Grad School, Switching Industries, and Off-Cycle Recruiting

Here are some of my favorite reader questions from the last few months. If you have a question, please use the contact form to submit them. I’ll answer the best ones – name and email redacted, of course.

Here we go!

Grad school questions

Question: I am a biology PhD (nearly finished-10mths to go) who, despite a love for the science, has learned that my communication and problem solving skills are far superior to my bench skills. Consulting is a varied and challenging role that seems to fit with what I excel at and what I want. Is it a hard sell to make a PhD in such a different topic valid experience that will benefit a company such as McKinsey or Bain?

Answer: First off, congratulations on making it through your PhD! Definitely not an easy task. It is not a hard sell, since most large management consultancies actively hire PhD and other grad school candidates from nontraditional fields. They do this for a few reasons, among them:

  • Strong analytical and technical skills
  • Proven ability to become experts in specific topics, some of which have immediate consulting value (eg, a Microbiology PhD who can contribute their knowledge to clients in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries)
  • Academic and intellectual diversity in the team environment…and other reasons. The important thing to do is to communicate your research in a friendly, consumer-friendly way, and to really emphasize the significance and contributions of your PhD (for example, if you were published in prominent scientific publications, make sure to emphasize that on your resume and in your cover letter!).In addition, you want to express a clear interest in business – and being good at case studies will help prove that point, as will a clear story and rationale when asked “Why consulting?”.For further reading, please check out my overview of recruiting for consulting jobs.Question: Thanks for making this website, it’s really helped me gain a better understanding of the management consulting industry. I’m a medical student, who is considering changing careers and want to find a way to break into the business world. My understanding is that McKinsey, Bain, and BCG all hire people with advanced professional degrees (JD, MD, PhD, etc), and start them out at the post-MBA position. My eventual goal would be to land in finance that deals with health care companies. Do you know anything about how many MDs these 3 firms hire, and what kind of projects they are placed on? Are they limited to health care projects? Would they have any opportunities for financial service projects? Thanks alot!Answer: Great question. You’re absolutely right that big consulting firms actively recruit those with MDs. Just like they do with corporate lawyers, PhDs, and so forth. While I don’t have specific numbers on how many MDs they hire, you can bet that the number is not large (eg, I would guess in the tens and hundreds, per firm, and not thousands :). This is more a result of the general limited hiring that the best firms do, and not any specific discrimination against MDs. It is also a reflection of the quality and quantity of the MD applicant pool

    As for types of projects, all firms, as far as I know, strive to provide any new consultant with a broad set of experiences across different industries (eg, telecom, manufacturing, healthcare) and functions (eg, strategy, operations, marketing). So no, they would not be limited to healthcare projects particularly if you express a clear interest in financial services or anything else. Make that clear upfront, however, and actively network and connect with consultants and partners in other industries that you’re interested in.

    Question: I don’t think you’d appreciate a copy of my life story here but I have a strong, varied work background (7 years part time/4 full time inc research) and a number of public speaking engagements at conferences etc. My main concern is how to present my solo PhD research in a good light to an industry that strives on teamwork.

    Answer: I lightly touched this in the first question, but consulting firms and recruiters understand that PhD work is in large part a solitary and independently driven affair. Thus, you are not at a disadvantage relative to your cohort in the recruiting process. The first key is to emphasize the “wins” you’ve had (eg, the public speaking engagements you mention, publications, awards, etc). The second key is to practice, practice, practice for both the fit and case study portions of the interviews. This is where each firm will determine how strong you are in teamwork environments, your communication skills, etc.

    Consulting interviews

    Question: Enjoy your blog and I haven’t seen this question addressed. I have some consulting interviews coming up and I need to explain why I’m making the switch after doing a summer at a boutique investment bank. Is it enough to say, “the aspects I enjoyed I can find in consulting and the aspects I didn’t like I wont have to do in consulting”? I also have had some prior consulting experiences, a 3 man consulting firm and Towers Watson Investment Consulting, so should I draw upon those experiences more? Thanks!

    Answer: Yes, absolutely draw on your experiences with Towers and the 3 man consulting firm. That demonstrates you have a clear interest in consulting, and you’ll probably have great stories about why you enjoyed those jobs and want to return.

