Management consulting, a career in which generalist problem solvers help companies solve their business problems, is one of a large handful of alternative careers that scientists with advanced degrees have long considered—and it’s still going strong. “We have hired hundreds of Ph.D.s over the years, and we continue to see advanced degrees—those with J.D.s, M.D.s, and Ph.D.s—as a critical talent pool that will account for 20% of our new consultant hires moving forward,” says Ryan Bennett, a principal and head of the advanced-degree candidate recruiting team of the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in Chicago, Illinois.
“Candidates with a Ph.D. have all the skills to be excellent consultants,” says Bennett, who earned a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Consulting is that rare, nontraditional career that doesn’t require much additional training—and the additional training that is required is usually provided by the firm that hires you, a rarity in an era of employer cost cutting and pinpoint hiring.
Case-interview questions probe how well candidates think on their feet and whether they can embrace ambiguity—which is what consultants do every day.
Should you be seeking a consulting career, and if you do, are you likely to get an offer? It depends on what you’re looking for, and also on what you’re good at.
The consulting industry
Many people have heard only about the oldest and largest firms, but there are many firms in the consulting industry, in a wide range of sizes. In Management Consulting: A Complete Guide to the Industry, Sugata Biswas and Daryl Twitchell classify consulting firms in a few different ways. Firms are segmented by the industries they serve: health care, retail, pharmaceutical, or energy, for example. Boutique firms specialize in a particular industry or a small subset of industries, while large firms have broader portfolios. Consultants within larger firms will usually specialize. Entry-level consultants, including at the Ph.D. level, tend to be hired by larger firms, because they have the most resources available for training.
It’s common for consultants to move to smaller boutique firms after a few years of work. Large companies sometimes have their own internal consulting teams, which work in the corporate strategic planning division or the business-development group.
Are you qualified?
It doesn’t matter all that much what your Ph.D. is in—the important thing is the analytical approach you bring, writes Brian Rolfes, partner and director of global recruiting at McKinsey & Company, in an e-mail. “That said,” Rolfes adds, “we are delighted when new hires have specific domain knowledge that is relevant to our clients. People with training in electrical engineering may be suited to serve high-tech clients like the telecom industry. And in our healthcare work we have many people with biology, genetics, bioengineering or organic chemistry backgrounds, including a good number of M.D.s.” Quantitative analysis skills are especially desirable. To be a strong candidate for a consultant job, a scientist should also be effective on teams, have great communication skills, and be able to point to a record of making a difference inside and outside the lab.
One thing that isn’t required—surprisingly—is business knowledge. Most Ph.D. consultants do need to learn business skills, concepts, and terminology, Bennett says, but that challenge is quickly overcome by the training that consulting firms provide their entry-level recruits.
Consultant salaries span a wide range. Consultants who work in firms that serve nonprofits, for instance, usually make less than those at prestigious global firms. According to the website GlassDoor.com, a junior consultant hired by BCG in the United States—most fresh Ph.D.s enter at this level—can expect to receive a starting salary of $115,000 to $145,000 annually. An entry-level associate with a master’s degree can expect to start at $58,000 to $80,000.
One stereotype about management consultants is that they live out of their suitcases. Is it true? Yes, consultants do travel, but the amount of travel varies from project to project and job to job. On-site consultants are likely to be away from home for much of the week when on assignment—spending, say, Monday through Thursday at the client site. Off-site consultants work mainly from their own offices, visiting clients only occasionally.
Hours and intensity
Another stereotype about consultants is that they work long hours. This stereotype is largely true; there’s variation here, too, but our sources say that 60-plus-hour weeks are the norm. While that number may leave many graduate students unfazed—they’re used to working late and on weekends—consulting work’s constant deadlines and culture of constant feedback can make the work more stressful than many graduate laboratories.
Don’t assume, though, that consulting careers aren’t family-friendly. Many firms have programs in place that aim to assist working parents. Consulting firms are very well represented on the most recent list of 100 best companies to work for from Working Mother magazine. Both BCG and McKinsey & Company made the list.
The selection process at most firms is very competitive. At the heart of the process is the case interview, which has components of a regular interview and aspects of the case-study method used at many business schools. Candidates are asked a question designed to test their ability to break down a problem, think it through in a structured way, and work out a solution. Case questions come in all flavors: “How much does a Boeing 747 weigh?” “Why do the hands of a clock turn clockwise?” “How can a company that is losing money turn things around?” Interviewees are expected to work toward an answer by asking follow-up questions, articulating their assumptions, and reasoning their way to an answer. There is no best approach to answering a case question, and usually there’s no single right answer.
Case-interview questions probe how well candidates think on their feet and whether they can embrace ambiguity—which is what consultants do every day. “Consultants are often expected to be experts in everything they work on, but in reality, good consultants know how to ask questions, find and collect data, and synthesize unstructured information into insights that are practical and meaningful to their clients,” says Twitchell, who is also managing director of Silver Ridge Advisors, which has offices in New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.
