Careers in Educational Consulting

June 28, 2002

Higher-education consulting is a relatively small industry, but it's been gaining prominence and opening up new career opportunities for Ph.D.'s.

Ben Edwards is one of the founders and principals of the Art and Science Group, a consulting company based in Baltimore that specializes in market-related issues facing higher education and the nonprofit sector. He doesn't think of educational consulting as a field. In fact, he says, most colleges are not likely to respond to a sales pitch offering "educational consulting." "As a firm," says Mr. Edwards, who holds a Ph.D. in American studies from Harvard University, "we have to offer something more specific, something that fills a need defined in someone else's terms: They want to attract more students, or get some usable data, or save money somewhere."

Educational consultants might work in the nonprofit division of a large management-consulting firm. Some work in smaller companies dedicated to educational consulting, or they work independently. Some have doctoral degrees in education, but that's not necessarily a requirement.

What Do Educational Consultants Do?

Just about everything. They work with colleges, universities, academic medical centers, public and private schools, educational providers, corporate universities, and for-profit providers of educational services. They typically work with the provost or a vice president on a wide range of issues, including strategic planning, competitive positioning, performance management, student and teacher recruiting and retention, fund raising, and alumni relations.

The methodology varies from company to company, but the process generally begins with a written proposal. When the go-ahead is given, a project team forms (typically consisting of a project manager, a researcher, and an analyst) and begins to interview professors, administrators, and students in an effort to understand the institution. Based on the preliminary findings, the project team identifies the critical issues to be studied. The team may then devise a questionnaire or customize other data-collection methods and conduct or oversee the collection of the data. Once the team has analyzed the information, it develops recommendations and presents the client with a written research report.

"It would be impossible to describe a typical day precisely because there is no such thing as a typical day," says Risa Nystrom, a managing associate at the Art and Science Group and a Ph.D. in English from Vanderbilt University. "Some days I work with clients on defining the issues that concern them and discussing the design of the research. Some days I spend most of my time scheduling team meetings in the office and visits to client campuses. Other days I meet with my project team to discuss the project, analyze data, etc. Or I might spend several days writing reports and presentations. I also travel quite a bit."

Taking the Good With the Bad

"The pleasures and frustrations are what one normally hears about consulting," says Edwards, "both probably magnified when working primarily for universities: the stimulation of intellectual challenge and of the people with whom you work, versus the fact that you have no control over what happens or does not happen to your recommendations."

It's the variety of the work that attracts David Attis, a history Ph.D. from Princeton University and an associate with A.T. Kearney, one of the "big five" consulting companies. "It's like jumping into a new research project every six months," he says.

Ms. Nystrom misses "being part of a community in which I can discuss Shakespeare and Renaissance drama. But I don't feel that I have sold myself short for the sake of a paycheck. There is a real sense of intellectual satisfaction in being able to solve real problems and knowing that my work helps improve the delivery of higher education."

The obvious similarities between academic work and consulting are the emphasis on analytic thinking and writing and the focus on research. Dianne Reed, a senior manager at KPMG LLP who holds a Ph.D. in English from Stanford University says consulting is "every bit as challenging and stimulating as anything I did in academe." In fact, she says, she has done far more primary research as a consultant than she ever did as a graduate student.

One of the key differences between the two fields involves time management. "In consulting," Nystrom says, "deadlines pop up out of nowhere. They can morph at the drop of a hat, creating conflicts with other deadlines that were planned around a deadline that just changed."

Another major difference is in the focus on teamwork. At KPMG, project teams can consist of dozens of consultants who work closely together -- sometimes via computer -- until the project is completed and then the group disbands. Academics, accustomed to working alone and at their own pace, may not be used to the necessity of keeping others informed of their movement, progress, and communications, of considering others' schedules in planning their own. "You have to get used to the whole rhythm of being in an office," Attis says. But he finds it rewarding both intellectually and socially: "There is a preconception among academics that all the smart people stay in academia. They would be amazed by the talented people 'outside.'"

Breaking Into Consulting

All of the consultants recommend that new Ph.D.'s weave their pre-Ph.D. work and their academic activities into a seamless series of experiences that build on each other. Try to position your expertise in terms of abilities, not just content. For example:

  • If you have organized an academic conference or lecture series on your campus, talk in your letter or interview about how you took the initiative, promoted the event, pulled it together. Work done on a committee or in student government could be used to reflect your ability to handle multiple agendas and personalities, as well as other organizational skills. "Be sure to emphasize results," Nystrom says.

  • Administrative work in a department or your experience selecting and managing a dissertation committee can be used to show how you gained an understanding of how universities work. This knowledge is crucial, Attis says, adding: "You have to be able to figure out who are the relevant stakeholders, to identify who has the power to implement the suggestions you make. Otherwise your project might fail."

  • The sheer accomplishment of writing a dissertation demonstrates "the ability to keep an eye on the longer-term big picture of a project while breaking that big picture down into a series of more immediate interim goals," Nystrom says. And Attis points out, "It also demonstrates an ability to organize vast quantities of information -- an essential skill in consulting work."

  • Highlight your written and verbal communication skills. Experience in speaking to academic audiences is particularly valuable.

  • Being a residential adviser in a dormitory, heading volunteer student organizations, or playing intramural and club sports can translate into teamwork experiences.

  • Teaching is evidence of an ability to present complex matters to a variety of audiences. Leo Simonetta, a research director at the Art and Science Group and a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University, notes: "One of the things that proves unfailingly useful to me is the ability to stand in front of a group of often hostile people and tell them things they may not want to hear in such a way that most of them will at least listen -- a skill I developed as a TA."

  • Coaching other teaching assistants is a form of consulting that many graduate students already do, perhaps without even realizing it.

When you're looking to break into consulting, take advantage of your graduate-school affiliation. "Talk to your institution's admissions director or head of institutional advancement," Nystrom says. "Ask if they have worked with any consultants, and if so, whom, then ask if it's OK to mention that the admissions person or advancement person suggested you contact them."

Some people prepare for a consulting career by taking courses on educational foundations or educational inquiry. Some consultants say such courses will give you a good dose of theory but probably not much practice, and employers want action. However, each consulting company has its own philosophies and methodologies that are taught to new consultants. The jargon is local as well. "I had to pick that up once I got here," Nystrom says, "and no one expected otherwise." Business and computer skills can also be learned on the job, though the most commonly used software packages are MS Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

What to Expect Once You're There

Brand new Ph.D.'s often enter the consulting business as senior business analysts or associates; Ph.D.'s with industry experience may be hired as managers or even senior managers. New consultants are not expected to manage projects independently, and as projects can take anywhere from six months to a year to complete, there is ample time for learning. Simonetta recommends sitting in on every possible meeting, reading old proposals, surveys and reports, and asking lots of questions: "It's like writing your dissertation -- you don't do all the work and then say, How is this? You do a little work and then show it to someone saying, How far off is this?"

The hours can be long, and consultants may spend weeks away from home, although often they return for weekends, so salaries, benefits, and vacation packages are generous. Team and individual bonuses are also common. Salary ranges can vary greatly between different kinds of companies. A senior business analyst, for example, can earn $40,000 to $75,000, while associates can earn $65,000 to $110,000.

"Anyone who is smart enough and persistent enough to get a Ph.D. can learn how to do almost any kind of consulting," Simonetta says.

Hadass Sheffer is director of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation's Humanities at Work program.