Consultant for a Day

May 07, 2002

I recently took a short break from the grind of laboratory life in biomedical engineering to take an all-expenses-paid weekend trip to a nice tropical destination. I wasn't on vacation. I had a rare opportunity to briefly enter the world of consulting. As I near the end of my doctoral work, I've been considering nonacademic careers, so I applied and was selected for a recruiting weekend sponsored by a top management-consulting firm.

Soon after I arrived on a Friday afternoon, I learned I was one of 35 graduate students invited for the event. The weekend was specifically geared toward graduate and professional students from nontraditional (i.e., nonbusiness) backgrounds. There were medical students, law students, and doctoral students majoring in topics ranging from English literature to engineering.

That afternoon, there was time for introductions and a general overview of the weekend; then we met for cocktails and a chance to talk with some of the other attendees. I realized that most of us had applied to this program for similar reasons. Although we were all doing well in our own fields, there was an innate curiosity we shared for what else was out there. Our current work was interesting to us but not our passion; we all hungered for something more. Maybe it was the lure of a seemingly fast-paced and intense lifestyle of a consultant versus the slow daily grind of research. Maybe it was just wondering what exactly consultants do that garners such high salaries. Maybe it was the opportunity to work in small groups to solve challenging problems rather than the more solitary pursuit of academic research. For me, I think it was a combination of all of these factors.

During and after dinner, we all had a chance to talk with the consultants in small groups and ask them questions about the profession and their backgrounds. All of the consultants from the company had doctorates of some kind. Their stories were similar. They all sought different challenges than what was offered in their field of training: engineers who wanted to work more with people and had an interest in business or an entrepreneurial spirit; a Ph.D. in liberal arts who wanted to have a broader impact than the one she felt she could make by focusing on a narrow research topic. There were also those who were attracted to a career that included travel, great compensation, and exposure to different industries and problems. Most enjoyed both the pressure and excitement of solving challenging problems under tight deadlines and practical constraints.

The first night I went to bed with a keen interest to learn more. On Saturday, it was time to play consultant. We were divided into teams to solve the same case-study problem and make a presentation of our recommendation. We went through the process of framing the problem, determining the important issues related to answering the problem, and formulating a solid recommendation based on facts and logical thinking. I spent the whole day working with my teammates and we all got along very well. There was one consultant who helped to guide each group if we had questions. The problem was fairly simple so all the groups were able to arrive at the same conclusion based on similar reasoning.

It was an instructive exercise that underscored some of the lessons I've learned in academic research. In both settings, asking the right question is half the battle. The problem must be broken down into different factors and issues, which have to be prioritized. Then, you proceed to follow through with different approaches, information gathering, and analysis. Lastly, all of the available information must be synthesized into a final summary. Rarely can you know everything about the problem, so consultants, like scientists, must make educated assumptions and proceed from there. What occurred to me was, "Hey, I can do this!"

In the evening, I had another opportunity to talk with the consultants in small groups to gain insights into their lifestyles. Many of them discussed the idea of "leaving your Ph.D. field" to pursue consulting. One junior consultant said for him it was a value decision to choose consulting and leave his doctoral work in physics behind; he had no regrets. Another mid-level consultant mentioned that she still does some scholarly work in her spare time, but she admitted that it's more like a hobby.

On the downside, they acknowledged that the average number of work hours is usually about 60 a week and often more during tight deadlines. Weekends are generally sacred, but it is not uncommon for consultants (especially junior ones) to come in and work on a Sunday to prepare for the week ahead. Travel can also vary depending on the office and the volume of clients. A senior partner, who was leading the weekend's events, mentioned that his Ph.D. in science prepared him well for thinking critically as a consultant. In academe, he said, you probe deeply into a given topic and gain a depth of knowledge in the subject, whereas in consulting, you work on a number of different projects in different industries and gain a great breadth of knowledge.

Salaries, we were told, can be ridiculously high at a major consulting firm and the bonuses substantial. However, it's very difficult to make partner, and if you fail to get promoted after a few years, you're usually forced out of the company. In a worst-case scenario, I thought, I could leave consulting after a few years and apply for management positions at other companies. The tradeoff is I would have been away from my technical field for a few years, and it would be difficult to jump back into engineering research.

On Sunday morning, we wrapped up the weekend with sessions focusing on how to succeed during the interview process. By being selected for this recruiting weekend, we all passed the first screening and were guaranteed a first-round interview with the company. Although I knew the selection process would be very competitive, at least I had a foot in the door. The consultants shared what the firm looks for in prospective hires. Although strong analytical and critical-thinking skills are a must, there is a premium on leadership skills. A consultant must be able to effectively present ideas and conclusions before CEOs and business executives and not get flustered. As a result, major consulting firms strive to hire not only great thinkers but also strong communicators and leaders.

Over all, the weekend was a great experience, and I feel like I know much more about management consulting than before the trip. I left feeling encouraged that if I pursued this as a career I could succeed. The guaranteed interview also didn't hurt, although the selection process involves advancing through three rounds. My plan is to contact the company after I finish my last set of experiments in the early summer so I can focus on writing and interviewing.

One of the many things I realized was that if I did pursue consulting, I'd be leaving the world of engineering/technology/science and entering the world of business. Many people end up leaving the firm after a few years and then moving into management positions with former clients. Although, there's definitely a part of me that's attracted to the business side of things, I'm also very wary of the rigorous lifestyle. Ultimately, I'm not sure if I'm ready to leave the world of engineering research just yet. I plan on considering consulting further in the coming months and hope to go through the interview process and leave my options open.

Donald Trent is the pseudonym of a graduate student who is earning his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering and trying to figure out what to do next. He will be chronicling his search for academic and nonacademic jobs this year.