Insights into a career in consulting

A couple of weeks ago we hosted a careers in consulting panel event and invited reps from Accenture, PA Consulting, Boston Consulting Group and FreshSight to talk to students about working in consulting and what it takes to succeed.  It was a great event and the employers shared lots of useful insights with the students so I thought I would post a summary with some of their advice here for those of you who weren’t able to attend.

Speaker backgrounds and working in consulting

First off each rep gave an overview of their own background and how they got into consulting and what it takes to succeed.

Caitlin from PA consulting gave an overview of her experience of the recruitment process.  She attended a networking event where she met people from the company (all the consulting firms run these types of events and recommended that you go along to them!) and then progressed to HR interviews, online tests (verbal and numerical reasoning) a management consultant interview (to see if you’re a good fit for the firm), case study session, partner interview and personality tests.

She then talked about the challenges of her role – so far she’s worked on three completely different assignments including organisational change for a retail bank, Scottish Government agile project and a financial crime project for a retail bank and she said she was very much thrown in at the deep end.  All assignments have been different but you get to discover your strengths and weaknesses and there’s lots of variety and challenge.  In terms of the downsides she mentioned there is lots of travel and stressed that you really must be willing to travel anywhere and sometimes at short notice.  Caitlin’s top tip was that networking is really important – go to networking events, be yourself and follow up with people (e.g. connecting on LinkedIn).

Jess from Boston Consulting Group echoed Caitlin’s point about networking, explaining this is really about meeting people with similar interests and that it should be enjoyable (this is a sign you’ve found the right career area!).  Jess then talked about what consulting is (BCG are generalists in terms of industries and functions) and explained that new hires join as generalists and then learn what their interests are before specialising.

Jess also touched on skills that make you a good consultant – you need to be good at dealing with different situations as you’re always meeting new clients in new contexts and she also talked about the value of extra-curricular activities as being a good source of examples of leadership and teamwork skills when the time comes for job applications and interviews.  The people side of the job is important – you’re doing analytical work e.g. looking at and analysing company accounts but then you’re giving clients advice and direction so it’s important to have good analytical skills and also be good at dealing with people.

In terms of challenges Jess stressed that it’s tough – you’re working with very clever people and you are given a high level of responsibility very early on which can mean lots of pressure.  Research skills are also important as sometimes you need to go digging for information but there’s a strong sense of community and it’s a very team focused environment event though it’s competitive.

Holly from Accenture also talked about the value of networking and going to networking events to establish which firms you want to apply for and advised not to panic and blanket apply to lots of firms – it’s far better take the time to find out which company is right for you.

Holly did an internship with Accenture and advised to do this if you can as it’s a good way to get involved and get experience and she pointed out that firms really invest in training you during the internship so it’s a good experience.  Holly also advised students to look at small local consultancy firms and to contact them on a speculative basis to see if you can get experience – let them know what you can do for them.  Her other tip was to consider if your dissertation topic could be a way to get experience especially if you’re unsure what to do your dissertation on – contact companies to see if there are opportunities.

Holly talked about the good aspects of working in consulting including the variety and getting to work in lots of different industries.  You’ll come in not knowing where you want to specialise and you’ll get lots of opportunities to move around.  With Accenture you’ll also get to work with cutting edge technology (e.g. agile delivery) and it’s fast paced.  On the downside the hours can be long – you will spend lots of time at work but it’s a good teamwork environment and travelling is also an issue – you need to be flexible and willing to move around.

Finally Andrew from FreshSight talked about the company and opportunities for students.  FreshSight is a social enterprise matching students to problems with a range of clients including private sector, charities and social enterprise.  Students work in multidisciplinary teams from first year undergraduate students through to PhD students and they recruit 42 students per semester and put them through a professional training programme in consulting.  It’s rewarding in the sense that you’re helping traditional third sector organisations that have existed for many years at generating new income streams and acting in a more business-like way but the challenges can be around giving tough messages to clients that they might not want to hear (but then also providing some alternatives for them to consider too).

Top tips for the recruitment process

Adnan from PA consulting heads up recruitment in the company and had some excellent advice for students on getting through the recruitment process:

  • Do your homework – know what the firm does and be clear about why you want to work in consulting. Think about how you measure up against your peers – all will have done the extracurricular stuff and will have lots to offer but think about what you have done (or can do) that shows you’re committed to consulting as a career and it’s not just a whim
  • All firms run recruitment events so go along to these – meet people, network, and have something interesting to talk about. You can see attendee lists for events so look at who is going – it’s easy to do your homework
  • Network with your peers too (thing long term and where they might be in 10-15 years from now) – use LinkedIn – networking is easier than you might think and isn’t just about meeting senior people
  • At the end of recruitment events senior staff will discuss who they have met and are impressed by confident and articulate people who have a good story to tell. When you go to events be open and approachable
  • Psychometric tests – practice as much as you can because so many good candidates fail these
  • If you’re looking for a 9-5 job where each day is the same then consulting isn’t for you! Every day is different, the hours are long and you have to travel a lot (not always glamorous locations!)

Questions from the audience

Towards the end of the session we asked for questions from the audience and here are a few useful snippets to share with you:

Question – can you explain the different types of consulting?

  • Strategy consulting involves looking at a problem and why it’s there, it’s usually short term work (6 weeks), pulling data together and presenting to clients
  • Management consulting (or managed services) involves working in partnership, giving workshops e.g. moving from waterfall to agile delivery (tip – know and understand what these terms mean!)
  • Operational consulting often involves outsourcing around the world, focusing on the day to day running of the company
  • Tech and digital consulting involves looking at infrastructure and platforms

BUT all the employers advised not to get hung up on the labels as most firms do a bit of everything.  Key things are to look at the firms engagements and areas where they work – look at case studies on their websites.  Think about what interests you but remember you will come in as a generalist but do understand what the firm does.

Question – how do you orientate yourself quickly enough to advise clients when you start a project?

Identify who the key stakeholders are, who is the CEO and their team?  Draw an organisational chart and identify who the most important people are.  Your Partner will also be able to give you some context.  Download company information, commit to learning, try to find out what the problems are – people will often be very willing to talk about this.

Be realistic though because you can’t know everything – rely on your senior team to give you context and knowledge but do further research and use your internal network too

Question – what skills required for the role?

General consulting skills including communication, stakeholder management, technical skills such as digital and analytical skills, know and understand what waterfall and agile delivery are.

You need both arts and science skills – writing and analysis (use your extracurricular activities to demonstrate these in applications and interviews).

Question – how to approach the case study exercise?

Read the case study – you’re working under time pressure on a subject you’re not familiar with. Use background information and intellect to come up with logical conclusions.  Many employers will give you time to read the background materials so use it!  The information provided is there for a reason.  Also use any materials you’re provided with e.g. calculator to check figures and remember you will run out of time by design.

You will need to then present your answer – be prepared to articulate this and don’t think on your feet. Consider the message you want to get across

Want to find out more?

So all in all it was a great event and hopefully my summary gives you an overview of what it takes to succeed.  If you’re interested in finding out more about a career in consulting then start with our sector pages covering consulting on the Careers Service website.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *