4 Things to Know before Your Internship at a D.C. Think Tank

Posted on Friday, Jul 20, 2018

Think tanks have a different culture than governmental offices and offices on the Hill. Have you ever wondered what skills and experience set interns apart at D.C.’s most prominent think tanks? These are the top 4 things to know before you start your internship at a D.C. think tank.
 
  1. Spreadsheets, Spreadsheets, Spreadsheets
Every part of a think tank program is managed through spreadsheets. This goes for data after it has been calculated in R or Stata, event management, budgeting, and office management. Knowing your way around Excel will put you in a competitive advantage to your peers because like I said above everything a program does uses a spreadsheet. Spreadsheets become incredibly important in the case of hosting high level speakers because they provide the director of the program a one stop shop for all important information.
 
  1. Marketing websites
Think tanks like the Wilson Center are hubs for high level speakers and media. On any given week, the Center will host high level NATO and UN officials as well as Ambassadors. When walking through the Center’s halls one can see photos of everyone who has spoken at the center including President Obama, Mike Pence, and Madeline Albright. The Center and many other think tanks have an entire function outside of research and that is events. Interns with experience in social media marketing, Photoshop or other editing software, and marketing analytics are extremely useful to think tanks. Often this information is not talked about in intern applications but comes around in the interview and at the job.
 
  1. Professionalism
Working in a think tank often means you will be sharing a space with the best scholars the world has to offer on any given topic. That being said, you will be expected to have a level of professionalism when engaging with your colleagues and the individuals brought to the think tank to speak. This means you may have to wear a suit much more often than you originally thought because of the number of speakers you will be hosting. However, think tanks are much more casual than offices like Department of Justice and the EPA. While working at a think tank, you will meet the top scholars in the world and the most influential policy players and the highest degree of professionalism is always expected.
 
  1. Your Program’s Research
Many interns take a job with a think tank based on the overall name of the office. Internships at places like Brookings, CSIS, and The Wilson Center are incredibly sought after, and a lot of interns take the job based on the name of the think tank rather than the research of the individual program they will be working on. Don’t do that! Know your program’s publishings inside and out before you get to your think tank because your employers will be able to tell. Interns who come in knowing their program’s research and data tend to do better because they will have less of a learning curve when starting.

Sarah McKeen
Woodrow Wilson Center-Global Women's Leadership Initiative
Washington, D.C. | summer 2018