Management consulting is an attractive field post-PhD due to the diversity of work to which you can be exposed. Generally speaking, companies hire consulting firms to help them solve problems, ranging from “how can I increase my profitability?” to “how do I implement this new technology in health care?” This industry is fast-paced and well suited for individuals who are results-oriented and seeking an ever-changing work environment. In this article, I will be discussing the steps it takes to get you from the bench to a consulting firm.
Step 1: Fine-tune & leverage your skills
Consulting firms admire the ability of PhDs to start deep in the weeds, and subsequently lift their heads to the sky and think big picture. Completing a PhD (or MSc) requires students to create stories and new hypotheses. Similar to how PhDs systematically predict experimental outcomes and how they would affect their project hypotheses, management consulting relies on the ability of consultants to hypothesize and predict the outcome of various scenarios. Therefore, the analytical skills you develop throughout your graduate career can make you a well-rounded worker that can think outside the box.
Step 2: Cultivate new skills
To complement the analytical skills gained from your PhD, management consulting firms value leadership and business experience garnered from extra-curricular activities. While being hypothesis-driven and analytical are essential qualities, consultants also need to be effective communicators and lead their client on the path to change. There are ample ways to gather these skills, but it is critical for an aspiring consultant to communicate their role in extra-curricular projects and the outcomes of their decision-making in a clear and concise manner. Having a plethora of activities on your resume is not nearly as effective as having a meaningful project where you led a team and made important choices that affected the end result or bottom line.
Step 3: Network, network, network!
The next piece of the puzzle is connecting with people in the industry, both to further your own knowledge of the field and to help with your job search. Talking to consultants about the type of work that their firm does, and what they like most or least about their firm, is critical for understanding firm culture and your potential fit. Not every consulting firm is the same and not every person can work at any firm. Some firms require consultants to travel as frequently as Monday to Thursday every week for months on end, since their projects are globally staffed. Others tend to work their teams locally with some projects Canada-wide or others in the US. Firm culture also involves how often junior employees get face-time with senior executives or clients, and how firms approach their cases. For instance, are they known for being risk-takers and cutting edge with their strategic plans, or are they more traditional in their approach? Knowing how each firm operates will help you decide where you would like to work and where you would fit in.
Step 4: Ace the application
Each application will ask why you chose to apply, and applicants need specific reasons to show that they would be a great new addition to the team. Firms easily identify blanket statements and generic applications that can be submitted to any employer, so do your homework to really get to know a firm and what you like about them. Once you have picked firms that interest you, reach out to the contacts you generated in Step 3. The reason networking with firm consultants is so important is because an internal recommendation to their firm’s recruiter can help put a face to a resume, giving you a leg up over other applicants who only submit an application online. In truth, some applicants would never be interviewed without the support of someone internal.
Step 5: Practice cases & interviewing
Interviewing for a job in consulting is its own beast to tame. Management consulting firms use a case interview style, where applicants are given a business case to solve. These cases are usually one-on-one with an interviewer (who is anyone from a consultant to a senior partner in the firm) and are usually conducted orally. The interview will begin with questions about you and your resume to determine your fit for the firm. Then the interviewer will pose a case question such as: “Our client is a bakery chain in New York, specializing in birthday cakes. Over the last 3 years, their profits have declined. They want to know how they can turn this situation around.” It is then up to you to draw up a framework and drill down to the root cause of their issues, such as declining sales or inefficient operating practices. There are several key skills to be identified in this type of interview. All of these skills are essential for a consultant, as oftentimes clients will ask them to estimate profitability on the fly, or grill a team if they think a recommendation is too far from the mark. To prepare for this interview, practice cases from the plethora of available case books aloud with a partner. This will help you to hone your communication skills, get feedback on your approach, and experience the pressure of thinking under scrutiny.
Key interview skills
1. Can you think logically about a problem, regardless of whether or not you are wholly familiar with the business?
2. Can you communicate your ideas and findings in a clear and concise manner?
3. Can you hypothesize quickly and thoroughly?
4. Can you do basic mental math?
5. Do you give up when frustrated or do you stay calm and collected?
I didn’t get an offer! Now what?
Despite following all the steps above, preparing for a career in consulting may not end in a job offer. The landscape is exceptionally competitive, with MBAs and PhDs vying for the same jobs and MScs competing with the latest crop of commerce grads. If you are really set on consulting, most firms will allow you to apply again in the next recruiting cycle, giving you more time to practice your interview skills. Regardless of whether or not you eventually work in consulting, all of the skills you have polished in the process –from becoming a better leader and team player, to being able to communicate your successes more clearly and working on business problems— make you more marketable for jobs in many industries. The true win is becoming better at time management, stretching yourself to learn new things and really understanding what you are capable of. The world is your oyster!
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- Putting the Pieces Together: From a PhD to Consulting - March 30, 2015