Career Overview: Consulting

Posted by The Editors on December 3, 2012

While many businesses are based on selling products or services, consulting firms primarily sell knowledge. Whether it's management consulting, human resources consulting, marketing consulting, technology consulting or something else, consultants advise corporations and other organizations regarding an infinite array of issues related to business strategy. You name it-re-engineering, e-commerce, change management, systems integration, billion-dollar mergers and acquisitions, corporate-there is a consultant that is available to tell companies how to meet their challenges better, stronger, and faster. They are the directors behind the scenes of nearly every major event in the marketplace.

Of course, "consulting" is a big, one-size-fits-all term that includes virtually any form of advice-giving. Pretty much anyone with a specialty in a field can offer consulting service. The area that most people think of when it comes to consulting is management consulting, a broad category in its own right. Often called strategy consulting, this segment of the industry includes firms that specialize in providing advice about strategic and core operational issues. However, there are also consultants who specialize in everything from workplace safety issues to environmental concerns to family-owned business issues.

While most management consultants hold salaried positions at firms that cater to a clientele of mostly large corporations, other consultants hang out a shingle and offer their services as soloists or as owners of small companies. They usually deal with clients on a project basis, and clients are billed by the hour for their services. Depending on the client's needs and the firm's functional specialty (or core competency, as it's often called), consultants conduct objective research and analysis on behalf of their client, and make recommendations based on their findings. Ultimately, consultants take on the responsibility of improving their clients' businesses by effecting change through their recommendations.

Although some of the highest-profile firms populate this segment, there are thousands of other organizations and individuals that call themselves consultants, make money by selling their advisory services, and offer plenty of opportunities for employment. If you like the idea of giving advice to other businesses, and you have a particular interest in computers, human resources, corporate communications, mobile communications, health care, financial services, real estate, e-commerce, or some other specialized field, there's a good chance you can find a position with an organization doing precisely that.

What You'll Do
Research and analysis are the main tools of the trade for management consultants. They analyze a business problem from various angles by conducting research and forming and testing hypotheses. Research may consist of collecting raw data from internal sources-such as the client's computers or employees-and external sources, such as trade associations or government agencies. Consultants get some of their most valuable data from surveys and market studies that they devise and implement themselves. The data must then be analyzed in relation to the client's organization, operations, customers, and competitors to locate potential areas for improvement and form solutions. These solutions are then recommended to the client and-with any luck-implemented. (Sometimes convincing a client to accept a consultant's recommendations can be the most difficult aspect of the job, and there is always a chance that the client will choose not to accept the consultant's recommendation at all.)

Consultants often must travel to where their clients are located, sometimes spending days-even weeks-conducting research or implementing solutions. Long hours are common. But the pay is great, not to mention the bonuses.

Who Does Well
For those who enjoy problem solving and thinking about business strategy, consulting can be a very fulfilling career as well as an excellent jumping-off point for a management career or a future as an entrepreneur. On the flip side, frequent travel and long hours can make a consultant's schedule very demanding.

While consulting is great for people who like variety in their work, it is not for those allergic to structure and hierarchy. The large and elite firms tend to have a culture that mirrors that of their corporate clients, complete with a steep career ladder: Only a select few make it to partner-level, and that's with an MBA and 6 to 8 years at the firm.


Although the competition at top firms is intense, the qualities that recruiters look for are similar across the board. Besides outstanding academic records, firms want people who are problem solvers, creative thinkers, good communicators, and who have a keen understanding of and interest in business.

Top candidates will also have previous experience in the business world (consulting internships are impressive but not required) as well as a record of extracurricular achievement. Firms specializing in IT consulting or e-business may require technical skills and experience.

Candidates with experience in industry are much sought after, particularly by firms that have industry practices that correspond to candidates' backgrounds. Several firms hold specialized information sessions for experienced candidates as well as PhDs and JDs. Consult firms' websites directly or contact firms' human resources departments or local graduate schools for schedules and eligibility.

In the interview, most recruiters pay close attention to a candidate's experience and background. According to insiders, most consulting interviewers are looking for the following:

  • High energy and enthusiasm
  • Team orientation
  • Integrity
  • Excitement about consulting
  • Knowledge about what makes the interviewing firm different
  • Success on the airplane test-do you want to sit next to this person on a long overseas flight?
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Industry experience

Finally, all management consulting hopefuls must clear the dreaded case-interview hurdle to land a consulting position.

Job Outlook

It's a good time to be a consultant. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in management, technology, and scientific consulting will skyrocket 60 percent between 2004 and 2014, much faster than the 14 percent growth projected for all industries. That makes it the fifth-fastest growing industry in the economy. As more businesses look for a competitive edge, hiring consultants is widely accepted and encouraged.

Opportunities are best in areas that reflect current business trends and needs, such as IT, environmental, and "green" business; workplace safety; and others. As workplace regulations become more stringent in certain sectors-in medical offices, for instance-specialized consultants will be needed to navigate those requirements and ensure that businesses are in compliance with federal, state and local requirements.

Career Tracks

Undergraduates generally join a consulting firm as analysts, although their titles vary. The work itself-as well as the hours-can be quite demanding. It often includes field research, data analysis, customer and competitor interviews, and client meetings. In IT, analysts might do heavy-duty programming. Traditionally, the analyst program lasts two or three years, after which you're encouraged to go to business school. However, this system has been changing over the past several years. Firms have increasingly begun to promote analysts into positions they hire MBAs into or else into an interim role between the undergraduate and MBA position. If you choose to go to business school, many firms will pay your tuition, provided you return to the firm when you're done.

Consulting firms hire MBAs and other postgraduates right out of school or from industry. Most new MBA hires will come into a firm as associates; after two or three years they'll move to the next level, where they'll manage case teams. After managing projects for a couple of years, consultants may be promoted to principal, whereupon the focus shifts to more intensive client work and the selling of services. Finally, after six to eight years with a firm, a consultant might be promoted to partner. The benefits of partnership are big increases in salary and responsibility. The key function of partners at most firms is to cultivate clients and sell them new business.

Mid-Career Professionals
If you have spent years accumulating knowledge about a particular business sector, that knowledge can be valuable to other companies. To make the transition into consulting, you should have a solid base of experience, as well as a few success stories to share. After all, you're going to be giving advice to other professionals-they want to know that you're a cut above the other people in your field. So, if you came up with the idea for the Mac vs. PC television commercials or helped a company save $3 million on its IT costs, be sure to share that information.

Advanced-Degree Candidates
Over the past five years, consulting firms have increasingly tapped nontraditional candidate pools, including JDs, PhDs, and MDs. If you are one of these candidates, find out which level you'll come in at-the same level as undergrads, MBAs, or experienced hires. Also, you should ask about the type of support you'll receive once you join the firm. Some organizations offer a mini-MBA training program, while others rely more heavily on mentorship.

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