Building Consulting Experience in Graduate School

As a (former) consultant, I frequently hear the question “How can I get experience in consulting in graduate school?” from students and postdocs. So I have assembled a list of organizations and resources for building your consulting skills in an academic ecosystem. While likely generalizable, resources here are directed at those looking to pursue generalist management consulting or life sciences consulting.

Your goal should not be to do every one of these; it is not a list to check off that will get you an offer and a hire at a firm. Your goal should be to do a subset of these so that you can:

  1. Build your experience in consulting
  2. Evaluate whether consulting is the right next career step for you
  3. Create impact in the world that will matter (and make your resume stand out)

The second question I get frequently is “When should I start preparing for consulting?” The answer is usually “Right now!” No, don’t start preparing for consulting interviews right now. But those three things listed above take time and preparing for consulting is part of a broader life project to figure out your next career step, so the earlier you start the better.

This resource list is sorted into three buckets: resources at your academic institution, resources in the broader world, and individual resources. The academic institution resources are broken down into two further buckets: those specifically for consulting, and those that provide more general business experience if you’re not sure consulting is the right next step for you.

At your academic institution

Consulting-specific

The Consulting Club

Many institutions have consulting clubs and some have multiple consulting clubs1. Some institutions also have specialized clubs on campus, such as University of Pennsylvania’s Biotech Group, so if you’re interested in consulting check your institution’s list of student groups. The consulting club is a great place to learn and connect with other students who can be your buddies in case prep. Participation in a club alone is unlikely to make your resume stand out to a firm, unless 1) you’re part of club leadership or worked on pro-bono projects as part of the club and 2) you can point to concrete impact you had in these cases (e.g., you grew club funding by 400%, doubled membership, or created a strategy that helped a client launch their product). If your club has pro-bono projects, I highly recommend getting involved because they are a more accurate representation of what consulting is like than a case interview or case practice.

Case Competitions

Larger institutions and some companies host these once or twice a year, where teams compete to develop the best solution and recommendation for a (usually mock) client problem. They’re a great way to learn, but I wouldn’t recommend doing one unless you’ve learned a bit from consulting clubs, classes, or reading about consulting. I participated in a case competition my second year of grad school but it was too early for me to benefit; no one on our team knew what we were doing and we failed spectacularly. I did a second one my fourth year, after working on a pro-bono project, and our team made the finals.

Alumni

Alumni who are currently consultants are an amazing resource, but use their time wisely. If you want to find out more about consulting, prepare questions in advance. If you want them to give you a practice case, do it later in your interview prep cycle so they can give you pointed feedback, as many won’t have time to give you a second practice case.

More general business resources:

The Tech Transfer Office

This goes by many names2, but is essentially the office that patents academic innovations and licenses them for commercialization, so it’s a great way to get early exposure to business. They often have part-time employment or associate positions that can give you an initial feel for the business world. Depending on the institution, these positions can be competitive, so inquire about the interview process before you dive in and prep with classes or workshops if needed.

MBA Courses

These aren’t accessible everywhere, but if you can attend courses at your institution’s business school, do it!3 This is learning about business from folks whose job it is to teach business, so it’s a great opportunity to learn everything from finance and organization structure to negotiation. It’s also beneficial if you aren’t 100% committed to consulting yet, as it will give you a better idea of what roles exist beyond academia.

Other Part-time University Roles

While this may seem unrelated to consulting, these jobs abound on campus4 and provide valuable skills in budgeting, process management, and leadership. They’re also a chance for you to make a positive difference on your campus and demonstrate impact on a resume, so keep track of your achievements in these roles.5 Participation in this alone is unlikely to get you an interview without demonstrated interest or experience in business though.

In the broader world:

Regional Consulting Groups

These groups are similar to consulting clubs on campus, though they generally have significant dedication to pro-bono projects. They vary in capabilities and quality, because like clubs they generally student-run, but often without the direct University backing that provides a support network. Still, some of the best learning opportunities are in these groups, as they may offer direct consulting experience that is useful in building your skills and deciding whether you love it enough to pursue it post-degree.

The one I have heard of most frequently is BALSA, but others (such Fourth River Solutions) also exist.

