The world of consulting can be daunting, where stellar communication and problem-solving skills are key to providing a satisfactory client outcome. Bringing in a fresh pair of external eyes not only delivers added value, but can also leave a clearer path for the organisation to follow to improve performance.

Social Anthropology PhD student Sakari Mesimäki took his multi-lingual and analytical skills to Japan to work with an existing contact, enhancing his professional profile by putting his analytical strengths to use in consulting. Sakari told us about his placement experience:

“APCO Worldwide is a communications and stakeholder engagement consultancy. Companies such as APCO help their clients understand and manage their position in society, supporting engagements with stakeholders ranging from the broader public to the third sector, industry peers to government and regulators. It’s about much more than just business, and so is an intriguing field for those of us educated in social sciences and with interests in understanding politics, culture and society more broadly.

My own relationship with APCO Worldwide began in 2016, when I took a full time position at the company’s Tokyo office. I had graduated with a degree in Japanese studies, and was keen to apply my degree in practice and to further develop my language skills. Though in 2018 I left to pursue further academic training in anthropology, I’ve maintained a relationship with my former employer and from time to time have supported them with various projects in the capacity of an external consultant.

Universities in the UK and elsewhere (including my home country, Finland) have for many years faced difficult financial circumstances. Academic careers have become increasingly difficult and uncertain as opportunities for regular employment have been replaced with growing numbers of competitive short-term positions. At the same time, researchers face increasing pressure to collaborate with industry and to demonstrate the ‘impact’ of their work beyond academia and education.

These developments have been well examined and critiqued by many social scientists, including anthropologists. Nonetheless they are also the reality in which a junior scholar such as myself must plan their career. While I plan to give the challenge of a more university oriented academic career my best shot, I have also sought to proactively maintain a ‘side-track’ (or ‘safety net’, even) of more applied work. Thus, when the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic made it timely for me to take a break from my PhD research activities, it was an opportunity for to refresh my consulting skills and re-engage with APCO for a placement.

Styles of work in consulting can at first feel overwhelming for someone used to the predictable pace of the academic calendar and the methodical nature of university research. In consulting, many projects and individual tasks compete for your attention, with deadlines, priorities and timetables constantly shifting. But, once you adjust to this different pace, you may find that the strengths of an academic researcher—critical and creative thinking, and the an ability to organize knowledge and present it well in writing—can enable uniquely valuable contributions to a consulting team. I have found that learning to direct my own resources in a flexible and efficient way has also improved the quality of my academic work.

My placement with APCO was helpful for maintaining and further developing the consulting ‘side track’ of my research career, allowing me to refresh my contacts and skills before returning to PhD work. Though the Grand Challenges scheme offers various unique placement opportunities from partners, there are also advantages to working with an existing contact as I did. The existing foundation of trust allows you to hit the ground running and immediately take on challenging work, enabling you to make the most of what is usually a relatively short placement period.”

Sakari Mesimäki completed his fellowship with APCO Worldwide between July and December 2021

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