While graduates with M.B.As—the traditional degree for management consultants—are likely to have used the case method in business school, it may not be as familiar to Ph.D. graduates. It makes sense, then, for them to study the format and practice answering—both to prepare for interviews and to see if they’re likely to enjoy the work, because this is the sort of work they’ll be doing if they’re hired. See below for a list of resources.
Case study: Liza Shoenfeld
Not much more than a year ago, Liza Shoenfeld was writing about nontraditional science careers as the creator of the Branching Points blog. She created the blog when she was a graduate student in neuroscience at the University of Washington in Seattle, weighing her own career options.
As she tried to decide on her next career move, Shoenfeld took stock of what she liked about working in science. She liked solving problems. She liked asking interesting questions, formulating a plan to find answers. She liked working with smart people. She wanted a career that incorporated those elements.
For close to a year, Shoenfeld worked for a large consulting firm with a health care focus. Her projects were remote from her neuroscience background—she handled projects in urology, dermatology, and other branches of clinical medicine—so she had a lot of reading to do. She pored over business reports, interviewed stakeholders, and synthesized her findings into PowerPoint presentations for clients. Her favorite aspects of the work are the variety of projects, the opportunity to work with smart people from diverse backgrounds, and the intellectual stimulation, Shoenfeld says. Her domain knowledge was less valuable, she says, than her ability to think scientifically.
The transition was challenging. Much of the business terminology was unfamiliar at first. She had to adapt to a pace much faster than what she was used to in academia. Instead of exhaustive searches, she did efficient ones, yielding relevant, actionable points for clients. In presentations, she learned to focus on takeaways and insights and leave out the part about how she arrived at her conclusions.
Shoenfeld didn’t have to travel much. Typically, she visited the client site for the kickoff meeting, interim meetings, and the final meeting where she delivered the findings. Occasionally, she worked on a project that required more regular meetings, but in all those cases the client company was close by, requiring nothing more than a short train ride.
Ten-hour days were fairly typical, with 1 to 4 more hours on some weekends, she says. During crunch time, usually the last week of a 2 to 3-month project, longer days—including longer weekend days—were common.
Shoenfeld recently accepted a new position in her hometown—Seattle, Washington—at a boutique strategy-consulting firm serving health care and nonprofit clients.
Case study: Josh Kellar
Josh Kellar, who currently is a project leader with BCG in Chicago, Illinois, did a Ph.D. and a postdoc in materials science and engineering at Northwestern University. His graduate research on carbon nanotubes was interesting, he says, but the narrow specialization of an academic career didn’t suit him. He was looking for a career that would give him new ways to engage with the world, solve problems that matter, and produce a tangible, immediate impact.
Kellar joined BCG in 2011. One basic skill he had developed as a scientist served him well at the new job: formulating hypotheses and testing them against data. But at BCG, he deploys this skill under very different circumstances: As a scientist, he spent his days solving difficult and ambiguous problems. As a consultant, he is doing much the same thing, but now he’s doing it under really tight deadlines. Kellar has enjoyed consulting’s collegiality, and he finds the work energizing, but the compressed time frame took some getting used to.
To help deal with the time constraints, Kellar learned to delegate—and at BCG there are people to delegate to. He has access to a staff of researchers who scour the literature and track down data. Other BCG employees helped him polish presentations. Staff assistance frees him up to devote most of his time to his core responsibility: understanding and solving clients’ problems.
Kellar spent a year working with clients in different industries, something like lab rotations in the business world. Then, despite his materials science background, he settled in to a health care focus. His clients include pharmaceutical companies, health insurers, and academic medical centers. Some of the cases he works are technical and require intensive engagement with scientists and the research literature. He likes that his work keeps him close to science and allows him to impact societal problems—exactly what he was looking for when he left the bench.
Kellar doesn’t downplay the demands of his job, the long hours and travel, but he does offer advice on how to cope with those demands. “The most important thing that I've found is to establish clear boundaries and stick to them,” he says. “For example, after the birth of my son, I made it a priority to put him to bed whenever I was in Chicago. So I leave the office at 5 p.m., and if there is more work to be done, I pick it back up after 8 p.m.” Strategies like that make the job sustainable. “It isn't about the raw number of hours I work, but when and how I work, and ensuring work doesn't interfere with the things I value most.”
Finding Consulting Companies
Preparing for Case Interviews
1. Case in Point: Complete Case Interview Preparation – a book by Marc Cosentino
2. Vault Guide to The Case Interview – a book by Mark Asher and Eric Chung
3. Case Interview Secrets – book and website by Victor Cheng
4. Inside Consulting – from the authors of Management Consulting: A Complete Guide to the Industry.