How to Transition from a Ph.D. to Consulting

The Ph.D. to Consultant Transition: Should You Take the Leap?
Picture of Valentin Somma
Valentin Somma

Former BCG Consultant

Are you in your 3rd or 4th year of a Ph.D. or other advanced degree program and rethinking your future career in academia? Considering the transition from Ph.D. to consulting?

So here you are. Maybe you’re supposed to be writing your dissertation, but you’re dreading that upcoming job market and wondering about alternative career paths instead. Or you’re a postdoc and your principal investigator just asked you to stay in the lab the entire weekend for something that you deem ridiculous. 

Like me, you probably entered your Ph.D. program with plans to be a researcher or an academic, and for whatever reason, this does not feel appealing anymore. 

Luckily for you, the skills you’ve been building in your Ph.D. program can be extremely in management consulting. Furthermore, consulting firms, especially the MBBs (McKinsey, BCG, Bain) are very keen on us. 

In this article, we’ll discuss:

  • Why become a consultant?
  • What do consulting firms look for in Ph.D. and advanced degree candidates?
  • Which management consulting firms hire Ph.D. candidates?
  • What challenges do Ph.D. and advanced degree candidates face in the consulting recruiting process?
  • What do you need to know to ace your consulting job application and interviews?
  • Resources for applying to consulting jobs. 

Let’s get started!

Why Become a Consultant?

1. It’s an Attractive Job & Great Entry Point into the Private Sector

First, all the usual arguments on why consulting is a great career apply. Consulting is an amazing ramp to launch you toward any other career in the private sector. This is even more true for academics with no business experience: it’s like getting a stamp of approval from the private sector. 

It’s also a way for you to figure out what you like over the long run as you will get rapid exposure to many different industries, problems, and actors. You’ll also learn skills that are transferable to literally any other job. The pay is good, of course, and may represent an upgrade in lifestyle compared to your student stipend. 

2. It Might Be Refreshing After Academia

In a Ph.D. program, you pick your one or two advisers, and then you spend a (very) long time on a precise question, make sure you go as deep as anyone else on it, and then a little bit deeper. 

In consulting, you will change your client, case (the client problem you’re solving), and the team every few weeks to months. Each case delivers an answer to a (sometimes initially vague) question that the client has, and that answer is “good enough” to support the decisions they have to make: going any further would be a waste of resources that could be better spent. 

That does not mean getting lazy either though: the bar consulting firms set for this “good enough” is high and that’s what justify the fees they charge their clients (and the hours you’ll be working). 

Consulting is also extremely fast-paced: you might have a check-in with your immediate manager every few hours during the day with output to deliver each time. That’s a whole other story from taking a few months to revise an article or presenting your progress in a seminar twice a semester, which can be a refreshing change if you work better under pressure.


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3. Consulting and Academia Have a Lot in Common

Structured thinking. Both consulting and academia require a taste for rigorous analysis and structured thinking. In both worlds, you have to like solving problems and presenting your answers to others to succeed.

Teamwork. Consulting is really the place for teamwork, both with the rest of your case team and with your clients. This might be something you are more or less used to depending on your own field. Personally, collaborations were my favorite part during my Ph.D. 

Impact. Consulting and academia are also similar in that successful people tend to care deeply about the impact that they have, which I believe is the case of most people who produce top research. 

Continuous learning. Finally, they are both places of continuous learning which is quite precious in itself. This can’t be taken for granted in the rest of the labor force (you often hear people searching for a new job when they are not learning anything anymore in their current one).

4. You Might Be Very Good at It

No matter what your field is, the skills you spent 5 years or more honing are going to be helpful on the job: being analytical, structured, and independent (in consulting, this last one is called “ability to drive”). 

When I say no matter what your field is, I mean it. My Ph.D. was in Economics, but my two best friends in my entry class at BCG wrote their respective dissertations in Philosophy and Biomedical Engineering.

Consulting firms got curious about hiring Ph.D.’s, postdocs, and the like because they kept growing faster than the MBA programs in top universities. They needed to look for other pools of talents that would allow them to target many great candidates easily. 

They started hiring the occasional Ph.D., J.D., or M.D. to try it out — at BCG we used to be called “exotic candidates” a few years back. As these hires consistently performed well, top consulting firms started to systematically hire this candidate profile (and BCG went for the more sober “advanced degree candidates”).

During my recruiting process, a senior partner at BCG who was himself a Ph.D. told me that Ph.D.’s transitioning to consulting tend to have a steeper learning curve than their MBA counterparts, but that they end up performing better over the long run.

What Do Consulting Firms Look for in Ph.D. & Advanced Degree Candidates?

Ph.D. Consultant: What Do Consulting Firms Look for in Ph.D. & Advanced Degree Candidates?

This might be a bit underwhelming to read (or if you’re very early in your application process, scary?), but the answer is simply: pretty much exactly the same as in any other candidate.

I’m no expert on the consulting resume/cover letter side of things, but make sure that your CV has some items that are not from academia so that they can tell from reading it that you are a well-rounded human being with a life outside of academia (whether or not you feel like it’s the case at the moment). 

