Another Career Choice for Ph.D.'s: Management Consulting

November 12, 1999

More Ph.D.'s from top programs are finding jobs -- and six-figure salaries -- in the burgeoning field of management consulting. Business backgrounds aren't a prerequisite, although the consulting companies are looking for people with a head for numbers and a knack for problem-solving.

While the academic job market has been in a slump in recent years, the consulting industry has been booming for the last decade. The number of M.B.A. graduates has not kept pace with the demand for smart people in the business world, according to several career experts. So, fortunately for academics, management-consulting firms are increasingly looking to Ph.D.'s as a potential source of new hires.

"We don't care what discipline Ph.D.'s were in because we're hiring them for the raw horsepower," says Ann Sacra, a manager at Dean & Company who's also in charge of Ph.D. recruiting. Her company hired 18 new employees last year; a third of them have Ph.D.'s. "We're looking for talented people who can do creative problem-solving and have strong analytical skills, but we realize that most Ph.D.'s don't have any business experience and we don't expect them to."

Management consultants work with senior-level managers of companies to solve problems such as how to make a company more competitive, how to best market a product, and how to streamline corporate operations. Consulting companies seek ambitious and well-spoken people with excellent problem-solving skills and the abilities to lead others and to work well in a team.

Consulting firms are more than willing to teach Ph.D.'s about business fundamentals. At McKinsey & Company, for example, new Ph.D. hires take a three-week mini-M.B.A. course before they go to work in teams with more-experienced consultants. Most of the major management-consulting firms have similar training programs for Ph.D.'s.

"We're not going to bring them in and pay them a lot of money just to leave them to twist slowly in the wind," says Alan Kantrow, chief knowledge officer at the Monitor Company. "We're making an investment." Mr. Kantrow, who's been with the firm for five years, received a Ph.D. in the history of American civilization from Harvard University in 1979.

After their initial training, Ph.D.'s are treated just like everyone else, notes Martin Tanner, who joined McKinsey in January 1998 after getting a doctorate in electrical engineering from the University of California at Los Angeles. "The mini-M.B.A. is the last place where we distinguish between Ph.D.'s and M.B.A.'s," he says. "Ph.D.'s do the same assignments as M.B.A.'s do; they get the same salary; they're promoted at the same rate."

While business isn't a prerequisite, a comfort with numbers is. Ms. Sacra joined Dean & Company in 1996 after getting a Ph.D. in chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (she was the first Ph.D. hired by her firm). It's her job to look at strategic issues that affect the bottom line of her clients, which are mainly Fortune 500 companies.

For example, she's currently working with a team of consultants on a plan to increase the efficiency of a telecommunications company's operations. While her expertise in chemistry has little to do with her job in consulting, the research and data-analysis skills that she learned in graduate school are integral to her work, she says. Although management-consulting firms don't seek Ph.D.'s from specific fields, "we do look for some evidence of quantitative ability. Clearly if you're a science or engineering Ph.D., it's self-evident, Ms. Sacra says.

"If you're in a humanities discipline, we don't really care where the quantitative ability comes from, so long as you have it. It may be some statistical bent to your thesis; it may be some coursework you did; it may be a summer job you had as an undergraduate -- just something that speaks to the fact that you do have some quantitative skills."

A career in management consulting can have big payoffs. The pay is good, the work involves collaboration with talented colleagues, the skills learned in academe can be applied in a non-academic setting, and there is an opportunity to learn about business. "One thing that attracted me to consulting was that it was an opportunity to learn about a range of businesses, as opposed to trying to just cast in my lot with some corporation that would take me," says Ms. Sacra.

For Ph.D.'s who are reluctant to be locked into a new career, management consulting offers flexibility and an entrée into business, says Ms. Sacra. "I felt like, even though I was leaving academe, I was creating a large set of corporate options for myself without making a confining corporate decision that I might later regret."

While management consulting has much to offer Ph.D.'s, they pay a price, says Andrew Green, a counselor for Ph.D.'s at the University of California at Berkeley's Career Center: Most consultants travel extensively -- they may spend three weeks a month on the road. And they often work long hours -- 60 to 80 hours a week is not uncommon.

However, to Ph.D.'s like Ms. Sacra, who says she devoted more than 70 to 80 hours a week to her dissertation, the hours she puts in at Dean & Company don't seem excessive. "I worked very hard in graduate school, so I think that, over all, I probably work a fewer number of hours here, on average. However, one difference is that in academe if I wanted to knock off at a certain time, there was nothing stopping me, whereas here I have more deadlines and less control over when the peaks and valleys happen. So there's certainly more pressure in this environment."

The bottom line is that management consulting is a super-competitive field. Many of the top firms focus their recruiting efforts at Ivy League and other elite universities. On-campus recruiting sessions by management-consulting companies are a big hit with Ph.D.'s at many universities. A recent McKinsey recruiting event at Berkeley drew more than 250 students. But McKinsey hired only about 75 Ph.D.'s altogether in the U.S. and Canada last year.

Those Ph.D.'s who think they've got what it takes to succeed in management consulting should attend employer presentations on college campuses and talk to people who work at consulting firms, says Ms. Sacra, to "get a better hands-on sense of what folks are actually doing in these firms." If you're not on a campus where these firms make presentations, then it's just a matter of making a call to find out where to send your résumé.

Although some management-consulting companies do accept C.V.'s, it's best to create a business résumé, says Mr. Kantrow. By the time they get to the interview, Ph.D.'s should be ready to answer the question, "Why are you here?" says Mr. Green. "If the company is willing to interview you, then they already believe you're smart enough to work there. The interview questions will probably concern the issue of fit: Is this someone who can convince me that they want to come work for me and that they're going to fit within our organizational culture?"

The best preparation, says Mr. Kantrow, is to read The Wall Street Journal, Business Week, and Fortune, "so you can familiarize yourself with the language and issues of business, to begin to understand the vocabulary and the issues that managers deal with."

Reading financial publications can help Ph.D.'s prepare for the case-study questions they'll encounter in an interview, says James Kwak, an associate at McKinsey & Company who got his Ph.D. in French intellectual history from Berkeley. He works mainly with Fortune 500 companies, on projects ranging from developing a five-year growth strategy to designing ways to make a company's operations more efficient.

"When you read an article about a company that can't balance its books, for example, try to think about what you'd do if you were the C.E.O. of that company," he says. "You want to be in the habit of thinking practically about such problems, because that's the type of thinking we look for in an interview."

If Ph.D.'s are really interested in consulting, "don't limit yourself to the top firms that come on campus to interview," says Tom Lehker, director of graduate-student services at the University of Michigan. "Expand your options. There are thousands of consulting firms out there, so find ways to identify those and look for the one that's going to be the best fit for you."

Ms. Sacra, who now recruits Ph.D.'s, seconds that opinion. "Dean & Company was not actively recruiting Ph.D.'s on my campus, but I got in touch with them because I wanted to live in the [Washington,] D.C. area. I didn't limit my search to firms that said they wanted Ph.D.'s."

Don't assume that because there are no Ph.D.'s on staff, the company doesn't want you, she says. "If I had only looked at firms like McKinsey and B.C.G., who were targeting Ph.D.'s, then Dean & Company might not be recruiting Ph.D.'s today."


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