Consulting – Curious minds with business sense wanted

Is this job a perfect match?

(image from GabiWolf)

Our author, Klara, studied Molecular Biomedicine at different Universities across Germany. After her PhD at the Institute of Molecular Medicine in Bonn she went for an internship in the Inhouse Consulting Department of a major pharmaceutical company. To explore other strategy consulting opportunities she joined an external consultancy firm. Here, our former colleague explains how she ended up in consulting and gives a summary about what the different options for a career in consulting are.

What’s next?

After having worked in the lab for several years I was sure about one thing: “The next step has to be something new! I know how to plan and analyse lab experiments. Now, I want to see new things.” I was certain that it was time to start something new!

But what can this very new next thing be? Starting from scratch with studying a new subject: Physics, computer science, philosophy,…? The idea of sitting between high school graduates 10 years younger than me appeared not too convincing.

(image from Noppadol Anaporn)

When searching for a job where I can learn and work on totally new things I came across consulting. As I learned, consulting firms are looking for smart people with all kinds of study backgrounds. Wouldn’t that be a great working environment? I had the feeling that this would be an interesting challenge. Consulting firms are helping companies to make decisions and find solutions to problems like how to secure their market position or how to develop and position themselves in the future across different industries. To this end these firms are looking for ambitious young people with an analytical mind, for graduates who like structuring problems and working in motivated teams.

Consulting is not necessarily consulting – there is a bunch of different options 

Nevertheless, before having entered the “Consulting World” I was not clear about the different options to start in consulting. Here, I’ll give a short overview on the diverse consulting opportunities for scientists.

I think in general the different firms can be grouped into 6 categories:

  1. The Big Three
  2. Other strategy consulting firms
  3. The Big Four’s consulting units
  4. Consulting boutiques
  5. Inhouse consulting
  6. Specialized consulting service providers
  1. The Big Three

This term (often also called MBB) stands for the 3 largest strategy consulting firms worldwide (by revenue), namely McKinsey & Company, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and Bain & Company. It’s extremely competitive to enter these firms and it’s the dream of many business students to end up in one of the three firms. However, about half of their employees have a non-business background. But where does the fascination and prestige of these firms come from? There are three things to name: Extremely motivated people, exciting projects for well known firms in industry and a highly professionalized training, feedback and support system. Furthermore, if you get sick of the highly demanding job at one point the working experience, gained skills and the firm’s network to industry top management offer amazing career opportunities. The Big Three are definitely one of the top places to develop at a high pace and in a challenging environment.

  1. Other strategy consulting firms

However, there are still several other slightly smaller consulting firms next to the Big Three offering a similar environment with intense teamwork and projects across different industries. Examples for other well established consulting firms are Oliver Wyman, A.T. Kearney, the consulting firms with German origin Roland Berger and Simon Kucher (with a focus on pricing) or a bit smaller ones like Bülow & Qvartz and goetzpartners.

  1. The Big Four’s consulting units

The name Big Four reflects the 4 big auditing firms: PwC, EY, Deloitte, KPMG. The classical business of auditing firms is to check financial statements of other companies and if their recordings are according to regulatory guidelines. During the past >5 years the big auditors have been growing their own strategy consulting departments and therefore have been acquiring several strategy consultancies and smaller boutique consultancies. In addition, the Big Four have own advisory departments providing consulting services. The big auditing firms with ~250000 employees offer a huge network of different experts (on legal issues, deals,…) around the globe. However, along with the size of these firms come highly administrative processes as well as often longer, less strategic projects and more operational long-term projects.

  1. Consulting boutiques

Next to all the “bigger” strategy consulting firms there are also a bunch of smaller and/or more specialized consulting firms, so called boutiques. Examples for strategy consulting boutiques specialized on Life Sciences, Pharma, Medtech or Chemicals are Blue Matter, Catenion (R&D), Navigant, Strategic Decisions Group, L.E.K., Arthur D. Little and many more. These firms often offer more a family atmosphere and an environment where you can also make use of your scientific knowledge. However, certain support structures and training offerings are more limited.

