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On hiatus

August 13, 2010

A few weeks ago I received some material from the company to prepare myself for what is to come, including some confidentiality papers. After reading that it is not clear to me that it would be ok for me to keep writing this blog without checking with someone first. Being a junior at the office I don’t want to get in trouble at least during my first few weeks on the job (if I can at all avoid it) so I have decided to put this blog on hiatus for a while.

The decision is not final. After all, the reason why I started this blog was so that I could give some info from the inside, which I found was lacking on the web. Perhaps this is the reason why it is lacking… In any case, I will wait a few weeks before taking the final decision. After I have seen for myself how things work inside I will be able to decide whether I should just shut this down or continue writing with someone’s guidance/approval.

If there is anyone out there with some inside info from one of the Big 4 perhaps you can provide some advice on what to do in this situation.

In the meantime, thanks for reading, thanks for your comments and I really do hope we can continue having this conversation here or elsewhere.

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Extracurricular Activities

July 8, 2010

Sam left a very interesting comment that I think hits on one of the key points for PhDs applying to consulting firms:

Given the nature of the work PhDs do, I feel their CVs tend to be stronger in analytical skills and weaker in other areas (eg leadership and teamwork), especially if you spent more of your time on research and less in extracurricular activities.
In all the interviews I did I felt that the interviewers put a lot of emphasis in looking for these extra skills. When they invite a candidate with a PhD in science for an interview, it is already clear that their analytical skills are what they need and they know that in a measurable way from your grades, schools you went to, etc. However it is about this other skills that they are not so sure about.

One question that I invariably  got in every interview was how I felt about team working. They assumed that a PhD student works in a very solitary way and wanted to know how I felt about working in a team and if I had had such experience in the past. They also wanted to know about instances where I had shown leadership, negotiating skills, where I had dealt with a conflict, etc.

For these reasons I find that it is very important for PhD candidates to complement their academic CV with other experiences that show these other qualities. There are many examples of such activities. If you have some work experience or have done something outside academia that is great. Also other things like leading a sports team, having some active role in a charity, etc. could be relevant.

However there are also plenty of experiences inside academia that you might have done and they’d be interested to hear. Some examples are: teaching experiences, seminar organising, student representation, conference funding raising and conference organising, writing for your university magazine, etc.

Do make sure that you include such things in your CV. At the beginning I was a bit hesitant to do it because I felt they were no “real” working experiences, but they do exemplify that you have some of the qualities they are looking for and you will get asked to elaborate on them during your interviews.

What do you think? Did you have any extracurricular activities in your CV that you feel helped you get through the interview?

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Up or out

May 24, 2010

We’ve all heard about the “up or out” policy of many consultancy firms (as well as other firms). This means that employers are expected to get promoted after a pre-fixed length of time or else they are encouraged to leave the firm. Today I would like to focus on that word: encouraged.

What does it exactly mean? Perhaps this differs from country to country, but in Europe, it seems to me that if you have an indefinite contract it would be quite hard to kick an employee out for no reason. Unless, of course, the “up or out” policy is somehow encoded in the contract.

Perhaps that is the case, but lets suppose for a minute that it is not. If after the prescribed period of time an individual is not promoted, I supposed they would get some kind of negative evaluations, people wouldn’t want to work with them so they wouldn’t get interesting projects (or perhaps no projects at all) and probably one or more persons would have a chat with them about their opportunities outside of the firm. But, what if after all of this the person refuses to leave the firm? Can the company make them leave or they would be stacked with that person?

I guess that nobody really wants to be in that situation and probably anyone in that position would actually leave the firm, but I still wonder if the opposite ever happens.

The reason why I’ve been thinking about this is because of the equivalent situation in academia. The “up or out” approach is enforced quite effectively for the first years of the scientific careers by only offering short-term contracts (usually 1 to 3 years). However, once someone gets hold of a permanent position, no matter how many bad evaluations they get, it is very difficult to get them out of there. In general this is a good thing, because it gives stability to good scientist that are then able to focus on their science, but sometimes the system fails and allows people to stay in positions where they shouldn’t stay, even if perhaps they themselves would be happy elsewhere.

Therefore, if consulting companies have found an effective way to solve the problem, I’d like to hear it and pass it on to universities. It seems to me like they could benefit a lot from a few tips from management consultants.

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Shopping for consulting

May 4, 2010

As a scientist, what I usually wear to work are jeans and a T-shirt. In fact, a woman who dresses up a little bit or even wears make up to the department is sadly still frowned upon by some in the sense of “she spends too much time worrying about her looks to be any good at science”. So actually I’m looking forward to being able to wear nicer clothes and pay some attention to my looks.

The bottom line is that I’m going to go out and buy myself a new wardrobe before I start this consulting job. If you are a man, it is relatively easy: buy a few suits, several shirts and ties and business shoes. There is a great post on that here.

However, if you are a woman, the thing becomes much trickier. When I was there the other day, I asked my contact about this. She told me that they have no dress-code other than no jeans and no trainers. She also said that a suit was not necessary for women everyday. People there were quite “business casual” style, but she did mention that the code in the office was more relaxed than in the client’s site. So basically this still leaves me with a huge amount of possibilities. Any ideas on what is a good shopping for at least the first month?

Here is my top guess. I’ll get a suit and quite bland clothes to begin with. Neutral colors (blue, black, white, grey) and straight lines. I think I’ll get smart trousers, a few shirts and jackets, business shoes… Then, once I see what people wear, I’ll be able to build and expand from that. What do you think? Is there any thing that I will absolutely need that is not listed here? Did you find your self totally wearing the wrong thing and realizing only once you were there? I’d love to hear your stories!

