Careers in Management Consultancy … notes from the Career Spotlight 28 January  

Contributed by Laura Mackenzie, Head of King’s Careers & Employability

Last Wednesday saw the latest in our series of Career Spotlight events for research students. The focus was on management consultancy and the following speakers attended to talk about their transition from a PhD to consulting roles:

  • Lauren Carter, Pete Colman and Sophie Decelle – Simon-Kucher & Partners
  • Fahd Choudhry – Deloitte
  • Nathan Cope – PA Consulting

So what does the work entail?  

Pete Colman started by talking about the work of Simon Kucher and Partners, a specialist strategy consultancy which he described as ‘entrepreneurial and partner owned’ and operating across the globe (currently 760 employees in 29 offices worldwide). Specialisms include strategy, pricing, sales and marketing, with an extensive client list ranging across sectors. Pete talked through some example projects around pricing power including:

  • Analysis of consumer travel data to find the optimum price for a travelcard offering discounts to the traveller whilst ensuring profit for the operator
  • Determining the market price for a branded pharmaceutical treatment

Next up was Nathan from PA Consulting. Larger than Simon Kucher, PA employs 2,500 people globally and operates across 10 different practice areas, with a wider consulting brief. Nathan is based in the life sciences and healthcare practice which focuses on the commercial aspects of the pharma industry.

Examples of recent PA projects across all areas:

  • delivering an air-traffic system to safely handle 600,000 aeroplanes over Denmark each year
  • working with the Bank of England to create the Prudential Regulation Authority, which will transform financial regulation in the UK
  • developing a system to restore power more quickly and improve the customer experience for households and businesses in Washington, US

The range of sector-based practice areas means specialisation is possible, and the company does offer opportunities for those interested in R&D or using their technical skills.

Finally, Fahd spoke about his experiences working with Deloitte. His projects to date have focused on the financial services sector and included:

  • the implementation of a major IT system for a global retail and investment bank
  • the integration of processes across two large companies following a merger
  • the introduction of a new trading platform for a large investment bank .

‘Consulting is basically a people business’ – what are the core skills required?

Pete Colman described consulting as a people business which is mostly about influencing and persuading; whilst Nathan summarised the two key traits needed to be a successful consultant as a deep knowledge and interest in your subject area and the ability to build and sustain relationships. Lauren highlighted the differences between going into a company as a consultant where your colleagues are the delivery team, and going in to project manage an in-house team who may have a very different working style to your own. Echoing these themes Fahd highlighted that good consultants need to be able to:

  • communicate across technical and non-technical areas to ensure all stakeholders are engaged
  • distil complex information and convey it clearly to the client
  • work with a range of different personalities
  • adapt to change
  • gain credibility in a new sector or subject area quickly

Making the transition – how to get into consultancy

Recognising an interest in the broader, business elements of your research work seemed to be a common starting point, followed by exposure to the role through internships or networking. Nathan did an internship with a drug discovery company towards the end of his PhD where he was part of the group responsible for deciding on potential R&D projects to invest in. He enjoyed the business focus, the opportunities provided for analysing data and problem solving to achieve tangible results and the fact the role involved working with people much more than he had been used to in the lab.

Networking is important as is approaching firms directly since some consulting firms offer structured internship programmes but many will take interns on an ad hoc basis without advertising. Fahd had already gained industry experience in pharma before his PhD and decided that consulting would be a good next step to utilise his knowledge and experience. He expected to work across the life sciences sector but instead has spent the last few years working across banking and financial services.

Entry points for PhD graduates or post-docs vary depending on the type of firm, its training and development programmes and the level of experience of the researcher. Fahd highlighted the challenge of starting on a graduate development programme alongside first degree graduates; but also the value of receiving structured training and building a network of colleagues at the start of your career.

How to decide which firm

Some of the themes that emerged from the presentations included:

  • Specialist vs general : – what sort of projects do you want to work on and how specialist do you want to become?
  • Size of firm and growth projection: check out the size of the company, how it has grown in the last couple of years and where it’s development areas seem to be
  • How technical: if you want to continue to use some of the technical knowledge from your research then you might have to look harder for the right kind of consultancy.
  • Level of entry: whilst starting with recent graduates might not seem appealing, consider the training on offer from the firm and the opportunities a structured programme might offer for networking and skills development at a fast pace

 ‘Having a PhD won’t make you stand out’

All of the speakers emphasised that consulting firms will be used to receiving quality applications from well qualified graduates so having a PhD in itself will not be a differentiator. However, the speakers had experienced rapid progression following entry which they attributed to the skills developed from their PhD  – the most prominent of which were:

  • project management
  • presentation skills
  • logical approach to problem solving
  • the ability to convey complex information in a clear way

In addition the resilience often needed to complete a PhD was recognised, which is a huge advantage in a client-driven industry where change is the norm, and the credibility factor of being a PhD graduate when working with clients.

Don’t assume the PhD will sell itself was the key advice. The importance of demonstrating on CVs and applications the specific skills and experiences you have to offer was stressed, as well as being able to evidence genuine interest in business and the way in which organisations work. Nathan highlighted the value of demonstrating project management and leadership skills outside the PhD project whether through internships, volunteering or involvement in student-led activities on campus.

Interested in finding out more?

Good for introductions to the landscape and key players:

Details of the firms represented: