How to Break into Consulting with a PhD or Advanced Degree
Are you looking to transition from a PhD or advanced degree program into management consulting?
This comprehensive article covers which consulting firms hire PhD and advanced degree candidates, how to apply to consulting firms, and how to pass management consulting job interviews.
Why do Consulting Firms Hire PhD and Advanced Degree Candidates?
Consulting firms hire PhD and advanced degree candidates for many reasons.
One, consulting firms want to hire top talent wherever they may be. While consulting firms have traditionally hired from top-tier undergraduate and MBA schools, they have been moving towards also hiring from top-tier medical schools, law schools, and graduate schools. Talented future consultants can be found anywhere and consulting firms want to hire them.
Two, a lot of the skills that PhD and advanced degree candidates have can be transferred to consulting. PhD students gather data, break down problems, write papers, and present their work to others. Analyzing data and presenting your work are critical skills that consultants use every day.
Three, the work that consultants do is increasingly becoming more specialized, requiring specialized expertise. This is where PhD and advanced degree graduates shine. If a consulting firm is helping a pharmaceutical company develop a strategy to launch a new drug, who better to help them than a biochemistry PhD or MD that understands the healthcare space?
Therefore, if you are interested in transitioning to the business world, know that consulting firms do hire PhD and advanced degree candidates that have no business backgrounds.
As a PhD or advanced degree hire, you’ll typically be placed at roughly the same level as an MBA hire. However, if you only have a master’s degree, you may be placed at the same level as an undergraduate hire.
Which Consulting Firms Hire PhD and Advanced Degree Candidates?
All three of the top-tier management consulting firms, McKinsey, BCG, and Bain, hire PhD and advanced degree candidates. In fact, they have special programs that are tailored to helping PhD and advanced degree candidates go through the recruiting process.
In addition, many other top consulting firms hire PhD and advanced degree candidates, including Deloitte, Strategy& (part of PwC), EY-Parthenon, L.E.K., and Roland Berger.
If you have a PhD in life sciences or an MD, there are many consulting firms that specialize in life sciences consulting. These consulting firms include: ClearView Healthcare, Navigant, ZS Associates, Putnam Associates, and Huron Consulting.
Overall, there are many consulting firms that will hire PhD and advanced degree candidates.
What Challenges do PhD and Advanced Degree Candidates Face in Consulting?
Although PhD and advanced degree candidates have some skills that will transfer over to consulting, there are many skills that will not. There are six main challenges that PhD and advanced degree hires will face when they recruit for and enter consulting.
Understanding essential business concepts
PhD and advanced degree candidates spend years studying fields that have nothing to do with business. One of the biggest challenges that these candidates face is ramping up on fundamental business knowledge.
Consulting does not require specialized business knowledge, but candidates should be familiar with fundamental business concepts, such as profitability, market share, and competitive advantage.
Additionally, many PhD and advanced degree candidates will lack the business judgment and acumen that a traditional MBA candidate has. Building up a strong business instinct takes time.
Solving problems quickly
PhD candidates may work on one project for many years, extensively researching the topic and going very deep into the details and nuances of the problem.
In contrast, consulting projects are typically solved in 3 – 6 months. As a new consultant, PhD and advanced degree candidates will need to learn how to solve problems quickly by focusing on the most important issues or areas.
Doing simple math calculations quickly
PhD candidates likely use sophisticated and complex mathematics in their research and work, such as differential equations or linear algebra.
In consulting, only very basic math is used. Surprisingly, during interviews, PhD and advanced degree candidates have a much more difficult time performing basic math calculations than undergraduate candidates. This may be because PhD candidates are used to doing higher level math using statistical software rather than doing simpler math calculations by hand.
Therefore, PhD candidates will likely need to brush up on their basic math skills to perform calculations quickly and accurately during their interviews.
Making things simple and easy to understand
One of the key skills in consulting is to make things simple and easy to understand. This is important in order to make clients understand their business situation and act on the recommendations that the consulting firm has provided.
PhD and advanced degree candidates deal with complex and intricate problems that are often difficult to explain to the average person. To be a successful consultant, PhD and advanced degree hires will need to practice explaining complex things in a simple way.
Not focusing too much on the nitty gritty details
In a PhD program, you go very deep into one particular area or topic. To become an expert in the field, you typically read all of the scientific papers published on the topic and know all of the details.
Consulting is less focused on the nitty gritty details. Consultants will learn just enough about a particular topic or area in order to be able to solve the business problem.
Focusing more on the overall business problem and focusing less on minute details is one skill that PhD and advanced degree hires will need to learn and develop.
What does the PhD and Advanced Degree Recruiting Process Look Like?