UPDATE: S left a very useful suggestion in the comments. If you are in this situation check out Corporette.com. In particular, she has a great post on how to build a basic wardrobe (it’s for summer internships, but I think most of it applies to starting a job at any time).

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An MBA after a PhD?

April 30, 2010

When I applied to consulting firms, I mostly did it as an advanced degree holder. This means that you apply for a position that is 2-3 years higher than the typical business analyst position that undergraduate students apply for.

In some offices of consulting companies, they have special programs for PhD holders, especially those not in economics. Sure, you enter the firm higher in the  but you also need some basic knowledge on business and economics. For example, they have 3 weeks mini-MBAs for such people.

After consulting with me in the interview and then talking amongst themselves, they decided to make me an offer for the lowest position: business analyst. The reason they gave me was that, this way, I still have the door open to do an MBA 1 or 2 years down the line (paid by the firm, of course). If in the end I decided not to do it and things went well, I would be able to skip to the next level without the MBA degree, because I will be an advanced degree holder.

After the lunch I had there the other day, I am under the impression that this depends very much on the office. Apparently, in this particular one, they don’t have many PhD consultants and they thought people wouldn’t know how to handle me if I entered in a higher position that has more responsibility associated to it but I knew nothing about the business world. I think that, had this happened in another office, for example in Germany where they are very used to this kind of candidates, they would have made me an offer for the higher position.

Although in the interview I said I was open to the option of doing an MBA, now I am not so sure anymore. The thing is that it does seem very interesting, especially for someone with a pure science background, but, how many degrees should a person have? I already have two undergraduate degrees, a masters and (soon) a PhD. Is an MBA necessary after all of this?

So I started wondering, why do people do an MBA? I think the main reasons are:

  • Educational. That is, to learn more about the business world,
  • to get into one of the top four management consulting firms,
  • to find better jobs and earn more.

In my situation the only reason that applies is the first. Which, I think, is the most important one. I wonder if the third one also applies. I mean, if I have to go job hunting again in a few years, will it make any difference having an MBA or not when I already have a masters and a PhD in science (like most PhD’s do)?

On the other hand, what keeps people from doing an MBA. I would say:

  • Money. They are extremely expensive and you have to wonder, is it worth it?
  • Time. Most MBAs are 2-year long programs, which is not a negligible amount of time. This is also related to the previous issue since during those two years most people are not able to work full-time.
  • Geography. Top MBAs are in the US or very selected cities in Europe. One thing is to move to another country/continent for the duration of a project and another is doing it for 2 full years.

I would be sponsored by the firm, so money wouldn’t be a problem. But, what about the other two? Am I ready to give up two more years of my life studying, doing exams, living in yet another country? What will I get in return? Will I really learn things that I won’t be able to learn on the job or via mini-MBAs and other training programs? Will it make a difference in my CV next time I go job hunting?

I know there are many people out there who hold both a PhD and an MBA so I would like to hear from you: was it worth it?

Then, there is of course also this.

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Keeping weekends free

April 26, 2010

In the last post we talked about an interview to  Pia Götze, a Chemist who decided to move into consulting. I would like to use a piece of her interview to discuss today the topic of number of hours worked in academia vs consulting.

At this point I don’t think I need to wait until I start the job to know that consultants put in a LOT of hours. That seems to be the one thing all consultants I’ve talked to agree on. However, like Pia Götze in this article, they also usually say that they manage to keep weekends free, and that is a concept that is completely new for me.

In academia people manage their own time. This is a great advantage that very few jobs have. You can really work whenever you want wherever you want except for a few compromises like teaching and some meetings. There is a lot of flexibility. However this doesn’t mean that people work less. Especially in some fields which are highly competitive, people must put in a lot of hours as well if they want to move on to the next level/job.

Because people who work in academia usually love their job so much, they often don’t mind working 12 hours a day including weekends and holidays. I must admit that not everybody is like that, but there is certainly a significantly big group of people who live for research. They often don’t have families or even many hobbies outside of the university, so most of their time is spent doing what they love doing the most: work.

The worse part of this is, of course, that they expect you to do the same. For example, since I started my PhD there have been very, very few weekends in which I did not spend a significant amount of hours working.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my job and I don’t mind at all the hours I put in. I just think it will be great, for a change, to work around people that respect the fact that you might have other interests in life, family, etc. and, whenever is possible, respect weekends and try to keep them off-limits.

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From Chemistry to Consulting

April 23, 2010

I just came across this article on Pia Götze, a woman who moved from Chemistry to working for the Boston Consulting Group. The article is a bit old (November 2002), but I think her arguments still apply today.

In this interview she describes well how was the process for her of moving from academia to consulting. She outlines what she liked and didn’t like about doing research and how she came to consider consulting as a viable option for her.  Then she describes what the day-to-day job is like. She seems to enjoy it a lot and she appears very happy with the choices she has made.

I liked the article because I am a woman as well, I also started thinking about other options for my future in the last year of my PhD and I mostly share her reasons to do the transition. The hope is that, if someone who moved to consulting for the same reasons I am doing it is now happy with their job, I will be too.

I particularly enjoyed the part where she is asked “Many people are not really familiar with the term “consulting. Can you explain what a consultant actually does?”. Most people in academia have never heard of management consulting and I get this question all the time. Her answer, although precise, sounds a bit too technical. She says:

“At BCG, we support the management of companies as they try to develop innovative strategies that will give them an edge over their competitors, resulting in increased revenues. More precisely, in most projects, we work on accessing new markets, improving industrial processes, or the realignment of the companies’ business segments.”

In PhD workshops we are always told we should have a “party version” of our thesis topic to explain in simple terms what we are doing. Is there such a thing as a “party version” of what consulting is? Do you get this question a lot?

I wonder what Pia is doing now, almost eight years after this interview.