Careers: "I can draw a direct line from my studies at SOAS to my current job"

Max Schmidt graduated from SOAS in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Luckily, his MSc Research for International Development prepared him perfectly to secure a fellowship with an international climate think tank before becoming a climate finance consultant. 

Originally from eastern Germany, Max now lives with his partner in Edinburgh and, like the rest of his team at Perspectives Climate Group, works remotely. In his free time, Max is also a mentor for young professionals with the same passion for working for our shared planet - feel free to reach out to him on LinkedIn

Could you give us a brief overview of your current role and what you do on a day-to-day basis?

As a Climate Finance Consultant within the research branch of Perspectives Climate Group, a pan-European research and advice consultancy, there is no 'typical' day as such. I have a lot of independence for researching and writing reports and policy papers, can proactively develop my own projects in the field of climate finance and policy and am responsible for creating and managing my own work schedule. I can actually work anytime and from anywhere, but I'm based in Scotland, not least because of the great climate community that emerged in the run-up to and after the 26th World Climate Conference (COP26) in Glasgow in 2021. 

On a 'normal' day - when I'm not attending workshops or conferences (online/in-person) such as COPs - my day usually starts with reading up on climate and energy-related news and replying to colleagues. Then I turn to my research work, with only a few interruptions because of internal and external calls e.g. with universities, Multilateral Development Banks, NGOs or governments. For the last few months, my main project has been writing in-depth analyses of national export credit agencies (ECAs) - ‘insurers of the last resort’ of fossil infrastructure projects. We developed a dedicated methodology to see and compare if and how 'climate-aligned' they are, which means I usually have to do extensive screening of literature, as well as quantitative analysis. This is just one example of ongoing projects on the missing (or negative) climate finance we work and advise on. 

What motivates you in your role?

When I was 16 and attending high school in eastern Germany, we had a week of interdisciplinary teaching on climate change. Ever since, I wanted to understand as many aspects of this multifaceted crisis as possible, from natural sciences over economies to the social sciences. In my current role, I can apply these transdisciplinary lenses ideally and can see the immediate impacts of our work e.g. when ECAs or Finance Ministries reach out to us to get a briefing on how they could reform their export finance system to become 'fit-for-the-future'. But we also provide negotiation support to country delegations at COPs, which means that I have the privilege to travel to other countries to work from there for a few weeks at a time, the last time in November to attend COP27 in Egypt.  

Why did you choose to study MSc Research for International Development at SOAS?

When I applied for master’s degrees in 2019, I couldn't stop thinking about SOAS and the amazing things I'd heard about it from some alumni. This went so far that I turned down an offer from the University of Cambridge for an MSc in Development Studies. In retrospect, this was the absolute right decision: I had so much flexibility with the MSc Research for International Development at SOAS that, in the end, I had courses in three different SOAS departments (development studies, economics and international studies/diplomacy), including one on climate and energy policy. Before starting my master’s at SOAS, I also had the privilege to have received a job offer to work for Prof. Ulrich Volz from the SOAS Centre for Sustainable Finance as a Graduate Research Assistant, which turned out to be a great synergy with my coursework.

Max Schmidt

How do you feel that your studies at SOAS helped to prepare you for this role?

The coursework itself helped me a lot to develop a highly interdisciplinary way of thinking about the climate crisis, which I still lacked when I completed my two bachelor's degrees in political science and sociology back in Leipzig, Germany. Equally as invaluable, if not more, were the connections I made at SOAS. I can actually draw a direct line from my studies at SOAS to my current job: Thanks to my MSc Research for International Development, I got to know the fantastic Dr Feyzi Ismail when I supported her as a volunteer in the Development Studies Seminar Series. Feyzi became my dissertation supervisor and because of the topic (coal nationalism in India) she helped me to develop, I managed to secure a fellowship with the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) in Geneva, Switzerland, to continue working on the reform of fossil fuel subsidies in India and South Africa, where I also had some previous work experience with a German Embassy. This then led to work as a consultant supporting colleagues from IISD’s country teams in India, Indonesia and South Africa. And being with a highly-recognised international think tank, in turn, opened many other doors, such as the current one with Perspectives Climate Group.    

What did you enjoy the most about studying at SOAS? Do you have a particular favourite memory?

Studying at SOAS exceeded my wildest dreams. As often as I could, I went to the SOAS concert series in Brunei Gallery, played samba at protests with SOAS’ Sambatage group and hang out at the SOAS bar with friends after long days of coursework and seminars. I will forever be grateful for the free, vegan lunches provided next to the campus, which helped me a lot in coping financially in London.

What piece of advice would you give to someone looking to get into your field of work?

As in most other sectors and industries, the first two-three years of work will be extremely tough. I can only encourage you to NOT go for the first-best work option, but take your time to write as many good applications as you can and draw on your whole network. No one ‘works in climate’ compared to other fields, which means the landscape is very fragmented and sometimes very hard to navigate. But if you are passionate about changing our economic, financial, political and cultural systems to work better for people and the planet, you will eventually find (or create) jobs that align with your own values and pay well.  

What one piece of career advice do you wish you’d had when you were at university?

Make as many international experiences (and friends!) as possible - whenever you can! I graduated in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, which overthrew all of my work and PhD plans. Coming from a working-class background, I didn't have the privilege to attend international schools, learn many languages or even travel abroad before I left home for university. After graduation, it was so much harder to ‘just travel’ or spend extended periods of time abroad. I was quite naïve during my studies and didn't see that coming. But my time at SOAS made up for a lot!