March 1, 2024

Careers in Child and Family Policy: Think Tanks

By Minjee Kim, PPS '25

On February 16, 2024, the Center for Child and Family Policy welcomed two panelists, Libby Doyle, current Duke MPP student and former researcher analyst with the Urban Institute, and Emilia Sotolongo, senior technical assistance analyst at Child Trends. They sat down with a group of undergraduate and graduate students and talked about their experiences working at think tanks. The speakers shared how they began doing policy work, memorable projects, where they see the industry heading, and tips for pursuing a career at a think tank.

During the talk, Doyle explained how she became interested in criminal justice reform after studying the death penalty in college. She knew she did not want to do research for the sake of research, so she began working as a research assistant at the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center. Doyle’s work took her all over the country, but she found that locally based projects allowed her to interact more directly with people than federal contracts. As a result of her time at the Urban Institute, Doyle’s interests have shifted more toward local government initiatives. She now works as a research fellow for the City of Durham to support the new HEART mental health crisis response program.

Sotolongo, on the other hand, talked about her “less traditional track” to a think tank. She started her career as a middle school teacher in the Durham Public School system. Although she had originally wanted to be a direct practitioner, she began feeling burnt out. That led Sotolongo to start pursuing a career more rooted in research, and she worked as a senior research aide for the Center for Child and Family Policy before joining Child Trends. Now, Sotolongo focuses primarily on qualitative research at Child Trends, where she manages projects and conducts interviews with various stakeholders. She continues to draw on her experience as an ESL teacher to guide her research involving immigrant and refugee youth.

Doyle and Sotolongo described some similarities between their respective think tanks. As a whole, think tanks focus on actionable research, and both speakers appreciated being able to see the direct and indirect impacts of their work. Think tanks also produce deliverables on a quicker timeline and for a wider audience than academic research. The policy briefs and memos created by think tanks, however, are often not accessible to a lay audience. Doyle noted that think tanks are making an effort to develop more innovative methods to disseminate information—at Urban, for instance, there is a Research to Action Lab that focuses on translating research into workable information.

As a student considering various policy internships for the summer, I appreciated hearing firsthand what it was like to work at a think tank. Although I had known about think tanks for a while, it had been hard for me to conceptualize what exactly the day-to-day looked like. Both speakers helped clarify, through specific examples from the projects they had worked on, just how wide the range of tasks and policy areas could be. I have always wanted to be involved in policy research while also still being on the ground, engaging with the community, so I was also excited to hear that think tanks have been moving toward more inclusive practices, such as participatory research. Doyle and Sotolongo provided valuable insight into the opportunity for growth and exploration for early career professionals at think tanks.


Minjee Kim is a junior majoring in Public Policy with a minor in Global Health and a certificate in Child Policy Research. She hopes to pursue a career in law advocating for evidence-based reform.