The field of consulting has attracted many graduate students from various academic disciplines. A panel of UConn alumni addressed myths about consulting and shared tips with graduate students on preparing for a career in consulting during the event, Expand Your Career Options.
Every semester, Expand Your Career Options features graduate-level alumni from different career fields who share the twists and turns of their career journey. This spring, the invited alumni were:
Ms. Annie Gentile
Senior Consultant with the Civilian Health Team, Booz Allen Hamilton
B.A. in Political Science, UConn
M.S. Ed., Johns Hopkins University
MPP, the University of Chicago
(Photo courtesy of Ms. Annie Gentile)
Dr. Ethan Sarnoski
(Photo courtesy of Dr. Ethan Sarnoski)
Getting to Know Consulting
1. The work culture
In many people’s eyes, consultants usually work independently. Although that may true, collaboration with teams does matter a lot. “There are regular check-ins with teammates,” Dr. Sarnoski said, “You are consistently working with a team and asking the right questions to achieve deliverables for the client.”
“There is a supportive culture with an emphasis on personal wellbeing. You also have time reserved to think about ideas and opportunities to grow in different projects,” Ms. Gentile added.
Dr. Sarnoski depicted the work structure in consulting. He shared that a typical team structure in a consulting firm might be like this: a project leader, who might also be called an engagement manager, is responsible for the overall execution of the project and works with business analysts or associates. There is also an engagement director checking on the project and providing recommendations. As for the major components of work in consulting, there are two primary parts, strategy work and operations work. “The role of a consultant is to help an organization to determine what they should do and then get them to take the actions, implement and change, etc.,” said Ethan.
2. Career progression in consulting
Both panelists agreed that individuals working in a consulting firm are usually responsible for their own professional development. “There is not necessarily somebody charting a path for you while you are fully responsible for that,” said Ms. Gentile, “You are expected to build the network by reaching out to others and meeting a lot of people then building relationships. Through those relationships, that is how you progress in the firm when people start remembering you and want to work with you on projects.”
“You are usually working with the team and business analysts own the subcomponents of a project,” Ethan added. While career progression may happen by moving up at a company or jumping to another company which occurs roughly every 1.5-2 years, “You are expected to bring in new opportunities and contribute to the development of the overall business.” said Annie.
3. Challenges and enjoyable aspects
When asked about what they thought was challenging and enjoyable working in consulting, panelists shared different perspectives and experiences.
For Ethan who came directly from academia, with a background in science before entering consulting, consultancy meant finding the best answers within a relatively small amount of time, while in the academic sciences there seemed to be infinite time to make sure one was getting the right answer or results. Within consulting, he really enjoyed the opportunities to see different aspects of the world through working with a range of companies and organizations in different fields.
Working in government consulting, Annie found she had to adapt to different administration priorities when political leaders changed, while that also contributed to what she found enjoyable – she also loved working with her clients who were passionate about their work.
Getting Prepared for Consulting
1. Skills needed for consulting
Some of the top skills that the panelists agreed on are:
- Communication (both writing and presenting)
- Time management
- Project management
- Complex problem-solving skills
- Leadership skills (especially when someone is progressing to more senior positions)
Both panelists emphasized the importance of developing knowledge in different areas. Annie recalled what her project manager once told her, “to read books about random subjects, not books about consulting.”
Having any type of client-facing experience can be important as well. Annie was a teacher herself and that involved relationship work when meeting the needs of, for example, students and the teaching team. “You can bring experiences from any sector to inform your work,” she said.
2. The way your graduate training prepares you for consulting
A high level of professionalism could be developed throughout one’s academic life as a graduate student. Skills like project management and time management are built and enhanced during one’s graduate school years, as Annie believed. “You understand how to pick up the ball and how to act professionally, which is pretty important when you are facing your clients and representing the firm.”
Ethan shared that graduate studies, especially those related to his field, are highly relevant to consulting, which “requires you to come up with a hypothesis and find information to refine it, then use it for developing the answer.”
Advice for Graduate Students
1. Getting an interview
The ideal résumé for consulting, suggested by the panelists would demonstrate one’s success and accomplishments, and indicate one’s interest in consulting.
Internship experiences or other career-related experiences could also be of great importance. Annie had an internship with Governor Lamont’s office, which sparked her interest in public sector consulting. Ethan worked for PreScouter, a research support services provider, and then also at an institutional research office at Yale during his doctoral study.
2. Succeeding at an interview
Ethan talked a bit about how the interview process might look. The interview usually adopts a case-based approach, typically with a 30-minute session working on a case and solving problems by examining data and then sharing your recommendations. He suggested preparing for the entire interview rather than solely focusing on one particular part.
Networking and finding a mentor to develop a relationship in the long term seems to be the key if someone is interested in those more competitive firms. Panelists suggested networking with individuals from the firm that you would like to join which would help in understanding the company and allow you to reach out for advice, but do not assume that it would turn into a referral. Instead, as Annie advised, it would be helpful to have the mindset of learning– to learn from a potential mentor about what they did and what projects they are working on.
4. Small firms vs. large firms
There are lots of consulting firms varying in sizes and specialties. In addition to top consulting firms, panelists also suggested exploring more niche firms that specialize in a specific area – some target their work within the private sector, while others have a focus on government agencies or non-profits.
5. One last piece of advice
Annie wanted to remind graduate students about the importance of career preparation. “The more you can do to lay the groundwork before graduation, the better off you will be,” she said.
“Don’t think about what you want to do next but think about where you would like to be in the next five to ten years,” said Ethan, “Be flexible in thinking about where you go next to accomplish your long-term goal. It’s never too early to start thinking what you need to get to the next step.”
More Resources on Consulting
- Vault’s guides to consulting (requiring access through the link here at the Center for Career Development as the Center subscribes to the premium edition of the resource.)
- Careers at Booz Allen Hamilton
- Careers at McKinsey