There are many types of consulting opportunities as you progress in your career and hone your expertise, whether it be freelance work, working for a boutique consulting firm, or starting your own consulting company. This is especially true if your PhD and work experience is relevant to industries such as pharma/biotech, information technology, finance, and human resources.
If you are interested in consulting right out of graduate school, then you are likely looking at management consulting firms, who value the ability to think critically over specific knowledge. These management consulting firms vary in size and variety of clientele, and most importantly, many are actively recruiting PhDs in all disciplines because they acknowledge the analytical skills that are necessary to successfully complete a doctoral program.
If you’re confident in your knowledge in a specific discipline and feel that you can convince businesses to invest in hiring you for your expertise, then you’re probably on the road to starting your own consultancy, so go ahead and make yourself the CEO. For everyone else, the entry points can be variable depending on the hiring practices of different consulting firms. Many firms hire fresh PhDs to the same level position as those fresh out of MBA programs, although you should be aware that some firms will place you at a lower level and let you prove that you belong in the business world. Many times this may be dependent on work experience outside of graduate school, so be sure to check the websites of firms before you apply to see their specific policy so that you know to which position you should be applying.
If you are a bit hesitant to apply to one of the management consulting firms because you don’t feel completely comfortable in your business knowledge, rest assured that these firms are aware that there is little time to take all of the MBA classes on the side while completing your dissertation. The major firms including McKinsey & Co., Boston Consulting Group, and Bain & Co., (which are also known colloquially as the big three in consulting circles), have formal programs to bring new hires up to speed on business competencies if their background is not business-related. More than anything, (yes, including business acumen), these firms value your critical thinking skills.
Who are the Employers?
The application process will vary to some degree depending on the specific position and firm to which you are applying. If you are applying for a specialist role or a position within a boutique consulting firm that only caters to clients in one specific industry, then your knowledge in this specific area will likely be tested. For those applying to consulting firms that cater to many different industries, general critical thinking skills will be tested more than industry-specific knowledge. Aside from the typical interview process of discussing your resume/CV and assessing interpersonal skills, there is a unique component of the consulting interview for which preparation is ESSENTIAL: the case interview.
The case interview is basically where the interviewer will present you with a hypothetical client scenario and then it will be up to you to ask the right questions and give the appropriate answers in order to provide a satisfactory result for the client. The emphasis of this exercise is to assess your process of attacking a problem and critically working your way to a reasonable conclusion more than it is a test of your business knowledge, so don’t hyperventilate just yet. There are many resources (including some listed below) that are very useful in preparing for the case interview, so you really don’t have an excuse to show up unprepared. The business school at your university can also sometimes be a great resource for finding someone willing to practice with you, so definitely try to make friends with members of the management consulting club there.
The career progression within a management consulting firm can sometimes be more reminiscent of a law firm than most fortune 500 companies. The specific job titles vary from firm to firm, but the ultimate goal for those in it for the long haul is making partner. Like partners at law firms, partners at consulting firms also have many of the same financial perks such as profit sharing. It is important to have some sense of the culture of the firm to which you are applying as some are notorious for being “up or out” firms (meaning get promoted or get shown the door), while some are lower pressure in regard to the expected pace of progression. Many times these distinctions are obvious throughout the interview process, but if you find yourself unsure, then make sure to find an elegant way to ask a question regarding the culture of the firm.
The good news is that it is generally accepted that consultants work fewer hours than investment bankers. The bad news is that we’re even comparing work hours to that of an investment banker. While 15-hour workdays are uncommon, they are certainly not unheard of, especially as client deadlines approach. In other words, you should expect significantly more than 40 hour work weeks. You should also be prepared to travel extensively due to the client-oriented nature of the work. In many firms, you may find yourself away at the client site from Monday through Thursday while spending only Fridays in your actual office space.
Salaries vary from firm to firm with most variability regarding bonuses. Current compensation expectations would be:
At a top firm:
~$60-80K salary and $10-15K bonus for a pre-MBA entry-level position
~$120-130K salary and $30-50K bonus for a post-MBA entry-level position
At a smaller/boutique firm:
~$50-70K salary and $2-7K bonus for a pre-MBA entry-level position
~$70-90K salary and $5-10K bonus for a post-MBA entry-level position
Exit opportunities abound for those who choose to leave the world of consulting. This is especially true if you were lucky enough to land a position within one of the more prestigious firms. There are many companies that are eager to get their hands on an employee trained in fixing complex big picture problems and you need only see the myriad number of CEOs who happen to have a consulting firm on their resume to see how successful the transition can be. Whether you aspire to start your own company, your own consultancy, or climb the executive ladder of a Fortune 500 company, the skills obtained as a consultant seem to be exceedingly transferable.