Why More and More Ph.D.'s Are Turning to Consulting

November 17, 2000

Question: I hear consulting firms are starting to hire Ph.D.'s. That's great news, because I don't think I want to continue with an academic career. So how do I turn my C.V. into a résumé and look for a consulting job?

Mary: We can talk about turning your C.V. into a résumé later, but before you start job hunting, there are some crucial steps to take. Do you know what consulting is? Do you know which firms have started to show an interest in people in your field? Do you have reason to think you'll be competitive at the big-name firms that have garnered national attention lately because of their move to hire Ph.D.'s? If not, would you be interested in smaller, more specialized, or less prestigious firms?

Julie: Let's step back and look at some of the reasons that more Ph.D.'s are going into consulting. First of all, some movement into this field isn't new. For many years, Ph.D.'s have been joining firms that do specialized work that draws on their specific graduate training. For example, economists have been going to work for econometric consulting firms and psychologists for market-research firms.

Mary: What's really new, and headline grabbing, is the move by some of the world's largest, most prestigious management-consulting firms to hire Ph.D.'s as if they were M.B.A.'s, and to pay these Ph.D.'s at M.B.A.-like salaries. Among the companies that are currently visiting campuses to recruit Ph.D.'s are McKinsey & Company, the Boston Consulting Group, Booz · Allen & Hamilton, Andersen Consulting, and Oliver, Wyman & Company.

Why did this happen? A lot of it has to do with the strong economy that has both expanded consulting opportunities and given M.B.A.'s who were traditionally drawn to consulting some attractive and hot new options, such as going to work for dot-coms. Perhaps some of the opportunity comes from increasing complexity in the world economy. As a speaker said recently at one of our on-campus career programs, "Complexity is good for Ph.D.'s, because it makes people want to hire us."

Julie: The large consulting firms have discovered that some Ph.D.'s, particularly (but not only) those from programs with significant quantitative content at top schools, are able to become strong and effective management consultants. Most doctoral students have been trained to identify problems, devise ways to solve them, and incorporate new information while thinking on their feet. Consulting companies have recognized that those abilities -- and others found in the sort of extremely bright people who pursue doctoral study -- are good matches for their clients' needs.

Mary: Since these firms are looking for the cream of the cream of the crop, interviewing Ph.D.'s has allowed consulting companies to expand their pool of candidates. Needless to say, the salaries for these positions are in the six figures. The fact that many doctoral students come from other countries and are fluent in several languages also makes them attractive to foreign offices.

Julie: How would you determine if you are potentially a strong candidate for these "top-tier" firms? Is your graduate program one of national stature in its field? Do you have strong quantitative abilities? (You can potentially answer affirmatively even if your current research isn't quantitative. For example, some firms use high G.R.E. quantitative scores as evidence of quantitative ability and potential.) Do you have outstanding social skills and leadership ability? Are you comfortable with ambiguity and willing to reach conclusions even if you don't have enough time or information?

If you can answer yes to these questions, then also consider whether you're flexible, able to travel, and able to work 80-plus hours a week. As a graduate student, you may well work as many hours as a consultant does, but you typically have more flexibility in scheduling your time. Consultants need to be available when and where clients want them.

Mary: Add to these questions one more: Are you a recently minted Ph.D.? The strategy-consulting firms typically hire Ph.D.'s who earned their degrees in the past few years.

Realistically, only a small percentage of doctoral students can answer "yes" to all of these questions. Does that mean consulting isn't an option for most Ph.D.'s? Definitely not. There's probably a niche firm for almost everyone who becomes seriously interested in the field, although salaries and prestige will vary. And there's always the option of doing some free-lance consulting in addition to holding an academic position.

Julie: Some companies that basically provide consulting services go by other names: Public-relations firms, market-research firms, public-opinion polling organizations, and training firms, for example, are all in the consulting business. People with technical backgrounds may find opportunities as engineering or systems consultants. Whatever the specialized field, there are bound to be consulting companies that provide expertise in it.

Mary: How do you find out what's out there? Plenty of online resources are available, and your university and your public library probably have publications to help you. A particularly good source is the two-volume Consultants & Consulting Organizations Directory: 2000, which is indexed by areas of expertise. Chamber of Commerce directories, many of which are online, will also list consultants in a particular geographic area. For example, in the Philadelphia on-line Chamber of Commerce directory, we find 114 consulting firms listed, and that's doubtless only a partial list. Check Dun and Bradstreet's Million Dollar Directory. Many consulting firms also have excellent and informative Web sites.

Julie: If you are on campus, take advantage of the career center. Through it, you may find company presentations and recruiting visits, alumni contacts, and job listings. Also check back with undergraduate career centers, because they may offer some services to alumni. The more you attend presentations and talk with people, the better you'll be able to see the range of the consulting field and where you might fit in.

Mary: As you learn about consulting, keep asking yourself whether this is an environment that fits for you. In many cases, advancement beyond a certain point in the field is contingent upon being able to attract clients. In the current economy, this is easier than in an economic downturn, when cutting expenses on consulting services may be a way for an organization to balance its budget. Ask people in the field about travel, schedules, and time spent developing new business.

Julie: If, as a result of your research, you decide you probably don't want to pursue full-time work as a consultant, what you've learned will be helpful if you later decide to do some consulting "on the side." One good book for Ph.D.'s is The Scientist As Consultant: Building New Career Opportunities, (Perseus Press, 2000). It gives good advice to scientists, much of which is applicable to anybody. In addition, there are hundreds of books written for a general audience on how to become an independent consultant.

Mary: If, however, you decide to apply for a full-time consulting position, you need to stop thinking about yourself as a graduate student or academic and reframe the way you present yourself. Going through the process of changing your C.V. to a résumé appropriate for the consulting business is necessary and will help you make this transition. We'll discuss a suitable résumé in more detail in a later column. For now, think in terms of drastically condensing your background, referring to publications by a summary number, rather than by citations, and stressing your transferable skills. An exception is firms that do highly technical work in your field of graduate study. For some of those, a document which looks very similar to a C.V. is appropriate.

Julie: For many consulting companies, particularly the general-strategy ones, you'll also need to know how to answer "case" questions, which are basically business problems that you talk your way through, thereby showing an interviewer how you structure your thinking about a problem.

If you're fortunate enough to get an interview, don't even think about trying to wing your way through a case question. You'll be competing with people who've been practicing for months. Several books are available to help. Also check out consulting companies' Web sites. Some include material on case interviews, and sometimes offer interactive cases. In this regard, the Boston Consulting Group's Web site is particularly helpful. If you can, find someone to practice with. You'll both benefit.

Note to Those Not Yet Ready to Go on the Market: If you're just starting to think about consulting and are expecting to take another few years to finish your Ph.D., spend some time building your knowledge of consulting. In addition to looking at some of the books already suggested, develop your quantitative skills. Perhaps you can audit some business courses or find some part-time or freelance consulting assignments. If you're located near your university campus, find out what programs are offered on consulting as well as when such companies will be visiting. Learn what you can so that you'll be able to position yourself for a consulting position when you complete your degree.

Mary Morris Heiberger and Julia Miller Vick are the authors of The Academic Job Search Handbook (University of Pennsylvania Press). They have provided career services for thousands of graduate and professional students since 1985. Ms. Heiberger is associate director and Ms. Vick is graduate career counselor at the Career Services office of the University of Pennsylvania.

You can order their book directly from the University of Pennsylvania Press or from either of the on-line booksellers below.  Barnes & Noble