Alt. Scientific Career Path #4: Management Consulting Panel
The following panel interview was conducted with 4 Bioengineering PhD's who work/worked for major management consulting firms after graduate school. PhD graduation dates range from 2015-2017. Interviewees wish to remain anonymous, consistent letters shall signify each interviewee: CH, KG, JS, DC.
Thank you for agreeing to do this panel interview with Strik3 :) Let’s start with your current job title and how long have you been working there?
CH: Head of Corporate Strategy at Inari. I have been at Inari for about 2 months. Prior to that I led Strategy and Corporate Development at Simio, an enterprise SaaS company.
KG: Senior Manager at a mid-size pharma company. Been there for about 8 months.
JS: Senior Consultant in the Strategy and Analytics practice at Deloitte Consulting. I’ve been there for almost three years.
DC: Strategy Director at Novartis Gene Therapies. I joined in March of 2020.
Lots of leadership positions! For those of you who are no longer in the management consulting job you had right after grad school, can you provide that job title and how long you were in that position?
CH: Overall, just less than four years - I left after about a year as a Senior Engagement Manager.
KG: Associate Consultant, then got promoted to Consultant. Was with the company for about 5 years
JS: Still at Deloitte.
DC: Overall, I was in consulting for 3.5 years. I left after about a year as an Engagement Manager.
Can you give a brief explanation of the management consultant role you had in the company you work(ed) for, and what you do/did on a daily basis?
CH: I was a generalist strategy consultant, but I ended up gravitating towards digital strategy and Agriculture. I was lucky to be able to do much of my consulting work aligned to my passion, helping players up and down the Ag value chain build a more sustainable, equitable food system.
KG: When I was a consultant, the role varied depending on the project type. I could be doing market research, talking to physicians, payers, or patients. I could be doing forecast modelling, analyzing patient claims data or general project management. It’s a lot of powerpoint and excel work.
JS: My focus is on bringing advanced analytics and regulatory science solutions to federal health agencies. On a day-to-day basis, I collaborate with scientists, clinicians, and technologists to learn business needs and implement analytics solutions.
DC: I joined as a generalist consultant, but my focus throughout my consulting stint was in the life sciences industry. I served and led teams across an array of companies from 200-person biotech startups to some of the largest multinational pharma companies. Despite industry focus, I supported a variety of organizational needs, including R&D strategy, operating model optimization, and innovation of new products.
Wow, that’s all so interesting. Clearly, you have all done some very impactful work!
Since you’ve been able to grow within your consulting firm and beyond, what are the skills which have been critical in your new roles and/or to continue your growth in management consulting?
JS: Project management, delegation, providing effective feedback, being able to describe complex problems/solutions in simple ways
DC: In consulting, the rule of 80:20 is hammered into you, meaning 80% of impact comes from 20% of causes. In industry, this may not be adhered to as frequently, so there are plenty of opportunities to bring that philosophy into practice to focus projects and more efficiently drive results.
That’s great. And JS, those are all skills one could theoretically have picked up as a life sciences PhD student.
It’s so cool that you’ve all come from bioengineering backgrounds and some of you have built paths in different, yet somewhat, related fields: digital strategy, healthcare, regulatory, pharma. Regardless of your field, it requires a combination of interdisciplinary teamwork and working on your own to develop strategies/solutions.
What is your work schedule like?
CH: While consulting I traveled about 80-90% (pre-pandemic I spent about 7 weeks per year out of the country) and, on average, worked about 70 hour work-weeks.
KG: I mostly serve local clients, not much travel for me. Average work week is 70 hours per week.
JS: My clients are mostly local, so I don’t need to travel much. On average, I work about 50 hours per week.
DC: When I was in consulting, I was at the client site Monday through Thursday 90% of the time. Typically 60-80 hour work weeks, though, that is highly project / team dependent.
Wow. Those are some long work weeks! We’ll get to that later, though. It is worth mentioning that those of you with local clients live in large cities such as San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, D.C.