Some consulting firms, such as McKinsey, BCG, and Bain, offer programs that specifically help PhD and advanced degree holders apply and transition to consulting. Participating in these programs will help you build connections and increase the likelihood of receiving an interview.
These programs are fairly competitive and require you to submit an application in order to be accepted into the program.
- McKinsey Insight Program: This program provides an overview of management consulting and McKinsey, an opportunity to connect with consultants that share a similar background to you, and a mock case study.
- Bridge to BCG Program: This program provides an overview of consulting and what makes BCG special. You’ll have the opportunity to solve a BCG case in a case team simulation, network with consulting staff, and participate in social activities.
- Bain ADvantage Program: This week-long internship immerses candidates into life at Bain and a career in consulting. You’ll have a full day of training followed by four days of a staffing assignment on a real case team. If accepted into this program, you will receive a guaranteed final-round interview for a full-time Consultant position.
Outside of these programs, the PhD and advanced degree recruiting process looks like the following:
- Submit your consulting job application
- Pass your first-round consulting interviews
- Pass your final-round consulting interviews
- Receive your consulting job offer
Submitting your Consulting Job Application
Consulting firm job applications typically have three components: the resume, cover letter, and the optional referral.
We’ll briefly cover each of these components of the application over the next few sections. Each section has a link to a more comprehensive, in-depth guide that you should read.
Your resume is the single most important factor that decides whether or not you will receive a consulting interview. Consulting resumes are quite different from the type of resumes you would use in a PhD or advanced degree program.
For example, you will not need to list publications you have contributed to or conferences that you have attended. You’ll also need to simplify the topic of your research so that the average recruiter can understand what you have worked on and what you have accomplished. Finally, make sure to focus less on the details of your work and more on the overall accomplishment and impact.
Make sure to tailor your resume so that it follows the structure and format of a consulting resume.
In short, keep your resume to one page and quantify the impact of your accomplishments.
Consulting firms like to see:
- High grades
- Prestigious schools that you have attended
- Brand name companies that you have worked for
- Significant impact in your work experiences
- Meaningful leadership positions in your extracurricular activities
Consulting Cover Letter
The cover letter is less important than your resume, but can make the difference between receiving a consulting interview and not receiving one if your resume is on the borderline.
Your cover letter should be concise and straight to the point. Introduce yourself and then briefly explain why you are interested in consulting. Spend most of the cover letter explaining what qualities you have that would make you a great fit for the firm.
To avoid having a generic cover letter, include specific reasons why you are interested in the consulting firm you are applying to. Mention former or current employees that you have spoken to and what aspects of the firm you find most attractive.
Referrals are not part of the official application process for consulting firms, but they are a quick way to make your application stand out.
If you have a friend or colleague that works at the consulting firm you are applying to, ask if they would be comfortable giving you a referral.
Getting a referral means that someone at the consulting firm will send your name and resume to the recruiter that is in charge of resume reviews. Your application will get a closer look and be viewed a bit more favorably.
Referrals are not required to get interviews, but can help a lot. For the McKinsey Insight Program, Bridge to BCG Program, and Bain ADvantage Program, referrals can make a big difference given how competitive these programs are.
Passing your First-Round Consulting Interviews
A few weeks after the application deadlines, you’ll receive invitations from consulting firms for the first of two rounds of interviews.
At most consulting firms, the first round of interviews consists of two separate 40- to 60-minute interviews. These interviews will mainly focus on case interviews, but you will also get a few other types of questions.
There are three types of consulting interview questions:
- Case Interviews
- Behavioral Interviews
- Why Consulting? / Why this Firm?
We’ll briefly cover each of these types of consulting interview questions over the next few sections. Each section has a link to a more comprehensive, in-depth guide that you should read.
Case interviews are a special type of interview question that consulting firms use to assess a candidate’s potential to be a great consultant. In a case interview, you’ll be placed in a hypothetical business situation and asked to develop a recommendation or answer to a business problem. A case takes about 30- to 60-minutes to complete.
Here are some examples of case interview questions:
- How can Coca-Cola increase its profitability?
- What should Netflix do to increase customer retention?
- Should Facebook enter the smart phone market?
- How should Apple price its new iPhone?
Case interviews begin with the interviewer reading you the background information on the case. You’ll then get the chance to ask clarifying questions to better understand the business situation and case objective.
Next, you’ll develop a framework to help you solve the case. A framework is a tool that helps you structure and break down complex problems into smaller, more manageable components.
You’ll then be asked to answer quantitative and qualitative questions to build support for a recommendation. You may need to calculate expected profitability, interpret charts and graphs, or brainstorm and prioritize different ideas.
