Careers After the PhD: A Primer on Consulting
By Carly Loeb on May 18th, 2011
Transitioning away from the bench can be a scary proposition – especially when it’s difficult to get your head around what careers outside of the bench actually entail. We spoke with Carly Loeb, Ph.D., former Project Leader at Boston Consulting Group to help demystify one of the frequently referenced career options for PhDs: Consulting.
At what point in graduate school did you realize you wanted to leave the bench?
I think it was always a part of my plan to leave the bench even as I was applying to graduate school. I knew I didn’t want to pursue a career in academia, but instead to go into industry at some point. Growing up, I loved science and was a bit of a science geek, so I felt I owed it to myself to pursue science further. I thought in any case, obtaining a PhD would be valuable for my career in the longer term, wherever it took me.
How many different career options were you considering and how did you decide on consulting?
In the end, I only applied to large management consulting firms. I had a number of college friends who went into consulting, so I was actually fairly comfortable with what consulting entailed and had to offer. I was drawn to the fact that I’d gain a variety of business experiences, both in my preferred industry as well as outside of it. Also, after 29 years of education (including kindergarten), I was done with school, and therefore liked the fact that consulting could negate the need for an MBA for my future career aspirations. The people I met through various information sessions were motivated, talented and frienly people, and I was excited to potentially work with such a team. In hindsight, I’m even more convinced that this was the right decision for me: the mentorship, training, and professional development I gained at The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) was invaluable.
I also toyed with the idea of joining a start-up, since at the time there were a number of opportunities in the Bay Area. I liked the idea of wearing multiple hats, as is what seemed could be the case in a small start-up. However, my observations of some successful start-ups were that they tend to get built-up around the founders, who remain the scientists. In the end I decided start-ups were too risky of a path for me and I wasn’t confident that what I’d be working on would actually be the direction I’d want to go in long term. I felt that in the long-term interest of my career goals, going a more established route was the better decision for me.
At a high level, what is consulting – why do companies hire consultants?
Consultants often describe themselves as “Doctors for Businesses.” We’re often brought in to solve a problem or answer a strategic question that the client wants outside help with. This may include issues like How can we as a company make better decisions? How can we stop losing money? Where are our next market opportunities? How can we optimize our production facilities to be more efficient? How can we better organize ourselves now that we’ve merged with another company? There is a huge range of questions companies hire consultants to address.
Although it may seem like companies should be able to answer these questions on their own, there are a number of reasons they hire consultants. First, the executives that hire consultants likely don’t have the time to devote to the endeavor or to perform the analyses; or maybe they want the outside perspective and strategic problem-solving expertise that a consulting firm brings; or maybe the executives feel like they don’t have the full picture of the way things are going at their company and they need an independent group to take the pulse and be the voice of their organization.
Like Baskin Robbins, consulting firms come in many flavors. Some are large global networks that service nearly all industries and can assist with a wide variety of strategic projects (e.g., pricing, organization, strategy, operations, etc.), while others are smaller boutique firms that focus on a specific functional specialty or industry.
What did an average week look like for you?
Your schedule is highly dependent on the project you’re working on. During an out-of-town project, you’ll likely be traveling to the client Monday and returning home on Thursday night. But sometimes you only have to travel for 1-2 nights in a week. For local cases you don’t have to travel, but you are often working at the client site Monday-Thursday. On Fridays we try to be in the office. Personally, I would estimate that I was out of town 40% of the time, and I’d say that’s probably a little lower than average. As it turned out, I worked on a few long local projects, so during those times I was home more than many of my colleagues.
Although that may seem like a lot of travel, consultants do actually have a say in the projects they’re staffed on. Of course, one driver of staffing decisions is availability – who has time to work on a project when it pops up. However, there are also a number of important variables that will shape which projects you are interested in: the industry, the functional area, the other people on the team, the client, the location, and the development opportunities that your module and the project would afford you. You can’t always find an available project that satisfies all of these variables, but you often can satisfy some. Strategically selecting projects that fit your interests and priorities allows you to create your own path and career development.
The work you do is structured around your module- the piece of the case ‘pie’ that you own. You own your module and therefore have responsibility for executing the needed interviews, analyses, etc, and also for deriving and communicating/sharing the key implications and insights with the case team and the client.
Did you feel having a PhD was an advantage for you in consulting?
I feel like on certain cases, the PhD added credibility to the team. It was also helpful that I could speak the language of my scientist (or former scientist) clients. When you can share anecdotes with the CSO (a fellow PhD) of a major company about how you’ve had a fermenter full of yeast blow up on you before, you build an instant rapport. It also sometimes helped to have an understanding of the underlying technologies we were often called in to work on.
Having said that, you certainly don’t need a PhD to be a consultant; the vast majority of management consultants have MBAs, or if they’re associates out of undergraduate they plan to get MBAs. I didn’t need to read basic science publications, although at times I had to understand clinical trial results or public health data. I think where the real value in the PhD will come in is in helping me achieve my long-term career goals. There’s no way I would have obtained my current job without the professional skills and business experience I gained as a consultant, but even for this job I didn’t need a PhD as most have MBAs. However, over the next 10 years, as my career advances, I believe my PhD will be an asset. So it’s important to remember that the value of the PhD may not be required at every step, but in the long term it may play an important role in your career development.
