This is the second entry in a series of Q&A’s with recent grad-school-grads. In this post, questions were answered – over email – by a friend who completed her PhD in 2011 and is now working at a big 3 consulting firm. Read on to learn why her career goals changed during grad school, how she made the transition to consulting, and what her advice is to others looking to follow a similar path.
What did you study in your Ph.D. program?
Biophysics- specifically, the biochemical and biophysical processes that govern protein folding.
When you first started the program, did you know what you wanted to do after grad school?
I started graduate school knowing two things 1) I loved and was good at teaching 2) I was not a big fan of being at the bench. My original plan was to become a chemistry/biochemistry professor at a liberal arts university where I could be very involved with students in the classroom and run as minimal of a research program as possible.
How did your career plans or goals change by the time you were finishing your Ph.D.?
I came to realize that professorships at the best liberal arts colleges still involve a non-trivial research component, and that was something I was not truly passionate about. At the same time, I was not convinced that getting a 100% teaching job, for example at a community college or a high school, would be truly satisfying for me. Also, while my graduate research went smoothly and the benchwork that I did was pretty straightforward and involved some fun advanced techniques, the thought of continuing to do similar work for another 4-5 years in a post doc was not at all appealing.
I wanted to move into a position where there was significant opportunity to leverage both science and my general problem solving skills. In retrospect, many elements of academic science are not well-aligned with my personality: I function best when I am working directly with people and up against frequent, hard deadlines with deliverables that have very clear, tangible impact. My lab work was diametrically opposed to almost all of these personality traits, as I was almost always working on projects by myself, under a loose timeline at best, producing data that very few people would ever see. Thus, I generally found it very personally unsatisfying.
I was first introduced to consulting in a product development class in my third year of graduate school that was led by a former consultant from one of the big firms and was taught primarily based on case studies. I loved that the work combined both science and general problem solving skills, and provided the opportunity for significant project turnover. That was when I started seriously considering consulting as an option.
Were you involved in any organizations or activities while in grad school that helped lead you to where you are now?
No, I just took a couple of business classes. There is definitely value in being involved in some of those organizations or taking classes for getting a bit of a feel for what consultant work is like and whether or not you’d enjoy it.
However, don’t think that as a Ph.D. student you need to join a consulting or a case practice group a year or two out in order to be successful in the interview process. While it is important to have some case practice, to be honest the people who study for a month or two usually do better in interviews than those who have been beating their heads against cases for a year. Those in the latter group tend to be a little too invested in the process, and in interviews they often come off as rigid or as if they’re trying too hard.
What do you do now?
I’m a management consultant at one of the big three consulting firms. The majority of the work that I’ve done has been in developing strategy for biotechnology and medical device companies, but I have also done work in improving hospital operations.
Of the skills you developed as a grad student, which are most useful to you in your current position? Which are you happy to leave behind?
Honestly, my teaching skills have far and away been the most useful in this job. Basically, what we’re doing is going into companies, diagnosing what their core issues are, then teaching them how to fix it. Teaching taught me so much about learning how to read people, how to understand their thought process, motivations, and concerns, and subsequently provide advice and feedback. That has been immensely helpful in this job, both in terms of working internally on consultant teams, and also in terms of interacting with clients. There is also a lot of emphasis placed on mentorship at my firm, and my teaching experience taught me a lot about that as well.
There’s also a lot to be said for the fact that Ph.D. students are used to distilling large bodies of information (e.g. a very long paper) into key takeaways very quickly. That is very helpful in this job, since there is always a ton of information thrown at us that must be processed very quickly.
If I never pipette again it will be too soon.
Are there any skills/tools/habits that you need in your field but didn’t develop during your grad school training?
Many. General business terms, what the appropriate format for a Powerpoint page is, how to use VLOOKUP and PivotTables in Excel… it is a very long list, and every day that you cross off learning one thing, a new item pops up. Which, honestly, is part of the fun of it.
The big firms do a good job of providing fast track training for Ph.D.s coming in that gets them versed in the language of business, and some of the more specific rules of finance and accounting. Functionally, business is mostly just a lot of common sense, so it doesn’t take that long to get up to speed in that area, but every client has a unique set of terms, acronyms, etc., that you have to relearn with every project.
