Watching the Consultants


Gillian Sebestyen made the transition from experimental psychology to the world of business without writing a single job application. Taking a temp job put her in the right place for her skills to be recognised, and to land a job in consultancy.

When we hear the word 'consulting', most of us think of businessmen in suits who prepare strategy and schedules for big businesses, and pick up a fat pay cheque on the way. Names like McKinsey and Andersen Consulting might come to mind. But what happens when the consultants need consulting? There is a little known niche in business that is becoming increasingly valuable for large corporations; it is what I refer to as 'internal consulting'.

When companies grow very large, and there is layer upon layer of management, it can become very difficult to keep abreast of the company's own internal machinations. To stay informed, firms can hire 'observers' to look inward and assess the performance of individuals, teams, or departments. This is especially useful to companies who outsource a service to a third party. An internal assessment of performance offers the opportunity to improve and change the way the company conducts its business activities. It allows the management to target weaknesses in its operations and take proactive measures before problems become unmanageable.

These are probably not positions that you would find posted in the pages of the Guardian. It is a type of service that companies find valuable once they realise that it is available, and it is one possible way for a graduate to make a transfer from academia to business without having to proceed through the dreaded 'milk-rounds' and 3 years of 'graduate training' with a consultancy firm. Furthermore, when a company does not have to invest in training and is able to see progress and results quickly, they will be more willing to offer a higher salary.

As a postgraduate student in the department of experimental psychology at the University of Oxford, I had never considered a job in London with a consultancy company. I was keen to complete my Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience and continue on in the world of academia. However, as for many postgraduate students, my funding ceased after 3 years, with my research not yet complete.

In order to finance my studies, I moved to London and turned to a temp agency to find simple office work that I could manage to do alongside my research. My first job call was a personal assistant position for a manager employed with a consultancy firm. Filling in for 2 or 3 days while the permanent employee was off ill, my main responsibility was taking phone messages and re-routing them by e-mail to my manager. Other duties included filing, copying, faxing, and other simple tasks. The job was terribly mundane and left me with plenty of time to work on my thesis--and chat with my new boss.

When the phone was not ringing, I generally took advantage of the quiet time and the technical resources to work on my thesis. No one seemed to mind. In fact, when asked what I was reading or writing, people seemed to be genuinely impressed and supportive. My manager was impressed with my computer skills and my ability to communicate in a clear and business-like manner. At the end of my second day, he asked me to return the following day, regardless of whether or not his PA had recovered from her cold, for an informal interview and I was offered a 'service analyst' position with the company based on my research skills.

My manager was interested in assessing the performance of his team of employees, which provides a service to a large London financial institution. The services include a 'help desk' and a team of technical experts who provide IT support to the London Stock Exchange. The services range from desktop and Internet support to an alerts system that looks for anomalies in share trading. Instead of waiting for monthly or quarterly reports from the client, he felt that constant internal reviews would provide the ability to be proactive and improve problem areas before they became apparent to the client.

Surprisingly, I had already acquired the skills necessary to perform in the position. Even more surprisingly, I had gained these skills purely through my postgraduate research. They are basic research skills that allow one to conduct investigations: a general knowledge of data analysis, database management, and statistics. In fact, they were skills that were not specific to my line of research--any individual who has worked in a field that promotes experimentation and data gathering for the purpose of analysis and interpretation will have these skills. Furthermore, the ability to present data in a simple and elegant manner was well received.

I found that my knowledge of computer software and statistical skills were better than nearly all of the nontechnical people, and as good as most of the technical people. I also found that my written skills were more than sufficient (although business jargon was substituted for scientific language).

I constructed measures and guides by which to assess the team. I produced charts and graphs and statistical reports. The results were discussed during management meetings where I could propose improvements and solutions to weak performance areas and I found that scientific conferences had prepared me well for office presentations.

The job was far more lucrative than any tutoring or lecturing job that I was qualified to perform in the world of academia. At the time it seemed to be the perfect solution, a well-paid job with a competitive firm in a big, exciting city ... a whole new career path. However, there are some disadvantages to leaving academia. Part-time work quickly turned into full-time. Professional dress and early mornings can grow quite tiring when you are used to wearing jeans to the lab and setting your own schedule. The other major difference with a city job is that you have to learn to interact with all levels of intellect and ability. Although academia might be regarded as populated by a snobbish elite, you very well might miss the daily stimulation and challenges that it offers.

Two and a half years after starting my city job, I have finally donned my cap and gown and joined the ranks of the doctorates. Working full-time in a demanding job definitely slowed down progress on my thesis! At the moment I'm taking a career break from the firm, and I am considering a return to academia. I realise that I have many options in both the corporate and academic arenas. However, right now I am happy to watch everyone else focus on their high-flying careers while I quietly observe from my new career role as 'mummy' to my lovely new baby, Scarlet. Now this is a job that I can highly recommend, without any major pitfalls ... that is, of course, unless you require sleep during your 24-hour workday!

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