How was the transition away from the bench and in to consulting?
Before starting work, I attended BCG’s two-week Business Essentials Program, held for consultants who have non-business advanced degrees. It’s essentially a crash course in financial statements, Excel, and other foundational knowledge that will help you get started. The other great thing about BEP was that employees from the global offices also took the class, so before I started work at my own office, I had already made friends with colleagues from other branches around the world. That was a lot of fun and a great way to jump start my network. There are also many trainings that the firm offers all first-year consultants, PhD or MBA, that help to learn the tools of the trade.
With respect to the actual job, many coming from non-MBA advanced degrees are often nervous about the content we’ll face as consultants. In reality, the content, although it’s new and there’s a lot of it, is usually not the problem at all. The main adjustments many face are related to working in a corporate environment.
The corporate world can be very different from what we’re used to in the laboratory. Throughout graduate school, we’re taught and trained to be independent problem-solvers. However, in the corporate world, frequent communication with your team is absolutely essential. In fact, you’re expected to share preliminary insights and to participate in discussions in order to further the project. It is also very important to openly communicate about expectations around deadlines, workload, approach, etc, so that everyone is on the same page.
Another difference in the corporate environment that can be a challenge for advanced degrees is in reaching an answer you and the team are comfortable with, even if it’s not “100% perfect.” You may have heard of the 80/20 rule – in consulting it means getting to 80% of your best estimate in 20% of the time. As PhDs, we like to have all of the data and have 50 nails in the coffin before we declare something. In consulting, you’re working on a fast-paced project with hard deadlines where there’s often ambiguous or incomplete data. You therefore have to get comfortable saying, ‘this is what I think is the best path forward given what we know now.’ This requires careful prioritization of analyses, which is something that PhDs can struggle with if they’re used to being able to “get lost in the weeds.” However, I personally think PhDs can actually be quite good at prioritization- for example when focusing on a figure needed for a publication – but we don’t always have the time pressure driving us to build that skill.
For students/postdocs interested in pursuing consulting, what would you recommend as first steps?
Firstly, think about your likely graduation timing and plan when to begin the interview process accordingly. Many of the larger consulting firms have their primary recruiting seasons in sync with business schools, so recruitment happens in the fall for start dates the subsequent fall. If you know you’re interested even earlier on, I recommend attending all of the information sessions for the firms you’re interested in and applying to any summer internships or workshops. These summer experiences would give you a first-hand preview of what the work will entail. Even if you aren’t accepted into a summer program, going through the process will help you meet the company and prepare for full-time interviews.
Once you begin the interview process, practice is absolutely the key. Review case studies and practice them – out loud – with other people. You absolutely cannot practice case studies enough. In addition, be able to articulately discuss your past experiences listed on your resume, as those are the parts of the interview you can actually prepare to speak to!
Having interviewed applicants yourself, what are a couple of things that could help a PhD standout from the crowd?
When submitting a resume, certainly highlight any leadership or teamwork experiences, professional or extracurricular. If possible, demonstrate your interest in business via whatever activities you’ve been involved in that are relevant, e.g., classwork, business plan competitions, summer internships, etc. You also may want to include your GPAs and standardized test scores from undergrad and grad schools.
The in-person interviews focus mainly on your performance in the interview itself. They want to find out how you would approach solving business problems, if you can think on your feet and communicate clearly, if you are motivated and have leadership and/or teamwork experience, and if you can do simple math – which PhDs don’t usually have trouble with.
One point of caution is to avoid trying to impress the interviewer by tossing out business terminology. The interviewer understands you don’t come from a business background, so they’re more interested in how you think. Talking about business terms that you’re not 100% comfortable with them opens you up for follow-up questions you may not be able to handle.
Was there anything (positive or negative) that you were surprised about the job/profession that you didn’t expect until you were in it?
I’m not sure there were any surprises other than what I mentioned before- that the main adjustment for me wasn’t the content, but it was that I simply hadn’t worked before in a corporate setting. However, one thing that has surprised me now that I’ve left consulting and am in my next endeavor is just how amazingly well prepared I feel, and I owe that to my time as a consultant. Consulting can be intense and fast-paced, but you do really impactful and interesting work, get to know really talented colleagues and clients, and, even if you don’t want to become a consultant “for life,” you gain a broad business foundation that can be a springboard for your longer-term career goals.
Carly Loeb is currently a Senior Market Planning Manager at Genentech, a member of the Roche Group. Prior to that, she was a Project Leader for The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and was a core member of their Healthcare practice area, primarily serving biopharma clients. Dr. Loeb completed her undergraduate education from MIT, and obtained her PhD from UCSF in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Carly lives in San Francisco with her husband and 13 month-old daughter.
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