At the end of the case interview, the interviewer will ask you to deliver a final recommendation to address or solve the business problem.
Behavioral Interview Questions
Consulting behavioral interview questions ask you to give an example or story of a time when you displayed a particular quality, such as leadership, problem solving, or resilience.
Here are some examples of behavioral interview questions:
- Tell me about a time when you exceeded expectations
- Give me an example of a time when you had to persuade someone
- Describe a situation in which you resolved team conflict
- Give me an example of a time when you failed to meet expectations
- Describe a difficult or complicated problem that you solved
To prepare for these questions, develop a list of five different stories or examples that cover a wide range of positive qualities. You should select stories or experiences that are the most impressive and impactful.
When asked a behavioral interview question, mentally run through your list of prepared stories and select the one that is most relevant to the question that is asked.
You’ll want to share your story or experience by using the STAR method to ensure that you answer the question in a clear and structured way. STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action, and Result.
Situation: Provide a brief overview of the situation and any context that is needed to understand the story better. Keep this section as concise as possible because it is less important than the other parts of the story.
Task: Describe what you were asked or required to deliver or achieve. Again, keep this section concise since it is less important than the other parts of the story.
Action: Explain what steps you took to handle the task or meet the goal or objective. This is an important part of the story, so focus on sharing exactly what you did.
Result: Describe the outcome that your actions had, quantifying the impact. Also describe your key takeaways from the experience and how it impacted or influenced you as a person. This is the most important part of the story.
Why Consulting? / Why this Firm?
You will almost certainly be asked the “Why Consulting?” question at some point during your interviews. Interviewers want to know why you are interested in consulting to see if you know what you are getting yourself into and whether you are genuinely interested.
As a PhD or advanced degree candidate, you will need to provide compelling reasons why you are choosing to pursue consulting instead of the field that you have spent years studying.
There are many reasons you can give for why you are interested in consulting:
- You want to make a larger impact on the world by working with large companies to solve their most challenging business problems
- You see consulting as the quickest way to develop the skills to transition to the business world and become a business executive
- You enjoy working closely in teams to solve challenging business problems
- You value the mentorship and personal development opportunities that consulting provides
- You want to tackle a wide variety of different problems and consulting allows you to work on projects in many different industries and functions
Use the following structure to answer this question:
- State that consulting is your top career choice
- Provide three reasons to support this
- Reiterate that consulting best fits your professional needs and goals
In addition to the “Why Consulting?” question, you may also be asked “Why this Firm?” This question assesses whether you are genuinely interested in working at the consulting firm that you are interviewing for.
Again, there are many different reasons you could give:
- You have loved the people that you’ve met from the firm and would enjoy working with them
- The firm has an empowering work culture where you feel you would thrive
- The firm has deep expertise in a particular industry or function that you are passionate about
- The firm places a heavy investment in mentorship and personal development, which you value tremendously
- Several of your mentors and role models have worked at the firm and have recommended that you work there
Make sure to structure your answer to this question so that your answer is clear and easy to follow. You can use a similar structure to the “Why Consulting?” question:
- State that the firm you are interviewing for is your top choice consulting firm
- Provide three reasons to support this
- Reiterate that the firm best fits your professional needs and goals
Passing your Final-Round Consulting Interviews
Consulting final round interviews typically consist of two to three separate 40- to 60-minute interviews. You’ll see the same three types of questions that you saw in your first-round interviews.
There are three main distinctions between consulting first-round interviews and consulting final-round interviews.
First, your interviewers will be more senior people. This means that the case interviews you receive may be less structured and feel more like a qualitative discussion. You and the interviewer may just be discussing your opinions and ideas on a business problem.
Second, there is more of an emphasis on assessing your personality and cultural fit with the firm. Interviewers will not only assess whether you can solve case interviews, but they will also assess whether they would want to work with you on a team. Interviewers want to see if you are coachable, collaborative, and easy to work with.
Third, your interviewers may read the notes that your previous interviewers wrote about you. If there is a particular area of the case interview that you struggled with, interviewers may specifically test you on it again to make sure it is not a weakness.
Overall, you should still use the same strategies that you used in your first-round interviews for your second-round interviews.
Receiving your Consulting Job Offer
After finishing all of your interviews, all you have to do is to wait. Consulting firms typically call candidates to tell them whether or not they are being extended a job offer.
Some candidates receive a phone call with good news on the same day of their final-round interview. Other candidates receive calls within a few days.
Be patient while waiting to hear back from consulting firms. If you have not heard back within a week, you can send a polite follow-up email with the recruiter to ask for an update.
When you finally get your call, all that is left to do is sign your offer letter to secure your consulting job!
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