  1. Inhouse Consulting

Furthermore, some industry firms also have their own Inhouse Consulting department. Among them are Merck KGaA and Bayer. In Inhouse Consulting you support different projects within the firm. A clear advantage of Inhouse Consulting positions is that you can build up a valuable network within the company and your work life balance is definitely more on the life side including a lot less traveling compared to external consulting. In general these positions are intended to prepare consultants to join a line function (a role within in one of the companies departments) after a few years.

  1. Specialized consulting providers

Next to these five categories of (strategy) consulting firms there is also a bunch of firms specialized in supporting their clients with more specialized and more operational consulting services. The work and life in these firms can be totally different from other consulting firms and you’ll rather find certain experts than generalists there. Examples would be Pharmalex, which for example is known for its Regulatory Affairs and Quality Management services, IQVIA, Unity, Avertim, Alacrita, Alcimed and many more.

How to jumpstart your consulting career? And many more questions…

(image from Wolf)

Ok. Although knowing that there are many different consulting options there are still many open questions like: How can I understand if this is the right job for me and how learn more about these jobs? Or what do I need to do to enter a consulting job?

So, let’s start with: How to learn more?

The best opportunity to get a better idea which firm could be a good fit is to join workshops or events the firms are offering and to speak with people who have worked there.

And what can I expect working in consulting to be like?

Certainly, as outlined this varies between the firms. However, in general you can expect an intense and diverse environment and the opportunity to see and learn a lot of different new things. This means you might be working on projects that are ~2-9 months long (in means of science projects – very short ;-)) and working for different companies within a year. However, this comes along with, especially in strategy consulting projects, long work hours (so, not really different as if you would do a postdoc at the MIT and spend your nights in the lab). The deadlines are tight and you want to provide your client with the best results.

But how do consultants actually work?

There are some parallels to live and work in the lab. As you would plan your experiment and think about how you can answer your question you also start with planning the project and your daily work with your team: What data/ analyses do we need to understand the issue or to answer the question? How can we get required data?…” Excel then often is what your pipettes were. You collect and crunch data, speak with clients or external experts. Instead of papers you create PowerPoint slides. Slides are how consultants communicate and document results.

What is required in consulting?

To become happy in consulting you should own a high degree of internal motivation and curiosity and enjoy a changing environment. This is critical since it is a highly demanding job with high pressure and workload. Furthermore, to be successful you need to be an analytical person, someone who likes to quantify things, break problems into their pieces, and who has a so called business sense meaning a good feeling for numbers. In addition, one should also like to prioritize, concentrate on the most relevant aspects and be fine with not being able to go into the very detail. Finally, consulting is a so-called people business and thus you ideally should be an outgoing person who easily connects with and convinces other people.

How to enter?

Several consulting firms, especially the big ones, do not ask for business degrees or specific business knowledge. However, and especially since it is a very competitive field to enter, any business courses or consulting internships are very helpful. If it’s anyhow possible for you to do an internship: “Go for it!” It gives you a big advantage for your applications and prepares you for the tough job start.

What are the downsides to be aware of?

There are two things that make your everyday life different to most other jobs: Long working hours and traveling. For most projects you are at your client’s site from Monday to Thursday, which often might be another city than the one you are living in. This means it’s not anymore possible that you meet friends during the week and go for sports at your local sports club. Furthermore, consulting firms have a so-called “up or out” principle which means either you make it to the next level within a certain time or you are to leave the firm. So it’s normal that you have new colleagues coming in and others leaving. It’s an even more short-lived business than science. Projects often only last about 3 months, and then a new project (or funding what it would be in science) needs to be in place.

Final personal note: What do I like about consulting and why do I think it was a good choice?

There are two things I liked about science and which you also find in consulting. First, it is the ambition to understand how something works, how things are connected or what can be done about a specific challenge your client is facing. Second, people are similarly excited about what they are working for and put a lot of energy into it. On the other hand, I prefer to have deadlines and to plan things ahead. I enjoy working towards a defined goal more than working on an open question for years without knowing when I might be able to finish the story. Finally, I do enjoy seeing and learning new things. It’s the challenge and teamwork I was looking for.

Any open questions?Please, feel free to post your questions here.


And most importantly have fun exploring future options. The best of luck on your personal journey to find your next step! It’s a tricky task ;-). – I am curious what opportunities you come up with. Would be great if you would also share them with us!

Klara Höning

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