To show that you can make the transition from Ph.D. to consulting, you’ll need to show in your interview that you:

  • Are a structured thinker.
  • Know how to identify what the client’s problem is.
  • Can solve it fast.
  • Can communicate clearly. 
  • And are a driven individual who influences others and cares about impact.

Your Pool of Reference Is MBAs

One thing to note is that as a Ph.D., postdoc, M.D., or J.D., you are typically entering these firms as a second-level analyst (the name of that position changes for each firm). This means that the rest of your entry class will likely be all MBAs, in addition to a few first-level analysts getting promoted internally. 

This also means that you are only about 2 years or so away from your first manager position if you get hired, so the soft skills and the independence matter more for you than they would for an undergrad who would be applying to enter as a first-level analyst. 

Of course, your interviewer will expect you to be a little less polished than the average MBA candidate as they know that you didn’t spend the last 2 years preparing only for this one day of interviews (in between some heavy partying and an internship in an NGO). 

However, they still want you to be someone they’d feel confident putting in front of a client. On top of your analytical skills, that means communicating clearly, understanding basic business terms, and showing the right set of soft skills such as presence, confidence, and personability.

Which Management Consulting Firms Want to Hire Ph.D. Candidates?

The MBBs (McKinsey, Bain, & BCG)

Advanced degree candidates make up a larger share of the incoming classes at McKinsey, Bain, and BCG each year. These firms are the leaders of the industry and are generalist firms, meaning that you will be able to see many different industries while working there (but you don’t have to if you already know you want to specialize).  

McKinsey, Bain, and BCG even have special immersive recruiting workshops called respectively “McKinsey Insight,” “Bain ADvantage,” and “Bridge to BCG.” Links to both programs are included in our resource list below.

I went through Bridge myself, and these 3 days convinced me this was the firm where I wanted to work. Friends of mine who went through Insight shared similar things about it. My own experience at BCG showed me that my background in academia was really valued there

Other Generalist Firms

Then you have all the other generalist firms. Each one has its own recruiting policy for advanced degree candidates, and you should get familiar with the recruiting process of any that you are interested in. (You can find a  list of over 200 management consulting firms here). 

You can also use that recruiting process to get a sense of each firm’s familiarity with advanced degree candidates and whether you think you’d thrive there.

Specialized Arms of the Big Consulting Firms

Most big generalist firms also now have specific entities within them that focus on some particular industry. Examples include BCG Gamma for data science or Deloitte Federal Consulting for public sector and non-profit. 

These entities typically have a separate recruiting process from their parent company and can be very interested in the expertise of certain academic profiles.

Boutique Firms

Finally, many specialized consulting firms look to hire Ph.D., M.D., and other postdoc candidates who work in related fields. 

This is especially the case for life science consulting firms such as IQVIA or Putnam Associates, where the business problems their clients face cannot be fully separated from the technical side. 

Moreover, when everybody in the client’s company has a Ph.D., it helps these consulting firms to build trust and credibility when the analysts they send speak the same language and have the same credentials.

What Challenges Do Ph.D. & Advanced Degree Candidates Face in the Consulting Recruiting Process?

Understanding What the Interview (and the Job) Are About

As a Ph.D. candidate, you’ve learned the jargon and the code of your academic field. You know how people think and talk, what they see as important. Consulting is just another world to discover, with a new set of codes that you have to learn and show that you know. 

A consulting firm is hired by their clients to help them solve their business problems and help them make decisions based on what matters to them. The case interview is just a role play of that. 

For that reason, it is not a differential equation to solve in your corner or a literature essay to write in full before publishing it: it is really about solving a business problem in real-time while taking the interviewer by the hand as you do so. 

In practice, that means that you want to constantly (but succinctly) explain to your interviewer what you are doing before you do it, explain the logic in your steps, get their approval (we say “buy-in”) on any assumption that you have to make by justifying it, etc. Your job is to drive toward the answer while bringing your interviewer along with you each step of the way.

Being Efficient

The rhythm of the interview is a reflection of the intense rhythm on the job. Whether you’re laying out your structure for solving the problem, doing the math to support a recommendation, or answering a brainstorming question, you want to show that you know how to be efficient. 

It’s not so much about speed (as long as you move fast enough to finish the case in ~25-30 minutes of course) as it is about your ease and steadiness. Strong candidates know exactly where they are going at all times, get their interviewer on board, and are just unrolling the steps to get there without getting stuck. They understand what matters for the answer and what does not as much and allocate their time accordingly. 

In practice, that means getting enough practice so that you can:

  • Lay out a MECE structure in under 2 minutes.
  • Do not get stuck on the math and can go through calculations with ease.
  • Know how to brainstorm a list of potential solutions.

Being at Ease with Business Concepts

Ph.D. Consultant: Consulting Recruiting Process

I’m not saying you need to know every business concept. You just need to not be afraid of them. Ph.D. candidates and postdocs transitioning into consulting are often convinced that they will fail a case if a business concept they do not know shows up. 

