A Future in Consulting?

November 13, 2001

I have had a hard time explaining to my parents that I am in graduate school learning how to think. Characteristically practical, they staunchly believe that the only purpose of higher education is to gain technical knowledge to perform specific job functions. My father was apprenticed to a master tailor at the age of 12, so I can fully understand why they think this way. Needless to say, they are mystified that I would study for a Ph.D. in the biological sciences at Harvard University but not want to pursue a career as a professor.

Oddly enough, their sentiment is not too different from the expectations of the academic establishment. The traditional career path has always been first the Ph.D., then a postdoc if your field required it, and finally the coveted tenure-track professorship. Any departure from the pathway is frowned upon. Following the apprenticeship model, my adviser took me in as a raw and inexperienced student and trained me to become an independent thinker and researcher. Now that I am close to becoming a journeyman scientist, I am beginning to figure out where my path will take me.

I am a member of a new class of doctoral students influenced by the mores of generations X and Y. Money, comfort, and the pursuit of happiness all matter to us. Partly because of the financial crunch in the sciences during the early '90s and the tremendous visibility of the high-tech industry during the past decade, we focus much more on the realities and difficulties of academic life than on the ideals. Most importantly, my generation of doctoral students does not attach the stigma of failure to those who choose to leave academe.

And thus with my back to an academic career path, I have been investigating a variety of nonacademic jobs. Most of my attention so far has centered on management consulting, a career that calls for people trained in the art of thought. My interest in this field began during the early years of graduate school when I attended a campus presentation by a firm recruiting Ph.D.'s to become consultants. Company representatives tempted us with high salaries, prestige, excellent benefits, and an opportunity to travel. As a consultant, they said, you are valued for what you know, but even more so for how well you think. Since graduate school teaches you critical thinking and problem-solving skills, Ph.D.'s of any discipline are naturally suited to apply those abilities in the business world. Glamorizing the job, they told us that consultants not only get to work with high-level executives from Fortune 500 companies, they get to tell them how to run their businesses. These consulting firms were on campus looking for the best and the brightest, and didn't that sound a lot like me? They stroked my ego, and I swallowed the bait.

I first applied for consulting jobs during my second year of grad school. For some time, I had doubted whether a Ph.D. was necessary for achieving my life's goals. At the time, I thought, if I were to get a job offer, I would think long and hard about dropping out of school. If I didn't get a job, I would take it as a sign that I should finish the Ph.D. Since I was still years away from completing my degree, I knew that I couldn't apply for the more senior M.B.A.-level positions. However, I thought my master's degree and extra experience would give me a competitive edge over the undergraduates for an entry-level position. Only a couple of firms were recruiting Ph.D.'s anyway, so with that in mind, I sent out 15 résumés and cover letters requesting an interview. A few weeks later, I received 12 rejection letters (the remaining three companies never even bothered to let me know they weren't interested). My ego was crushed, but I accepted the situation as a sign to forge ahead with the Ph.D.

Looking back, I realize that I harbored many misconceptions and made a lot of marketing mistakes during my first try. As an applicant with a master's degree, I was simultaneously overqualified for the entry-level positions and underqualified for the advanced positions. So the deck was stacked against me from the start. Furthermore, I probably confused the companies by highlighting the fact that I was enrolled in a Ph.D. program on my résumé. If I was still years from graduating, why was I applying for a job? Finally, I had misjudged the "fit factor." By prominently displaying my laboratory experience on my résumé, I was selling myself as a scientist rather than as a future business consultant. Would a scientist fit well into the culture of corporate America? Perhaps, but these firms weren't willing to take the risk.

Three years after my initial foray, I found myself once again applying for a job as a management consultant. These companies recruit on an academic cycle, so they announced at a campus presentation that anyone expecting to graduate during the next year should submit a résumé now. Thinking that I could be done by the end of the following year (and forgetting that in laboratory time, everything takes twice as long as expected), I sent in my résumé. I was a lot savvier about marketing myself this second time around, and happily landed two interviews with top firms.

I spent the weeks prior to the interviews cramming. In addition to standard résumé questions, these companies use hypothetical business problems to probe how much you know about business and to learn about your thought processes. Do you ask insightful questions and posit interesting ways to find a solution? Or do you crack under scrutiny and spend the time squirming in your seat? These companies may someday put you in front of a C.E.O., and they need employees who not only possess brilliant analytical skills but who are able to maintain grace under pressure.

I performed well in the first round of interviews, but not well enough to get me to the second round. In the ensuing weeks, with the flavor of sour grapes still fresh in the back of my mouth, I seriously evaluated whether management consulting was a good fit for me as a career and as a lifestyle choice. As a consultant in a general strategy firm, I would learn a great deal about different aspects of business. However, the tradeoff would be the loss of over 10 years of scientific and technical expertise. Was I truly prepared to sell out and throw it all away?

Then there was the travel issue. Consultants are typically at the client's office four days out of every week. Life on the road would rapidly become wearisome. After surviving a two-year long-distance relationship with my partner when I was in college, I had promised to never put myself in that situation again. Furthermore, my home is my refuge from the grind of daily life. I not only take pleasure in mundane tasks such as gardening and cooking, but I find them to be therapeutic. Perhaps I am best suited to become a domestic engineer rather than a genetic engineer or a consultant.

So what would be my ideal job? There must be a position out there that will let me use my analytical skills and scientific knowledge while at the same time pursuing the kind of lifestyle that I want. Who knows, maybe there is still a career for me in consulting: Only a few consulting firms come to Harvard to recruit Ph.D.'s, but there are dozens of smaller companies out there that I can look into. They might not even know what to do with a Ph.D., but I'll just have to persuade them to take a chance.

Donny Wong is a doctoral student in the biological sciences at Harvard University. He will be chronicling his search for a nonacademic job this year.