From literary history to LEGO bricks: Jakob Gaardbo Nielsen took the private sector plunge

Jakob Gaardbo Nielsen decides how LEGO’s products speak to you. But a career at one of Denmark’s largest companies wasn’t always in the cards for this literary historian.

PhD in comparative literature Jakob Gaardbo Nielsen is employed at LEGO and decides how their products speak to you. Photo: Nicolai Hildebrand

Just a week after defending his dissertation, Jakob Gaardbo Nielsen’s career path took an unexpected turn. Because instead of continuing his research behind Aarhus University’s walls, he started a new job at LEGO, one of Denmark’s biggest companies.

Today, he helps develop the LEGO brand’s tone of voice: how the brand speaks to its customers and stakeholders in everything from marketing material to social media and on the packages the world-famous plastic bricks come in.

In his job, Nielsen combines a variety of the abilities he developed and refined while working on his PhD project at the university.

“I like to write, and to transform new knowledge into good, readable articles. That’s one of the things I liked most about my research. A language position at LEGO has given men an opportunity to exploit my competencies from my study of literature in the private sector,” he says.

Jakob Gaardbo Nielsen holds both a bachelor's and a Master's degree in comparative literature, and his PhD project was about how 19th-century English and French literature portrayed family companies, stock trading and other pf their time’s economic innovations – and not least how the companies of the period described them.

More than a researcher training programme

But Nielsen doesn’t just draw on his experience in working with works of literature and scholarly analysis in his job at LEGO today. A PhD project has a practical side, for example tasks such as conference planning and editorial work that need to be performed and coordinated. An aspect of his doctoral studies Nielsen really enjoyed, and which he is currently reaping the fruits of.

“I got a taste for project coordination during my PhD project and have experience with planning conferences, both in Denmark and internationally. This meant that the LEGO Group could have confidence in my ability to take responsibility for large international projects. So my PhD programme gave me core competences for my current position,” he says.

Charting a new course

A career path at LEGO was hardly the direction Jakob Gaardbo Nielsen himself had imagined before he took the plunge into the private sector. He had been planning on pursuing a research career for a long time.

“Ihad entered academia with an incredibly strong passion for fiction and quickly developed an interest in academic literary analysis and comparative literature" he says.

But a lonely writing process in his home office during the COVID-19 pandemic threw cold water on the spark that drove his research, and he lost his passion for his books.

So he decided to chart a new course and started looking for a job outside Aarhus University even before he handed in his dissertation. And shortly after his defence, LEGO Group offered him an opportunity that was too exciting to pass up.

Got his hobby back

Today, Nielsen doesn’t write off the possibility that he might one day return to academia. But for the time being, he’s glad to be in the private sector.

“I needed to try something else, and I took a chance on a completely different kind of work. That was a good move. Because I’ve rediscovered my passion for literature in my free time, and I still use the competences my training as a researcher gave me to create value out here in society,” he says.