So What Do You Do Exactly? Think Tank Edition

Hearty welcome to Michaela, today’s interviewee in the ongoing jobs series, So What Do You Do Exactly? Michaela works at a think tank in D.C., doing think-tanky things. Actually, a big portion of this interview was trying to understand how think tanks work and why. Read on!

What’s your actual title? Program Associate at a conflict and research non-profit (aka “Think Tank”)

What would your title be if it actually encompassed what you do? I think “Program Associate” works for its very non-description. Maybe “Director of Things Analysis-ful and General Manager of Internal Resources”.
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When I picture “think tank,” I always envision people strapped up Matrix-style to an actual tank. What exactly is a think tank? That is exactly what happens at a think tank. We’re waiting on a shipment of upgraded pods right now.
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Think tanks are usually a bunch of people who had fun researching and writing papers in school, and have now found an excuse to keep on doing that professionally. However, we pick topics that have “so-what” value and make an effort to say something new, which is a lot more than I can say for the papers I wrote in college…
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Who hires your organization? Do you choose a topic and then write? Or do you get a commissioned study? We’ve been hired by a pretty broad range of clients, but in general they’re looking to better understand the conflict dynamics active in a given region. So for example, we’ve emerged in the past couple of years as one of the best DC sources on Somalia – so we’ve written a chapter on Somali piracy report for a major INGO, consulted for other research organizations looking for more complete data or context on the situation, provided policy recommendations to US stakeholders, etc. When we’re not maxed out by paid work (or I guess even when we are…), we also pursue projects that are just of interest to us internally, like this incredible genealogy of Somali clan lineages going back to Qureish.
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Somalia is definitely our bread and butter right now, but we also have a little niche doing original-language research on Chinese foreign policy perspectives and internal political dynamics, and we’re expanding our capabilities in West Africa as well, since that’s a powder keg no one knows a whole lot about. We focus on sort of “emerging and nontraditional conflicts” and try to stay out of the crowded big-money topics like Iraq and Afghanistan.
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Where do you get your information? What kinds of sources go into your research? It depends on the project, but as a general rule we use original language, local media, and local people as our sources to whatever degree possible. It’s time-consuming and intimidating but totally worth it to learn an area like crazy. Information can seem credible, but what are the interests of the source? Who might have a different perspective on that information? If I keep hearing a consistent narrative about an event, even if it’s unverified, how do I understand its underlying implications? It’s also really important not to ignore big boring datasets – there’s a lot of exciting stuff hidden away in those if you know how to look at them.
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How do you measure the success of a project? Persuasion metrics? I guess it’s hard to measure success, particularly since the market for information and analysis is so heavily dependent on the mood swings of so many different budgets. Our Somalia project generated interest but not contracts until fairly recently, but we knew we were doing some pretty unique work.
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How does a think tank like yours–security and conflict–negotiate the partisanship of DC? I guess we just try not to play that game. As long as you’re faithful to reality you can mostly avoid overlap with the political narratives of a conflict…
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Give me a sample day in your life. The more specific the better: Get in about 9, go over my to-do lists. I have a like master list in a notebook with everything, and a smaller pad for today’s tasks that I keep in front of me in lieu of an actual attention span.
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A normal day might mean creeping toward a target word count for a report, reviewing internship apps (ohmygod please proofread your stuff), tinkering with software, reading the new UN Monitoring Group report. Checking in with the interns on their projects. Catching up on my Google Reader and news while I eat lunch at my desk. Trying not to fall asleep at my desk after lunch. A quick trip out for coffee with a colleague or intern. Pretending I don’t have to respond to emails and gchatting while I wait for the caffeine to hit. Getting my shit back together eventually. Probably a conference call. Going back over my outline, realizing it’s all wrong, drawing up something better on the whiteboard. Heading home around 6:30 or 7 after having finally worked the new structure into the damn draft.
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Do enjoy the broad range of subject matter in your job? Or do you look forward to focusing on a more narrow expertise? I like to be able to sink my teeth into something and get a really solid grip on it. Nothing like being able to call an expert out on his bullshit to make life worth living! That said, I do think it’s valuable to be forced to expand your competencies; there’s overlap where you might not have expected it, and the injection of fresh material to your perspective can do some good things to it.
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Should there be more think tanks or less? Different ones? I think a lot of the organizations that exist need to raise the bar on the quality of their work. There are people doing some pretty fantastic stuff out there, but it’s disappointing to realize how many scholars and experts just aren’t. I certainly understand the compromises that have to be made – when a client pays for a 15pp report, you really can’t write a dissertation. But you can have higher standards for the rigor of that report.
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If it were up to you, how do we get Americans more invested in global affairs, instead of the latest sex scandal? It seems like people simply don’t understand how to go about tackling complex problems – sex scandals don’t require much from you intellectually, and nobody actually cares about these things so they’re much less intimidating. For this balance to change, I think critical thinking should be the ultimate goal of education. Math, reading, writing, science, art – all of these are, in my opinion, different and valuable tools for teaching children how to think critically and intelligently about the world
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Related Post: So What Do You Do Exactly? Model UN edition.
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Related Post: So What Do You Do Exactly? Photography edition.
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Filed under Education, Guest Posts, Politics

2 responses to “So What Do You Do Exactly? Think Tank Edition

  1. Pingback: So What Do You Do Exactly? Social Work Edition | rosiesaysblog

  2. Pingback: So What Do You Do Exactly? HIV Testing Edition | rosiesaysblog

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