Case study

Africa researcher — Tom McKenzie

Grappling with challenging subjects and making a real contribution to businesses is what Tom enjoys most about working in risk consultancy

How did you get your job?

I searched for a suitable risk consultancy vacancy and applied via the company's website.

How relevant is your degree to your work in risk?

My undergraduate history degree was useful in developing research and writing skills, but it's my Masters degree in terrorism, security and society that is most relevant to my work, as this helped me to further hone my research skills and taught me vital analytical skills.

What are your main risk consultancy activities?

A typical day is usually very varied. My main tasks include writing reports which assess security, political and economic risks for a range of public and private sector clients.

My role is quite focused on security risk, so this means I could be researching and analysing issues ranging from civil unrest through to military coups, terrorist attacks and other forms of political violence. I could also be analysing the risk of political instability or looking at factors which pose potential threats to business continuity.

Other regular tasks include writing short daily risk updates, updating our online intelligence platform and writing incident reports on political violence across the region.

What tips could you give to someone for choosing a Masters?

From my experience, a Masters degree is essential. Subjects including international relations, security studies, politics and economics are all good choices. You should consider whether you'd like to specialise in a particular region or area, and choose your course accordingly. For example, if you want to specialise in the Middle East you might consider an MA in Middle Eastern studies, or if you're interested in security you might choose an MA in international security and terrorism. If you're uncertain about which region you want to focus on, international relations would be a better option.

How has your role developed?

As my role has developed I have been given a greater degree of autonomy and responsibility.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

The diversity of subject matter that I deal with is fantastic. Africa has an extraordinary range of countries. Many are stable and have flourishing democracies, some are plagued by chronic political instability, terrorism and even civil war, while others have reputations for corruption and challenging business environments.

It's safe to say the work is never boring. It's also satisfying to be able to directly contribute to safeguarding our clients' personnel and assets.

What's the most challenging aspect of your role?

My role requires me to work with quite complex financial and economic information and data. As someone without a background in economics, this was a challenge at first and I had to develop new knowledge and skills.

However, the skills I had gained through my studies enabled me to get up to speed in the areas where I had less experience.

What advice can you give to others wanting to get into this job?

Strong research, writing and analytical skills are essential, so you should develop these through your studies and work experience.

The political and security risk industry is competitive, so you'll need to persevere with applications. Compile a list of relevant companies and apply for advertised internship positions. Many internships can lead to full-time job offers, or at least get you a foot in the door. While some smaller companies accept speculative applications, the biggest firms are often inundated with these, so it might be best to only apply for advertised positions. Refer to the company's careers section if in doubt and be sure to carefully tailor your cover letter to the company and the role.

Political risk usually involves regional specialisation. Think carefully about the region you want to specialise in. If you speak Arabic then the Middle East is an obvious choice. Most firms welcome language skills, and for some companies, fluency in regional languages is mandatory. Previous time spent living or travelling in a particular region will help your application.

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