Consulting Careers Beyond the Big Companies

May 11, 2001

They come to campuses around the country and tantalize graduate students with swanky presentations, complete with cocktails. They dangle the lures of intellectual rigor, challenging problems, and last, but certainly not least, salaries on the order of three and even four times the compensation of an assistant professorship. They are the elite management-consulting firms -- McKinsey & Co., Boston Consulting Group, and several others -- that have for several years now hired job-hungry Ph.D.'s to serve as advisers to corporate America.

It's no wonder, then, that so many graduate students ask me about careers in consulting. It is also not surprising that the term "consulting" has become synonymous to many Ph.D.'s with the specific type of analytical work practiced by the top companies. And while these firms do, on occasion, hire a Ph.D. from the humanities, their interest is overwhelmingly focused on graduate students in the sciences and quantitative social sciences. Lost in the vast amount of attention paid to a small group of elite firms is the fact that there are many opportunities for graduate students in nonquantitative fields to serve as consultants in the business world.

Craig Smith, for instance, an English Ph.D. who taught at the University of Montreal and Bard College, now works as an executive search consultant for Diversified Search Companies in Philadelphia. Mr. Smith works for clients in higher education, financial services, and technology fields, advising them on senior-level hiring decisions and identifying suitable candidates for the clients to consider. "There's a bias among academics to think that what one does in academia is more intellectually challenging and rewarding than anything else," he explains. "But I feel I'm every bit as intellectually challenged every day in this job."

After six years as a tenure-track faculty member, Mr. Smith decided to leave academe for a business career, "but I had no idea where or how."

While he was still teaching full time, Mr. Smith spent a year assessing his career goals and researching business careers. Much of this work was done with the help of the career services offered through the University of Pennsylvania, where he received his doctorate. He particularly wanted to meet humanities alumni who had opted for careers in the business world. One of the alums he talked to was an executive search consultant who later hired him. Mr. Smith began his new career as an associate, conducting research, contacting potential job candidates, and managing search logistics for a consultant in the firm.

Starting salaries vary in this arena of consulting, Mr. Smith says. A research associate can earn around $50,000, while a consultant who works independently or in a small company might earn double that. However, he notes, while "academics are a bit isolated from broader economic cycles," the amount of his paycheck is directly linked to the health of the economy.

Mr. Smith is now responsible for developing new business for his company and working directly with clients. "As a professor, you're always in a position of relative expertise compared to your students," he says. "As a consultant, you always know less about your job than the clients do." He likes the challenge. Having a Ph.D. isn't essential to his job, but it does give him some credibility with clients, especially when he is conducting a search for a university.

Organizational development is another area of consulting in which many Ph.D's find a home. Sometimes called organizational psychology, this work involves helping companies and groups with teambuilding, training, and professional development. Michael Thomas's career in organizational consulting began as an offshoot of his graduate training in social-research methods and statistics. "I learned how to do program-evaluation research for some nonprofits and local government agencies, and while doing this, I discovered how poorly managed they were," he says. Mr. Thomas used his extensive background in interviewing and observing people to develop expertise as an independent consultant.

His career has taken many turns since he left a tenured faculty position in sociology and economics at Salem College in 1978. He originally worked mostly with businesses, nonprofit groups, and government agencies, but he found that contracting with such entities could be protracted. Since he needed something to do while he was waiting, Mr. Thomas says, "I got into coaching and counseling and discovered that I love the work I do as a telephone coach and workshop leader." Mr. Thomas says his work today is divided three ways between advising executives, conducting life- and career-planning workshops, and coaching graduate students through the difficulties of finishing their dissertations.

Like teaching, writing is another skill common to many academics that can be turned into a consulting opportunity. Karin Evans and Paula Foster Chambers both have doctorates in rhetoric and composition, and both are in the early stages of applying their training to business communication consulting. Ms. Evans spent four years on the tenure track at Elmhurst College in Illinois before deciding that "going up for tenure wasn't worth it. It was my personal realization that an academic career was too narrowly defined." By contrast, Ms. Chambers graduated recently with clear plans to take her knowledge and skills straight to the business world. Both women say they've been able to apply theoretical knowledge from their graduate training to real-world communication problems in the business world, but they do so in very different ways.

Ms. Evans had done some editing before graduate school. A friend encouraged her to join an Internet consulting firm called Sapient as an editor. She became a consultant to the consultants. She worked with Sapient's staff of Web developers, researchers, writers, and business consultants to "demystify the ideal of a perfect, error-free text" and to ensure that their work appealed to the right audience. Unfortunately, the gig was not to last. Sapient laid her off recently after only nine months of work. But she says she's moved on. In addition to picking up some book-editing projects, Ms. Evans has discovered a niche as a writing consultant, coaching clients who want to develop their written communication skills.

Ms. Evans says her fees vary, depending upon the client and the difficulty of the work involved. She prices her high-level editorial and coaching work at $80 to $100 an hour. When she is short on work, she might take on a simple copy-editing job for only $30 to $40 an hour.

Ms. Chambers is starting her business from scratch, too. As a communications consultant, she plans to work one-on-one with business executives, helping them to be better managers by critiquing their speeches and memos and teaching them to make their arguments persuasively.

Both women acknowledge that the challenge of setting up a freelance consulting business lies in marketing their services. Ms. Evans already has a client -- none other than the professional career coach who was assigned to counsel her as part of her severance package from her former employer. She is working on a brochure advertising that company's services. Having just moved to Los Angeles with her husband, Ms. Chambers intends to go to as many meetings, social gatherings, and other business events as she can to meet the executives who could be her potential clients. "I love to schmooze, so I'm going to go schmooze."

So if you are a doctoral student wondering what it takes to be a management consultant, my advice to you is, by all means, check out the big companies. Go to their Web sites and sit in on their visits to campus. But you might also try looking beyond their canapés and PowerPoint presentations. Consider other avenues in which you may be able to use your expertise to advise business leaders. You may very well find a niche that aptly suits your interests, talents, and life.

Robin B. Wagner is associate director for graduate services in the career- and placement-services office of the University of Chicago.