The insider's guide to working in consulting

Are you bright, businesslike, and interested in finding new solutions to other people’s problems? Then a career in consulting could be for you.


Consulting comes in lots of flavours

“Consulting” covers a huge range of careers, but what they all have in common is bringing a fresh perspective to a business, public sector organisation or charity.

There are three main streams open to graduates: strategy consulting, all about big picture issues; management consulting, all about day-to-day operations; and technology consulting, all about, er, technology, and a big growth area for consulting firms, as concepts like cloud computing and cybersecurity become more and more important.

On top of these, there are also more specialised areas you could advise clients on: for example, economic conditions, business risks, or climate change.

It’s also worth knowing that some consulting firms concentrate on advising clients in particular industries, like pharmaceuticals or financial services – and most consultants tend to develop a focus on one or two industries as they progress.

Only the best will do

There’s no denying it: consulting is hard to get into. This is especially true if you want to work for the top management and strategy firms, which tend to target the best students from elite universities.

But consulting firms generally aren’t that fussy about what you studied at university. Unless you’re applying for a role in a very specialised area, you’re in with a chance with a strong predicted or achieved degree result in just about any subject.

You’ll also need solid evidence that you’ve developed non-academic abilities like leadership and communication skills that are important in the professional world, for example through extracurricular activities at university or work experience.

Expect to be modelling (no, not that kind)

Consultants often attempt to solve the problems their clients are facing by using a model – an established structured approach to a business issue.

You’ll become very familiar with “dogs”, “stars”, “cows” and “question marks”, and the “five forces” – that is, ways of categorising products, and a system for assessing a business in the context of its market.

The origins of some models can be traced directly to particular consulting firms – for example, the “McKinsey 7S Framework” or the “Bain Net Promoter System”.

All-rounders welcome

Consulting is a great career for people who can think quantitatively and qualitatively, as both sets of skills are needed.

For example, there’s often numerical or statistical data to process and assess, but you also need to be able to judge an organisation’s culture.

“Deep dives” and “low-hanging fruit”

Thanks to their academic and slightly geeky tendencies, and their liking for putting a new spin on things, consultants love colourful technical jargon.

Expect to come across a multitude of new and sometimes perplexing terms that usually mean something a lot less exciting than you might imagine. (In case you’re wondering: detailed pieces of analysis and issues that are easy to tackle.)

Working days, and nights, and weekends...

Like many other sections of the corporate and professional worlds, consulting demands long and irregular hours from its recruits. Consultants often work at their clients’ offices, so you may find that your job involves lots of travelling.

But, as befits members of an industry concerned with how organisations and people function best, consulting firms are among the employers leading the way in thinking sensibly about working practices.

You may well find that your employer offers flexible working, remote access to your work through technology, and even a guarantee that you’ll get certain evenings and weekends off.

A job for life?

There are career progression opportunities at consulting firms for intelligent and ambitious graduates. But be aware that the vast majority of a firm’s graduate intake won’t spend more than a few years at their firm.

This is partly because consulting firms are strict meritocracies that like to “manage out” anyone they think isn’t suited to rising into their senior ranks, which often means finding them a plum role with a client. But it’s also because many recruits decide themselves that they’d prefer working within an organisation to being an external adviser, or that they’d like to go to business school.

As a result, ex-consultants go on to do all kinds of exciting things across the business world and beyond – for example, their ranks include Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and politician William Hague.

Hannah Langworth is the editor of The Gateway, the business and careers newspaper for students. You can follow The Gateway on Twitter @GatewayOnline

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