    Do not worry too much about the switch – most recruiters and consultants understand that at a relatively young age, your interests are still maturing and becoming more defined. It is OK to mention a reason or two why you did not enjoy boutique investment banking, but focus most of your discussion on why you DO like consulting and leave it at that. You do not want to come across as someone who is overly negative about banking, because that will communicate to people that you may quickly feel the same way about consulting.

    For more information, read my overview post on consulting interviews.

    General recruiting questions

    Question: What’s your perception of Oxford/Cambridge MBAs and how easy is it to get a management consulting job in the US with a degree from either of the two schools?

    Answer: In general, Oxford and Cambridge MBAs are a strong pedigree. However, the recruiting process is a bit tougher coming from the UK to the US, since for many of the bigger firms recruiting is highly local and most of the recruiters and consultants that you meet and interact with in the UK will be locally staffed and interested in hiring for their local offices (eg, London, Dublin, Western Europe, etc).

    I would say it is not impossible to make that leap back to the U.S., especially if you have a clear story for why, and your chances will significantly increase if you are able to network successfully with particular U.S. offices that you are interested in working in. Also, make sure to express that preference upfront and have that discussion with recruiters and consultants early in the recruiting process (eg, at information sessions, meet and greets, etc).

    This post on networking for consulting jobs may help, too.

    Question: Hello, I am a high school senior deciding between Wharton undergrad and the Georgetown SFS. I know that I would like to do consulting, especialy abroad. However, I do not know which school would better enable me to achieve these goals. I know that Wharton is exceptional in finance, but I don’t know if consulting companies really care about the prestige of the school. Furthermore, penn’s financial aid is dissapointing. So I was just wondring if you could offer any insight regarding consulting as to help me make this crucial decision. Thanks

    Answer: It’s always nice to meet highly motivated people at such a young age! First off, I’d like to make clear that given your age, even though I know you are very confident about your interest in management consulting, this may very likely change. You should heavily weigh other factors in that decision making process including personal fit and happiness, strength and characteristics of the student body, etc.

    However, if I were to focus on the consulting alone, I’d say that Wharton definitely is a step ahead of Georgetown SFS in being able to help you break into firms like Bain, Booz, etc. The reasons for this are multifaceted, but in the “business world” Wharton is more highly rated than Georgetown. As a result of this, Wharton is more heavily represented inside most of these consulting firms which will serve as valuable sources of advice for you and provide assistance during the recruiting process. In addition, top firms will spend more time and energy at Wharton on campus recruiting, giving you better access.

    Question: I had a tricky situation these past few months. I’m a senior and was applying to grad school, and the grad school didn’t send acceptance until end of March/beginning of April. So, before I found out, I was left to assume that I’d have to look for jobs for graduation. I did recruiting for jobs on the West Coast, since that was where my girlfriend was tentatively going to be moving — and I snagged some interviews. But, come end of March/April, I found out that I was accepted to the grad program. It’s at a top school in the UK which I’ve been told is a haven for recruiting, but I’m still going to need some good experience. I had to focus my time and resources on getting a job in case I didn’t get into grad school, which left me with no real time to devote to getting a good summer job if I DID get in. So now, I’m faced with a situation where I’m too late for summer recruiting, but need to be doing something over the summer, or else recruiters are going to wonder how I went from having an internship to waiting tables. Do you have any advice on what kinds of jobs I could snag last minute that would still be attractive? Or, if I do end up not being able to get one, how do I sell that recruiters? Do I just say that I took some time off for the summer?

    Answer: Generally in off-cycle recruiting, networking is your best way in. Focus on identifying alumni, friends, and family contacts at companies you’re interested in, set up informational conversations, express your interest, and see what’s available. I strongly believe in the law of attraction – if you make clear to the world what you’re looking for, somehow something will work out.

    If you do not land that right job over the summer, you can always start your own :) Even if you do not achieve significant lasting success with it, it will be a great learning experience and you’ll be able to fill that gap in your resume.

    At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what you do – just make sure you do something. Take the opportunity to travel the world for 3 months – even that will be a great story to tell. Take supplemental classes in an area you’re interested in. Find research work in your field of study. Opportunities abound – you just need to look farther and wider than you originally had.

    That’s all, folks. Thanks!