Advanced degrees (PhD, MD, JD, MA, etc.) can provide an "on ramp" to careers in consulting. Navigating that ramp requires a strategy and focus.
From Advanced Degree Programs To Management Consulting
Advanced Degrees: Standing out
The completion of an advanced degree program opens a variety of doors in the professional world. The industry specific nature of advanced degree programs encourages degree recipients to find their way into the field that they have spent thousands of dollars preparing for. However, there have been an increasing number of advanced degree recipients who have chosen to forego their entrance into their specific field in hopes of breaking into the competitive management consulting industry. The increasingly selective nature of the management consulting industry has made breaking into the field a tall task, but the unique qualities candidates who have completed advanced degrees, and the development of the skills in the advanced degree programs themselves, gives advanced degrees, and the development of the skills in the advanced degree holders the opportunity to stand out to potential employers.
Breaking In: A Unique Perspective
The knowledge-based management consulting industry places a premium on intellectual capability, quantitative skills, and problem solving. The aforementioned skills are all skills that advanced degree holders possess and have sharpened throughout their time in their respective programs. Advanced degree holders who are able to look beyond their industry specific training and realize the value in the raw skills they have developed are able to not only break into the consulting field- but thrive in it as well. The unique perspective that advanced degree holders- be it JD, MD, PhD or MBA, have brought to firms has paved the way and created an appetite within firms to recruit the best and the brightest the world has to offer, regardless of narrowly focused academic programs. Consulting firms who use this approach understand that business acumen can be taught, but raw intellectual capability cannot.
The completion of an advanced degree program assures consulting firms of the analytical capabilities potential candidates possess. Whereas some undergrad programs allow students to excel using rote memorization skills, advanced degree programs, especially those within the sciences, require degree candidates to exercise strong quantitative skills, while both using and sharpening their ability to frame and break down problems and come up with actionable strategies to solve them.
Additionally, employers will know that candidates with advanced degrees will have the ability to work through the grueling hours and intellectual challenges that consulting requires. The ability to work through funks and provide real, tangible results is a major asset for consulting firms. The intellectual demands of consulting closely mirror the intellectual demands that present themselves throughout the advanced degree process. Interviewers note that the most successful interviews have been those in which candidates were able to draw links between their advanced degree process and expectations of consultants within the industry.
While advanced degree holders and their unique skill sets make them valuable assets to consulting firms, there are still a variety of barriers that make breaking into the field an arduous task. Advanced degree holders should not be discouraged however, as all of the challenges can be overcome with the right approach- again, you possess unique skills that cannot be acquired, or acquired easily, already putting you a step ahead of other candidates you are competing against. It is important to remind yourself that potential employers believe the business knowledge necessary to succeed in the industry can be acquired, whereas brilliance in problem solving cannot be.
Overcoming Hurdles: Playing to Your Strengths
Overcoming the hurdles that stand between you and a consulting career depends on your ability to play to your strengths. One problem that many advanced degree holders have trouble with, especially those in the sciences, is explaining personal triumphs. While isolating a rare piece of DNA and writing a lauded paper on it that can only be read by other PhDs is an amazing accomplishment, recruiters will not understand a word you are saying. Explaining accomplishments in layman’s terms clearly and concisely will not only show your previous accomplishments, but will also show recruiters that you can explain advanced concepts on a basic level- another critical part of the consulting industry.
In terms of gaining business knowledge, employers will understand that you might not be a business wiz (after all, you’ve probably been a little busy with that school-thing), but they will expect you to have a working knowledge of major business concepts. How do you get this “working knowledge”? The easiest (and most entertaining) way is to surround yourself with people who do have the business knowledge necessary to have a successful consulting career. Have conversations, or be around you’re friends at the very least, when they are talking business. You can pick up on the “real” concepts that come up in the business world this way, not just the “buzz” concepts that you may hear in how-to books and Internet resources. Additionally, taking the time everyday to dive into credible business news sources such as the Wall Street Journal or The Economist, will keep you up to date on major happenings in the business world that employers may ask you to weigh in on.
You will also need to prove to your interviewer that you have a legitimate passion for the consulting industry. While the hard work and grueling hours it took to get your advanced degree will show employers that you are able to handle the workload of a consultant, they are also aware that you most likely pursued in advanced degree in a field you are passionate about. You will have to explain your reasons for wanting to enter the consulting industry and that you plan to be in it for the long haul. The resources a firm will spend on getting you up to speed on the business side of things and getting you trained requires a commitment on your part, and they are not willing to waste the resources on someone whom they think might be interested in the industry.
The final major hurdle that will present itself during the recruiting process has to do with communication skills. While for many PhD candidates this is not an issue, consulting firms want to be sure that they can put the candidate in front of a client and be confident in doing so. While PhD and other advanced degree programs involves mostly solo projects, consulting relies heavily on teamwork and communication skills. Being friendly, personable, and quick on your feet during the interview will show employers that you will be able to effectively communicate and work with coworkers as well as clients.