This seems like a very different lifestyle than being in the lab! What led you to become interested in management consulting as a STEM PhD?
CH: I came into graduate school wanting to become a tenured research professor. I was passionate about working on big complex problems. By my fourth year, I was doubting academia as a career path and started moonlighting as an intern for a local investment fund doing technical diligence. In seeing how passionate entrepreneurs were bringing new technologies/ideas to market and realized that I’d spent nearly a decade specializing for a career I wasn’t sure I wanted. Consulting seemed to offer an opportunity to reset and rethink my opportunities. I could explore a bunch of different options and re-learn what I wanted to do. It was the best decision of my life and I would do it over again in a heartbeat.
KG: As a STEM PhD, I always wanted to learn about the “business” side of science. Instead of getting a MBA, I realized that a management consulting career is a good way to get hands-on experience to learn about business.
JS: I became interested in management consulting about halfway into my Ph.D. While I enjoyed my research, it became clear to me that I was not interested in a career in academia, so I pursued other opportunities to learn about alternative careers. I was fortunate to get involved with several extracurriculars, including a role in academic commercial translation, which provided first hand experience of how my skillset as a PhD student could translate into careers outside academia. Consulting came into focus as a great opportunity to leverage my STEM background to work on solving real world business problems.
DC: Midway through grad school, I started shifting more effort into commercialization of my biomedical research, exploring different routes to get it closer to market be it through licensing, partnership, or start-up. There happened to be access to helpful coursework and programs at my university to support these activities. A large part of my time was spent developing a business plan, pitching it, and refining based on feedback. These experiences really energized me as it made my research feel like it could have a greater real-world patient impact.
Thus, I became more interested in a career path that could merge business and strategy rather than a pure science focus. Consulting soon came on my radar as an option down this more business-oriented path as an attractive opportunity to gain exposure to various parts of organizations while still being to have an impact in the medical field by working with life-sciences companies.
Thank you all for sharing! Many of your sentiments which built the paths leading to consulting after graduate school, other graduate students and post-docs can relate to, so this is all very helpful.
KG and DC, I find it interesting that you were drawn to the business and commercialization aspects of science. It’s good that your (our) program/University had extracurriculars for us to participate in (and in some cases, start yourself!). It’s my wish that other graduate programs recognize this need and follow suit. I’m so happy for each of you, that it has worked out and you’ve found something that fulfills you!
Were there any other career paths, besides academia, that you considered other than consulting?
JS: I completed a fellowship at FDA immediately after graduation and also considered regulatory positions.
DC: The other primary option was going to work in R&D in the medical device industry, more aligned with my PhD research.
What is / was the most difficult part of your job?
CH: While in consulting, it was definitely maintaining a healthy lifestyle with travel and striving to find the right work-life balance. I was told by a senior partner once that to be successful in consulting it has to be more than just “a job,” but it can’t be your life either.
KG: Maintaining work-life balance, especially after having kids.
JS: Work-life balance.
DC: Ditto. I especially disliked waking up at 4am on Mondays to go to the airport (or even worse, fly out on Sunday), and flying back on Thursday afternoon/evening - when I often encountered delays. Maybe changing remote work policies will improve this situation, but it’s too early to tell.
Yeah, no surprises there. The 70-80 hour work weeks sound miserable; I can’t imagine having to balance that along with a marriage/relationship and kids, let alone find time for self care or hobbies.
Moving on to a more positive topic, what is / was the best part of your job?
CH: The people. I was lucky to meet and work with so many amazing individuals both at McKinsey and with my clients. Many people talk about “cracking the case” and solving the problem, but in my experience the best consultants are equally focused on the people.
KG: Echo CH; the team and people. Amazing, talented team and always immerse in an intellectual stimulating environment.
JS: The relationships I’ve built with my colleagues.
