Oliver Craven has a warning for MBA students who are pursuing careers in consulting.
“Students should understand that it's not sexy,” says Craven, who's starting his second year in the MBA at London Business School. “You spend the bulk of your day researching data, collecting data. It's not all solving big problems and coming up with the best solutions. You need to be comfortable with data, detail, and the desire to get to the core of a problem.”
The act of consulting might seem simple enough—a consultant basically helps client organizations pinpoint and solve business problems—but a consultant-to-be must be prepared to deal with a huge variety of challenges. That’s why consulting-bound MBAs must study many aspects of business, including data analysis, strategy, finance, teambuilding and more.
This wide breadth of knowledge is necessary to work in a field where you might be called upon to help with, well, just about anything.
“Because consulting is so much about helping clients, you need to be flexible,” says Lara Berkowitz, executive director of London Business School's career center.
But it's precisely that flexibility that attracts many students to consulting.
“Consultants develop advanced skills in such areas as analytics, communications, advocacy, project management, and teamwork, in addition to learning about the markets and business operations of their clients,” says Sheryle Dirks, associate dean for career management at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.
Perhaps because consulting is less ‘specialized’ than other fields, many top-ranked MBA programs for consulting don’t actually offer specializations in the field. Many consulting-bound students instead opt for general MBA programs and then participate in consulting clubs and try to get practical experience through internships or projects with consulting firms.
Equipped with such a broad base of knowledge, students can find a consulting job in almost any field or category of business. Some firms specialize in particular functional areas, which would appeal to students who are interested in information technology, marketing, human capital or strategy. Other firms focus on a specific industry, such as healthcare, media, or the environment.
Consulting is actually such a broad field that students who are interested in consulting sometimes don't even stay in the field, choosing to take their expertise elsewhere after a few years at one of the big firms.
“Some people who go into consulting firms want it to be a long-term career. Some people want to go to gain a certain experience or credibility and then want to go to an operating company or start their own company. It's different for different people,” says Sue Kline, Director of the Career Development Office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management.
That flexibility makes consulting unique, officials say.
“It's one of the only fields these days that really is truly transferrable,” LBS’ Berkowitz says. “We have all kinds of stories of students who've gone into consulting and then gone on from consulting to do all sorts of different things with different functions.”
Berkowitz says many LBS students go on to start their own businesses after pursuing a career in consulting.
“You're learning about all parts of how to run the important part of a business, then you can apply that to so much afterwards: your own business,” for example.
She says some of her students have even taken their consulting expertise in more esoteric directions, such as the student who wrote a book about how to approach dating and relationships using consulting wisdom.
Consulting: about solving problems
For Oliver Craven, consulting became an attractive field during his ten years in the British Navy, a time when he often worked with consultants. When he left the navy he decided to pursue an MBA and explore his passion for consulting, which boiled down to one thing: problem-solving.
“It can be in any business, any geography, any size, but I just enjoy the problems, thinking them through, coming up with the solutions,” Craven says.
Before Oskar Zapata decided to pursue his MBA at London Business School, he worked in marketing for the consumer goods industry for nine years. More than the marketing campaigns, Zapata enjoyed approaching business with a comprehensive eye, making sure he understood his brand's whole value chain.
“I thought, how could I take this to the next level?” says Zapata, who just started his second year at LBS.. “That's when consulting came in.” Zapata, who had lived in various South American countries his whole life, also thought that pursuing an MBA and a career in consulting would expose him to new industries and bigger international companies.
An “enormously competitive” field
A career in consulting is one of the most popular destinations for MBA graduates. At London Business School, approximately one-third of students generally go on to careers in consulting after the MBA. The same fraction from Duke tends to enter the consulting field, at firms ranging from “Big Three” giants —Boston Consulting Group, McKinsey, and Bain—to smaller boutique firms.
But officials caution students that landing a job at a top consulting firm is very competitive.
“It's a really exciting career for students. It's definitely thriving. That said, it's still enormously competitive,” Berkowitz says. “The top students, the most prepared students are able to hit the path to get there.”
Part of that competition stems from the fact that although plenty of companies need consultants, there are only a limited number of large firms that specifically court and recruit consulting students.
“Consulting firms are big hires in terms of coming in and having big structured pipeline programs, but there aren't many firms that have that,” Berkowitz says.
“And there are a lot of students who want it.”