Career Options

Consultancy as a career after your PhD.

Consultancy is the most commonly discussed career path outside of academia after your PhD. This post covers what consultancy is, the skills you possess to excel, and potential caveats to consider for this career.

When it comes to post-PhD career plans, consultancy is an industry that you simply cannot avoid. Fundamentally, consultancy careers are often a popular destination for PhDs once they finish their PhD for a lot of reasons. To begin with, consultancy is a profession or industry that acts as a third party to provide expertise and guidance on a matter or project for a given fee. Simply speaking, when a business doesn’t know how to execute or solve a problem, they hire a third-party consultant to figure it out for them.

Because of this model, consultancy firms really seek out PhDs for a whole host of reasons which we’ll be sure to cover throughout this post. Due to this, consultancy firms actually advertise and develop entrance level roles that are tailor made for PhDs. Not only does this make it substantially easier to Google and search for alternative careers instead of a post-doc within the consultancy field, but it also reduces the cognitive load it takes to think about your transferable skills and how they apply to different contexts. To put it simply, consultancy firms understand and appreciate the skills and requirements needed to successfully complete a PhD and therefore position roles in a way that help you to map your PhD skills to a non-academic career as a consultant. This is not to say no other careers/industries cannot benefit from your skills, but other professions require you to do the explaining and translating for them. This is not necessarily the case for the consultancy world.

All PhDs typically possess a core set of skills which are directly applicable to the consultancy world. As briefly mentioned, the key service consultancy firms provide is solving problems. All PhD students have excellent problem-solving skills, whether they realise it or not. A PhD is the breeding ground for developing outstanding problem-solving skills as complex and novel challenges arise throughout the PhD journey. Over time, problem-solving becomes second nature and just a common practice. This doesn’t just apply to the field or specialism that your PhD is in. Without fail, you’d trust a PhD to figure out how to hot-wire a car quicker than a non-PhD. The approach is systematic, tactical and thorough. This is ideal for consultancy as you won’t be working on the same project consistently as a consultant. Typically, you’ll be given 3-6month projects or problems that need solving, and these are likely to vary in nature and be completely different. Having the competency to pick up a novel problem, get to grips with it, understand it, and solve it is definitely why consultancy firms love PhD students. This is also a core reason why they don’t list a PhD in a particular field. It’s unlikely, if not impossible, for you to ever have a consultancy project that aligns with your domain specific knowledge – in which case, just having the general problem-solving skills is more desirable. This even applies for both STEM and non-STEM PhDs.

(please don’t hot-wire someone else’s car).

Problem-solving also usually runs in parallel to another core skill consultancy firms love – innovative thinking or creativity. Due to the novelty of the problems, and the fact a particular organisation is unable to solve their problems by themselves, requiring a third-party to help them out, innovative and creative solutions need to be developed and proposed. Once again, PhDs work with novel research fields all the time. If you’ve published or have written your thesis, positioning your research as a unique and novel contribution is an essential part of the PhD.

Here you must articulate explain how your research solves a problem that previously hasn’t been considered or solved before. To solve said problem, you have to develop and propose something novel, innovative and be creative. Just what consultancy firms love to see. The better you are at thinking outside the box, the more of an asset you’ll be perceived to be. Again, focus on translating this on your CV, cover letter or even in your LinkedIn profile.

To really bring it all together and to really demonstrate your outstanding problem-solving skills is your ability to think critically. Critical thinking or scrutinising the smaller details goes hand in hand with problem-solving and innovative thinking/creativity. The more you understand the working parts, the better and easier it is to suggest solutions and solve problems. Once again, attention to detail, being critical and dissecting processes is another core transferable skill all PhD students have.

We’ve all been there where we analyse and scrutinise other people’s work or publications – it’s no different here. This gives us the tri-factor of skills which consultancy firms seek out. Problem-solving, creativity, and critical thinking. However, there’s so much more than PhD students possess which consultancy firms really need. That’s their communication and project management skills. Communication, whether that be in the form of written documents, reports, presentations, interpersonal interactions or any other medium matter. Synthesising complex problems and conveying this to a client in the form of a written report is not much different, if not easier, than writing a PhD publication with some alternations. Presenting to stakeholders or upper management will feel familiar if you’ve presented at conferences and held talks throughout your PhD.

When thinking about consultancy as a post-PhD career path, there are a few caveats to consider. The first pertains to the skills you don’t have. On the most part – you have everything you need to excel in this profession. The main area to develop is business acumen. If you’ve worked on a patent or with some financial component of your PhD, you’re likely to have some insight into this world. But ultimately, the general rule of thumb which is accepted by most consultancy employers is that PhDs aren’t familiar with applying their skills in a business context. This isn’t the end of the world and in fact consultancy jobs that specifically target PhD students provide on-the-job training which allows you to develop and learn these business skills.

However, it would be worth to go one step further and really emphasise that you may not have the best feel for business yet, but you certainly possess an incredible ability to learn. Learning, and learning quickly, is another key skill all PhD students possess, and once again there is no reason why you cannot apply this talent to a different industry or profession. This may be a tricky one to navigate at an interview, but it’s worth falling back on your ability to learn to get you out of any tough questions – you may not know the answer now, but you most certainly can learn it within a condensed amount of time, and once you do, you’ll be able to apply those trifactor of skills we’ve already discussed in a way that provides a significant amount of business value.

Triple threat!

The other caveats to a career in consultancy are not the skills per se, it’s more to do with the structure and landscape of the industry. Typically, consultancy jobs are generously paid and if this aligns with your post-PhD salary goals it’s definitely something to consider. However, consultancy is also renowned for long working hours, rigid deadlines and poor work-life balance. We’re talking 60+ hour work weeks. Of course, this is a stereotype and some smaller consultancy firms may pay less whilst providing a better work-life balance. Depending on where you’re at with your career, you might think this is appropriate and suitable for you. Or at least tolerable in the short term. PhDs are also known for having long working hours. If this isn’t a major concern, you’re likely to be able to adapt and adjust relatively well. So, the pay vs work-life balance trade off might feel worth it. On the other hand, if family time, work-life balance, avoiding burnout, and having hobbies/passions outside of work are important to you it might be worth holding fire on the consultancy world. Ultimately, it’s a personal decision and really depends on your life values. Fortunately for you, this blog talks about personal values in detail in another post – so it might be worth checking this out too.  

Ultimately, consultancy is a perfectly viable career transition opportunity to explore once you finish your PhD, please do give it some consideration and think about whether this is something for you.

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