So why consulting? What is consulting? If you’ve seen the movie “Keeping the Faith,” Jenna Elfman’s character is a consultant and has a great quote: “I’m like a plumber, but I fix leaky companies.” While clients who are not in trouble also hire consultants, in a basic sense, consultants help fix tough problems.
A consultant is an advisor. Clients are businesses who need advice on a particular issue, which could be focused on a single product (e.g., how do I go about launching this product in Asia?) to very broad (e.g., how do I merge my business with another equally large business?). Consultants break down the problem into workable sections, identify the data needed to solve the problem, analyze the data to get an answer, and then communicate that answer to the client. So as a PhD, what skills did I have to offer a consulting firm, since it’s probably unlikely that a potential client would have a problem that related in any way to my research? As it turns out, spending five years at an institution like Cal attempting to answer questions that no one else has been able to answer makes you an excellent problem-solver.
As scientists, we are trained to see an issue, break it down into solvable chunks, and then think through various ways in which we could conquer those chunks. This is a highly marketable skill, and oddly, one that we scientists are not particularly aware of, given that it must be applied at all times when thinking through our research and experiments. Multiple consulting firms have realized the value of this skill and actively recruit PhDs. Turns out that you can teach a PhD basic finance skills in a few months, but it’s pretty tough to teach an MBA how to think like a scientist. Go figure.
While at Cal, I was involved with student groups like the Graduate Assembly. The focus of these efforts was to make Cal a better place for grad students in general, but for me, it was also another way I could interact and work with others. These experiences were also critical in confirming that I preferred working in teams, rather than alone at the benchtop. Consulting is highly team-oriented, and good working relationships and communication are key to a successful project. I missed that team dynamic while working late nights in the tissue culture lab or sitting in front of the mass spec. I also miss group meetings and learning about the latest discoveries from my labmates, but I’ve been able to apply that same craving for information to the pharmaceutical, diagnostics, and healthcare industries during my time as a consultant. My new colleagues are incredibly smart and talented and challenge me just as much as my former labmates.
So when considering a potential career in consulting, at a basic level, you need to enjoy a fast-paced atmosphere and working in teams. You are a good communicator, both in written and verbal form. You see the value of data and love finding the answer. You also have an interest in the business world – that’s not to say that you read the Wall Street Journal every day, but you need to be an interested and willing participant in the for-profit sector. Most importantly, if you decide that you are interested in a “non-traditional” career path, you must acknowledge that you are not turning your back on science or your training. That training forms the basis of critical contributions during projects. You are a bridge between the scientific and business communities, and the business world could use more of those.
Read more from me and my colleagues on L.E.K. Consulting’s Advisor blog, which is an interactive resource for undergraduate, MBA and PhD candidates interested in pursuing a career in management consulting.