blogs for the Wilson Center’s New Security Beat during her internship. This involved covering topics such as population and demography, environmental security, maternal and child health, and international development which were “extremely relevant” to her graduate coursework. The experience also “helped introduce me to key topics and players in the development space,” Chandiramani added.

Develop transferable skills

Reflecting on her internship, Chandiramani said that the experience allowed her to develop skills, such as audio editing, blog writing, and event planning, which have come in handy in her career.

“I still rely on some of the lessons learned and the skills I built during my graduate internship at the Wilson Center,” she said.

For Egunyomi, it was specifically the project-based skills she developed that have proven to be “really transferrable.” Her current role involves a great deal of communicating with partners on deliverables so her experience interacting with think tank clients has been helpful.

As an intern, one of Dickens’ tasks was drafting and editing policy papers which was something she had no previous experience working on. Learning about the process involved in this was really useful, she explained, and “learning how to structure and present information in this style was hugely helpful.”

Not only does Dickens feel that the internship allowed her to develop her writing, research, and organizational skills, but, in predominantly working on her own in coordination with other organizations, she gained confidence in her own abilities.

About the author

  • Emma Smith

    Emma Smith is a Reporter at Devex. She covers all things related to careers and hiring in the global development community as well as mental health within the sector — from tips on supporting humanitarian staff to designing mental health programs for refugees. Emma has reported from key development hubs in Europe and co-produced Devex’s DevProWomen2030 podcast series. She holds a degree in journalism from Glasgow Caledonian University and a master's in media and international conflict. In addition to writing for regional news publications, she has worked with organizations focused on child and women’s rights.