Do you like being the expert in an area? Do you like solving problems that others can't figure out?
The job of a consultant is to take big, complicated, and nebulous problems and deliver a sound and easily understandable solution.
Life-Science focused firms: Boston, SF, and NYC
Generalist firms: Most major US cities
Consulting firms fit into two main groups. The first group is ‘Generalist Firms’, which are very large firms that field projects in all or most industries and types of projects. These firms have extremely rigid recruiting cycles, and being considered for a role outside of these cycles is essentially impossible. Generalist firms typically have a traveling model, where consultants travel to the client site Monday morning and stay in a local hotel until Thursday/Friday night. This ends up racking up a huge amount of airline miles and hotel points, but means that you are on the road for most of your time.
The second group is ‘Boutique Firms’, which are smaller firms that are focused on one area. One common Boutique Firm focus is Life Sciences, which are very interested in M.D.s. These firms do not always have firm recruiting cycles, and the willingness to recruit outside of the normal recruiting cycle differs by firm. Boutique firms typically do not have a traveling model, and consultants will typically stay in their home city for work.
Salary differs significantly based on type of firm, with generalist firms giving significantly higher compensation than boutique firms (~$175,000 vs. ~150,000 total compensation respectively). Exit opportunities differ by the type of firm one works at. People leaving generalist firms would likely be able to find opportunities in any field they want. People leaving boutique firms would have a huge amount of opportunities in the area which they focus on, and a smaller amount of opportunities in fields outside of their core focus.
In business there are some questions that are not easily answered. Questions such as “Should we develop this new product to offer?”, “Should we enter this new market (geographic area or type of product)?”, or “What can we do to increase revenue?” are inherently complicated. A CEO wants the answer to these questions to be well supported and validated if they are going to invest (or not invest) time and money into the answer. These questions are also typically uncommon for an individual business, or a division of a business, to regularly come across in most industries.
The combination of these factors – a complicated, high-risk, and rare business question – means that for most companies it is more economical to outsource these problems to a specialized company, rather than keep a team on payroll year-round. Enter a consulting firm. This firm has teams of people who specialize in answering these types of business questions, delivering a clear-cut recommendation, and then exiting the room.
Consulting firms are very hierarchical and operate on an apprentice-style model. A team tasked with a project (answering a business question) typically has an executive leader, case team or project leader, and several additional team members. The role of the executive leader (typically called partner or principle) varies, but essentially is to periodically check in to the team’s progress and ensure it is up to the firm’s standards, give high-level guidance, and is acceptable to present to a client. The role of the case team leader is to lead the day-to-day team, delegate tasks, and to refine the ‘story’ that the team is discovering during the project. The role of the additional team members is to execute whatever the case team leader needs and put in the grunt work of the project.
A large amount of a consultant’s day is spent in meetings where the team is either updating someone (case team leader, executive leader, or client) on the progress, or the core team meeting to hash out a particularly difficult issue. Another large amount of the day is spent in executing on their delegated tasks. These tasks can be to find information or data to inform an aspect of the project recommendation, organizing large collections of data to come to a more broad conclusion, interviewing people who work closely with the issue at hand to get their expert opinion, or to present any of that information in an easily digestible way on a PowerPoint slide.
Salary is variable by firm and role. A starting salary can be expected to be around $160,000 (+/- $20,000) a year, after bonus is incorporated. Promotions are typically earned after ~2 years and increase total pay by ~10-20%. As you progress at a firm, your bonus becomes a larger proportion of your total compensation.
Consultants work hard. Everyone is very invested in finishing projects by the deadline and if a project is behind schedule, or a deadline is coming up, then it is expected that there will be a ‘big push’ to finish on time. That being said, a consultant’s day is rarely longer than 8am-8pm, and it is quite rare to need to work on the weekends.
Consultants spend a lot of their time working hard on complicated strategy problems. This signals that they are smart, hard-working, and can understand the big picture. Many companies are interested in either someone who has one, two, or all of those skills, meaning that they are interested in hiring consultants. This is one area where firm prestige differentiates consultants. Just as the case for ivy league vs. state universities, it is not inherently accurate that consultants from one firm are universally better than another. However, it is often assumed that the average consultant from a top-tier firm is likely a better candidate than a consultant from a middle-tier firm.
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