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:

Civil Service Fast Stream – careers adviser application process insights

With thanks to my colleague Louise Honey.
Wanting a job where your input has a real impact on life in the UK is one of the many reasons that a position within the Civil Service is appealing to so many people. The highly competitive and rigourous application process, results in placements to various government departments from the Ministry of Defence to the Department for Work and Pensions .

The application process before you even get to the assessment centre is intense!

Self Assessment (Online)

•Numerical and Verbal Reasoning and Feedback
You would take this test as an initial interest to see if your own skills/understanding of the role is in line with the role in reality.

Practice (Online)

•Numerical and Verbal Reasoning
This is voluntary and you would take this to help prepare for the actual test.

1st Sifting Stage (Online)

•Competency Questionnaire
•Numerical and Verbal Reasoning
This is where the first cut is made. The competency questionnaire is based on the Fast Stream competencies, and consists of 80 behavioural statements in sets of four – you rate the level to which you agree with the statements. There is no time limit for this section.

2nd Sifting Stage (Test Centre)

•E-tray Job Simulation
•Numerical and Verbal Reasoning Tests
This stage is done in a test centre (based around UK). The E-tray exercise simulates civil service work and you need to organise, prioritise and take action in relation to the emails received, each of which is based on a fast stream competency. Numerical and Verbal reasoning are taken again to ensure validity. Around 3000 candidates make it to this stage.

Final Stage Assessment Centre (FSAC)

If you have been successful in all of these above stages then you will be invited to the assessment centre. I went along on Wednesday and here is what I found out;

The processes were all very open and the assessors were all very encouraging and try to get the best out of each candidate.

They test six competencies and each have an equal weighting;

Constructive Thinking (creative problem solving, be radical and original)

Decision Making (what’s important and not, make decisions even when not an expert)

Communicating with Impact (written and verbal)

Learning and Improving (committed to self-development, aware of strengths and weaknesses)

Drive for Results (focus on delivery, overcome difficulties, proactive)

Building Productive Relationships (ability to work with others)

Each competency is marked out of 4 and is tested in at least two of the activities on the day. Scoring less than 2 anywhere is an automatic fail!

The Policy Recommendation Exercise.

A written exercise, part one (15 mins) assesses constructive thinking. Candidates need to come up with a lot of ideas/proposals based on the information given. The amount of ideas and their quality is assessed.

Part two (90 mins) assesses decision making and communicating with impact. From the information given the candidate will choose one option out of three to write a briefing for a minister. There is no right/wrong answer but their proposal should be balanced.

There is a lot of information to get through and it is very time pressured.

You should use the statistics given to back up your ideas.

Should only use information given, do not bring in outside knowledge.

Group Exercise

Candidates are given information and a brief. The information will involve the need to discuss certain topics and come up with one idea to put forward that everyone agrees on.

Candidates brief will state what ideas they support and oppose. Some ideas will have no comment next to them.

You must contribute when ALL ideas are being discussed, even when their brief has not stated an opinion. Use common sense to discuss the other ideas and help move the group forward.

You should not bring in outside knowledge. Even if you personally disagree with the idea that the brief is asking you to support – you still need to support it!

A self-assessment questionnaire is completed afterwards on the candidates own performance and another group member that they think performed well. This assesses learning and improving. Candidates score well when they can show insight into the areas they need to improve.

The Briefing Exercise

30 mins prep. Candidates choose one area out of three to focus on and need to prepare a 10 minute presentation (informal, no ppt.) of their initiatives to the assessor. No prior knowledge is needed, just a creative mind to come up with solutions to a particular area. Not a lot of information is provided so it is more of a jumping off point – candidates need to think outside of the box.

Candidates are assessed on constructive thinking (the ideas they come up with), drive for results (how they would plan to put their ideas into practice), communicating with impact (are they persuasive, open to suggestions etc.).

You should present more than one idea – as stated in the instructions!

Ideas should be radical! Candidates always play it too safe.

There is a Q&A after where your ideas will be challenged.

You should be open to suggestions from the assessor and respond in a balanced way (if you do not agree with the suggestions then say so and give reasons why)

This is followed by a further self-assessment questionnaire which assesses learning &improving.

Competency Based Interview

This is a one-to-one interview lasting 40 minutes, testing the competencies of building relationships and learning and improving.

Questions are very standard and can be pre-empted based on the competencies.

Assessors are extremely clear on what competency they are asking about.

This is the only part of the process where you actually get to talk about yourself!

You cannot take in written notes.

If you are interested in applying for the Civil Service, applications can be made in your final year. Their website is very informative and explains each of the processes in good detail as well as taking you through questions to decide which stream may be right for you.

Do come in and ask Careers & Employability for any help if you are applying for this or any other graduate scheme or job. Good luck!