There are some extremely basic ones that for sure you should understand, but those you probably already know: 

  • profits
  • revenues
  • costs (fixed and variable)
  • market trends
  • customers
  • competitors

Sure, you need to understand what these words mean but you cannot go through the first 2 or 3 cases in your preparation without seeing them all. 

There are also a few concepts that are slightly more complex and appear slightly less often but are as important. You’ll either need them to understand the question or because they basically are the answer to the case. These are: 

  • breakeven point
  • product mix (and the related concept of cannibalization)
  • turnover rate

Check out Case Interview Formulas You Need to Know for a primer on these important concepts.

Even for those though, you should realize that business concepts are just fancy words describing common-sense quantities of interest. If one that you do not know shows up, it’s completely fair game to ask your interviewer to clarify its meaning, and then use it as if you always knew it. 

Again, business is not rocket science so if you spent x many years pushing the bounds of human knowledge forward, you can probably pull that one-off. The more you familiarize yourself with the basics through the casing and maybe listening to business podcasts or reading the business section of your favorite newspaper, the easier it will be for you. The point is not to know them all, simply to feel at ease and confident if a new one shows up.

Not Being Obsessed with Details

Solving the case is not the same as trying to think of any point and sub-point a reviewer might ask you to cover in order for your paper to be published. Remember that the answer you’re trying to get at has to be “good enough” for the client to make a decision, according to their criteria. 

Of course, consultants like to go a little bit over the top and deliver some extra (such as an analysis of the risks to consider), but they do not try to get exhaustive the way an academic would. This has no point in the business world where we constantly bathe in massive uncertainty.

If there is a moment in the case when you realize that the data you’re given or the way the interviewer wants you to do the math is making an implicit assumption or is ignoring potential nitty-gritty cases, don’t feel like you have to hammer that nail and lose time. 

At most, if it’s already going well you can just acknowledge that out loud. And if taking this into account wouldn’t change the answer, it’s not worth wasting time on.

Doing the Math the Consulting Way

Your current level of confidence around the math might depend on whether you are in an analytical field, but know this: consulting math is high school math, and you probably did ok in high school. 

It’s all simple arithmetic. The trick is that you have to be at ease doing it under pressure, ideally without mistakes and without getting stuck. You should also be extremely structured in the way you approach it and detail to your interviewer everything you are going to do before you do it. 

As you build more ease, you will also start seeing which shortcuts you can take to get to the right answer even faster. 

Displaying the Right Soft Skills

Finally, you have to understand that consulting is a client services business and as such, the opinions of their clients matter. Therefore, consulting firms care about how their employees appear and the image they project, and you’ll have to conform to that to get the job. Moreover, the intensity of the job, its feedback culture, and the omnipresent teamwork also matter.

That means being a great communicator, displaying confidence, being present and making eye contact, and being personable is important. It also applies to something as simple as how you dress on interview day: make sure you come with a suit or other business formal wear that is well-tailored to you. Again, your interviewer has to feel confident you could represent their firm in front of a client.

As an academic, it’s not that you are naturally less gifted at any of these, it’s that so far you might have gotten a pass as long as your research was good. Now you are entering a world where those things matter as much as the content of your brain, and the people who have been in that world for longer simply had to work on it already. Now it’s your turn. 

What Do You Need to Know to Ace Your Consulting Job Application & Interviews?

1. Do Your Research

Ph.D. candidates looking to transition to consulting need to identify the companies they’re interested in and learn the specifics of each. Reach out to alumni from your schools, friends, or friends of friends who work for these firms. You can also network with consultants who present at on-campus or virtual information sessions (or even cold message consultants on LinkedIn. The best people to reach out to are those who share your academic background).

The more exposure you get to this world, the easier it will be for you to figure out whether you like it and to show that you do if that’s the case.

2. Be Strategic in Your Application Process

Once you know where you want to apply, get familiar with their application process. Go to their recruiting events. Don’t miss deadlines. 

When applying, don’t neglect polishing your Resume and Cover Letter so that they fit the mold of consulting. That means that if you are a postdoc, do not send an academic CV that is just the 17-page list of all your academic talks in bullet points. 

3. Prepare for the Interview

As a Ph.D. student, this is maybe the scariest for you at this point. You probably have more to learn than an MBA who spent the entire year thinking about it, but the good news is that casing is not rocket science: you do not need a Ph.D. in it to excel. 

It’s only about methodically planning your preparation so that you hone all the skills you’ll be tested on. The preparation is also a great way for you to see whether you’d like the job. 

If you don’t know where to start, have a look at our Ultimate Guide to Case Interview Prep.

Good luck on your transition from Ph.D. to consulting! 

Resources for Applying to Consulting Jobs.

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In this article, we’ve covered:

  • What makes Consulting attractive after pursuing a Ph.D.?
  • What are consulting firms looking for in advanced degree candidates?
  • Which consulting firms should you apply to as a Ph.D. or postdoc?
  • What challenges you might face as Ph.D. applying to consulting?
  • How can you ace your recruiting process and case interview coming from academia?

Still have questions?

If you have more questions about transitioning from a Ph.D. to consulting, leave them in the comments below. One of My Consulting Offer’s case coaches will answer them.

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