DC: In addition to building connections with great people, the rewarding feeling of helping your team members and individual clients grow their skills and career in the process of serving their broader organizations. In video game terms, it was like helping and watching clients “level-up” in front of your eyes.
Ah, yes! I totally agree that your team can make or break any job. It’s so special that you were each able to build healthy and supportive bonds with your co-workers!
What advice do you have for somebody who is interested in pursuing management consulting after graduate school?
CH: Be clear-eyed about your reason for joining and the trade-offs. Very few people will be lifelong consultants.
KG: Be curious, and keep learning. Always ask why and the implications. It’s an amazing opportunity to learn a lot, especially about business. But make sure you also prioritize your health and your loved ones, set a good boundary between life and work. It could be challenging.
JS: There are different types of consulting so network with as many people as you can to refine where your interests lie.
DC: Coming out of grad school, consulting is a great stepping stone to try out different things and narrow down what you want to do in the long term. While you could do a “random-walk”, I recommend trying to narrow down fairly quickly (in the first 6 months) to do more projects that can help inform your long term aspirations, as opposed to truly being open to doing random projects. Also consider different types of consulting companies, not just MBB. Explore boutique consulting companies that specialize in your areas of interest / background. Vault.com has basic information on different firms.
Follow up question for CH: What, in your experience, stops people from becoming lifelong consultants? The grueling hours, or something else?
CH: People leave consulting for so many different personal reasons, work-life balance, travel, compensation, etc. For me I often found myself wanting to stick around after a really exciting project to help make it real. Being a trusted advisor is a privilege and can be incredibly rewarding, but sometimes you just want to roll your sleeves up and do it yourself.
JS and DC: You both mention different types of consulting - can you elaborate? How would you recommend a new starter explore their options and ultimately choose the direction that’s right for them?
JS: There are many different types of consulting. To name a few: strategy, analytics, human capital, implementation, regulatory, scientific. Some firms specialize in specific areas and other firms offer many different types. If you are interested in consulting, I recommend talking to people from different firms to understand what their typical projects look like to help identify what's right for you.
DC: Other types of consulting to consider are more specialized, compared to the broad range of projects at generalist firms. For example, consulting companies that specialize in one industry (e.g., pharma / biotech), or specialize in certain types of business challenges (e.g., marketing and sales). A new starter should consider what path and purpose they ultimately want to pursue in life, which is not easy coming out of school. Thus, a generalist firm may offer more flexibility. You should also network and talk to people in various firms to get a better picture of what life is like at their company, and if it sounds like a good fit, even by how natural the conversation is with them. Even cold messages through LinkedIn can work for networking.
Thanks, that is great advice. I second cold messaging on LinkedIn for any position.
How important is it for somebody’s background or experience in grad school to match the Therapeutic Area or Industry of the consulting jobs they apply for? CH: I think it totally depends on what type of consulting company and role you choose. It was never a challenge for me because there was no expectation that I would have any relevant content knowledge. To me, it seemed like they were looking for intrinsics: intellectual curiosity, self-motivation, structured thinking, being a good team player and the rest was taught. I think it’s changing quickly though - more and more firms are bringing on specialized talent in focused areas like machine learning, design thinking, etc.
KG: Most strategy consulting firms just want to hire smart people, your education background doesn’t matter as long as you have demonstrated a good track record of success.
JS: Unless you are pursuing a consulting role that is specific to a therapeutic domain, it won’t matter much. Generalist firms will care more about your accomplishments in grad school rather than your specific research area.
DC: Doesn’t matter for generalist firms. It could help you get staffed on projects that align with your “therapeutic area” from grad school, but not required. For boutique firms, it obviously matters, e.g., boutique life science firms hire PhDs or undergrad majors in life sciences.
That is good to know and totally makes sense. Did you find that your co-workers had extensive training or a background in the fields you were working in?
DC: Yes and no - it depends on the content of the project. For most projects, extensive background was not necessary since the nature of the problem we were trying to solve didn’t require it. However, for a select few, we did look to staff people with a specific research and/or medical background based on need.