Really, the best way to learn is basically by immersion. You just have to go into the job ready to learn, and the people around you will support you as you get ramped up on every project.
What’s a typical day for you like now?
It changes a lot from project to project, but the general features are as follows. First, we usually fly to the client site on Monday morning, fly back Thursday evening, and are in our home office on Friday. That’s actually the most consistent element between projects.
In terms of a daily schedule, Monday-Wed our day usually runs from about 8:30-6 PM at the client site, then everyone goes off either together or on their own to get dinner, relax, work out, whatever. After that there’s usually another 2-3 hours of work to do in the evening that people just do from their hotel rooms or home. Thursdays and Fridays tend to be a little bit shorter, all in all it usually adds up to ~55-60 hours a week.
One thing I will point out: the 55-60 hours a week of consulting work are almost 100% intellectually engaged. I definitely had 12 hour days in the lab where you could space out for 30 min intervals while waiting for incubations or experimental runs. The vast majority of the work we do is extremely active. It’s a mixture of sifting through information to put together Powerpoint pages, manipulating and organizing data in Excel, meeting with clients, and participating in team problem solving sessions. You are always up against a deadline, and there are usually daily deliverables. I went in thinking that it was likely that a good chunk of the “12 hour day” involved soft time, such as schmoozing with clients, and that’s just not the case, at least not at the entry levels. It is serious work.
What’s the best thing about your job? Do you miss anything about bench work?
Everything about the interview process painted consulting in an accurate light, and I definitely got what I was looking for in terms of interesting problem solving, project turnover, and a more daily feeling of satisfaction. But really, my favorite part is the people. The firm is filled with really smart, interesting, passionate people from a variety of backgrounds. It’s a lot like going to college at a top tier school, where everyone has some unique, awesome thing they accomplished in the past, and it’s very energizing to interact with those people. It’s also an extremely collegial environment, where everyone is supporting each other and helping each other learn and advance. I can honestly say I have never felt like anyone here was trying to cut me down, which is pretty amazing given how competitive we all are. It’s also a really great social forum; a lot of us hang out outside of work frequently.
The one thing that I miss about bench work is the opportunity to get up and move around a lot. I’m a very active person, and sitting at a computer all day is kind of a bummer.
Where do you see yourself going from here?
Honestly, I don’t know. I want to stay in consulting long enough to be managing teams (at least another year), as that seems like a really fun and extremely valuable experience in terms of going out in the broader world and managing people.
Being at a big consulting firm opens pretty much any door you want it to in terms of where to go next. I’m still narrowing down what that will mean to me.
Any words of wisdom for current grad students who might be interested in making a transition like yours?
The hardest part of the interview process for a lot of Ph.D. students is the experience interview. Consulting firms are looking for people with experience in team work and leadership, and unfortunately the typical graduate student experience just doesn’t lend itself to a lot of rich experience in those areas. Do your best to cultivate experiences aligned with those areas outside of your lab work. Team work stories about lab collaborators are a dime a dozen in Ph.D. interviews, stories about working with others to go out and teach science to elementary school students or something else outside of the box often make you stand out more. The best stories are those that mimic a consulting experience: you worked with a team to identify and solve a problem, and throughout the process you all had to convince the people involved in the problem why your solution was the right one.
Last, the key to happiness in this job is knowing what you want and standing up for it. It is a very, very demanding job, and it will consume your whole life if you let it. Know what matters to you, whether it’s spending time with your friends, family, working out, or certain hobbies, and take a stand in terms of making time for those things. It is a constant balancing act, in which there are sometimes client emergencies that truly need to come first, but recognizing what is truly an emergency and pushing back as necessary against less important requests is the key to maintaining balance between your personal and professional life. It’s easier said than done, and often pushing back is scary; if it’s a skill that you don’t think you can develop, this job will be very difficult.
Knowing what you know now, would you still go into your current job?
Absolutely. Despite some moments of extreme frustration and some very long nights, I have learned more in a year of this job than I probably did in all of graduate school. I’ve met amazing people I will value as friends and colleagues for the rest of my life, and I feel I’ve truly had positive impact on my clients.