And a follow-up for JS: Can you clarify what you mean by “accomplishments in grad school”? Did you find that your firm prioritized traditional accomplishments such as publications and scientific presentations, or did they also consider non-traditional activities, like say entrepreneurship or non-scientific extracurriculars?
JS: This will depend on the type of consulting you are pursuing. For example, if you are interested in scientific consulting then your scientific achievements such as publications and presentations may be more important.
In general, firms will like to see that you are well-rounded and have excelled in various areas during grad school so non-traditional activities will certainly be important. Extracurriculars can help build and demonstrate skills that you may not have the opportunity to build in the lab.
For example, I learned a lot through my work with 4RS (student consulting) and sciVelo (academic commercial translation) at Pitt that was invaluable to my growth.
[Editor’s note: Check out these links for more information on 4RS and sciVelo, two awesome educational and training programs at the University of Pittsburgh.]
We kind of touched on this earlier, but just to hit it home - what are the key “transferable skills” necessary for somebody who wants to work in management consulting?
CH: Part of the benefit of a consulting role is the apprenticeship and learning the “toolkit”: executive communication, structured thinking, data driven problem solving, time management, etc. For me, focusing on what is most critical to answer the question at the right level of detail is one of the most important skills.
KG: All the soft skills you can think of, for example: effective communication, team work, take initiative, resilience, reliability, innovation, problem solving - those are all good translatable skills and nobody will specifically teach you during grad school.
JS: Key skills include structured thinking, effective oral and written communication, problem-solving, ability to work quickly and under pressure, ability to manage ambiguity.
DC: The ability to communicate concisely and directly, and prioritize effectively among a large number of to-dos (discussing this with your manager will help immensely on this front).
Thank you, all! CH, I particularly appreciate your insight about the different timescale in consulting (also applicable in most industry jobs) compared to academics. It’s so important to keep a pulse on your manager and team’s expectations on timelines and success metrics, for this, open, honest and trusting relationships are critical.
What activities (school/lab related or otherwise), do you think helped you gain those transferable skills before you started the job?
JS: As mentioned above, 4RS and sciVelo were extracurriculars that enabled me to build transferable skills in project/time management, communication, building business plans and conducting market analyses. I worked with several academic start-ups to help secure funding for commercialization and learned a lot about what it takes to build a business. These experiences were incredibly beneficial and I highly recommend pursuing opportunities like this in grad school.
DC: For both communication and prioritization skills, you can practice them in your day-to-day life, such as communicating concisely, leading with your key message when presenting your research, speaking to your PI, etc. Another general recommendation that doesn’t just apply to the specific skills above is to try new experiences that put you out of your comfort zone. In consulting, you’ll be working with companies and products you may not be familiar with, with potentially tight deadlines. The more experience you can get in new or uncomfortable situations the more prepared you will be.
Ok, this has been SO insightful and I’m extremely grateful to each of you for taking the time to participate and share your experiences and honest opinions!
Any other tips or words of wisdom for Strik3’s community?
CH: Consulting is an amazing job to have had. It equipped me with a much broader perspective and set of experiences than I would have in the other roles I considered. It made me feel that my opportunity to drive tangible change was bigger than I ever imagined. I don’t mean in any way to diminish the incredible value academic research brings, but what I ended up realizing is that academic research was just the wrong career for me and that was OK. TLDR: Be proactive. Figure out what you like, what excites and motivates you and find a job that checks your boxes. Remember a job is not a lifelong commitment.
KG: Be passionate about your work, that’s where you will find the greatest success.
JS: Think about where you want to end up after grad school and look for opportunities on campus or in your community to apply your skills in that area.
DC: I know the whole point of this panel is on consulting, but if you’re interested in “alternative” career choices outside academia and in business, you should consider other ones to compare what would be the best fit based on your aspirations, strengths, and areas you want to grow in. Other examples in business that leverage PhD experience are equity research, VC, and business development.