A Part-time Consulting Gig

An alternative to the consulting group is a part time consulting gig, which you could get either through folks you know or more formally through a platform like LabMate. Again, support for learning will vary by project, so be aware and assess whether it will be worthwhile in terms of what you’ll learn. A way to de-risk this is to find a mentor (alumni currently in consulting, or a faculty member that has previously done consulting).

The Immersion Programs

These are less training programs and more a chance to network and hone a couple of fine points in casing. These short, 1-3 day programs are a mock case with a consulting firm designed to give you an idea of the firm’s project approach and personality. They’re also a chance to wine and dine you. Most guarantee a first round interview but more importantly, they enable you to connect with current consultants that can help you prepare better for case interviews. Note that a majority are geared toward PhDs and require that you have a year or less left in your degree (to the best of your knowledge). This means most PhD students would apply in the winter/spring of their fourth year for these programs.

Winning a spot in these is harder than actually getting an offer, and few attendees actually go on to get offers, so it’d no biggie if you don’t win one. Also, no matter what anyone tells you, they are also all (at least somewhat) evaluative, but not that deeply: they are looking for red flags that indicate you aren’t a good fit (e.g., you tactlessly tell everyone their ideas are stupid and yours is the best), or the glow of a super-promising candidate that they should fast track before another firm snaps them up.  Also, your fellow attendees aren’t competition; they’re future case buddies and friends. Here are the big ones:

  • McKinsey Insight – the longest-running, and an awesome experience with a mock case. I still keep in touch with some of the folks I met through this program.
  • Bridge to BCG – the other big one, also built around a mock case experience. I didn’t get in, but friends who went had a great experience.
  • Bain Advance Into Consulting (AIC) and ADvantage – a relative newcomer to ADC recruiting, Bain started their advanced degree immersion programs around 2015 as AIC, a 1-day workshop. They now also offer ADvantage, which is a week-long internship participating on an actual case.
  • Connect to ClearView – the longest-running in life science consulting, and also an amazing experience. Like Insight and Bridge, it’s built around a mock case, but I found it particularly illuminating of the differences between generalist management and life sciences consulting.
  • I hear that other life sciences consulting firms have started running immersion programs in the last two years, but I’m less familiar with them. Your best bet to find them is to look at individual firm websites.

If you do participate in one of these, drop it on the resume or on LinkedIn as a bullet or one liner, but nothing more. While it is a signal to us that someone has vetted you, we also all know what the programs entail so it’ll be hard to talk up your impact at them. They may make for some great ‘personal fit’ stories though!

Single Player:

Below are resources to independently to hone your consulting skills.

Consulting Books and Essays

There are plenty of books out there aimed at helping you prepare for case interviews, including the usual suspects of Case in Point, Case Interview Secrets, and so forth. Keep in mind they do just that, though: help you prepare for the interview. They do little to help you understand the actual job. For that, I recommend reading biographies and autobiographical articles from actual consultants (this one by former Bain CEO Orit Gadiesh was particularly memorable), as well as asking current and former consultants what it’s like.

Also, I should say it now: it won’t help you that much to memorize frameworks, particularly at non-generalist firms. We know a canned framework when we see one. Instead, if you can get time with a current or former consultant, bring them a problem and show them how you would break it down, then have them show you how they would break it down. If you don’t know any consultants, practice breaking down problems with your friends and case buddies. When a friend’s relationship with their thesis advisor went south, we turned a wall of my lab (we had IdeaPaint) into a floor-to-ceiling framework of how best to proceed to achieve their goals. You’ll learn much more by creating frameworks for problems than by just reading about them.

Publications from Consulting Firms

Nearly every firm will publish articles or white papers on their business insights. These are a chance to not only learn about business strategy and the state of specific industries, but also to learn about how the different firms think and speak. Each has their own personality and style. Getting to know the firm will help you decide which you are most enthusiastic about, while speaking the language of the firm will impress your interviewer.

The News

Consulting is all about solving problems for companies today, so it benefits you to know what’s going on in business today. If you’re going for management consulting, this means being a generalist, so take some time to read the WSJ, Bloomberg, Reuters, and other business-directed news. For those aimed at consulting roles in a specific industry, the reading varies. You could reach out to consultants in the field and ask them what they read or search for websites dedicated to business news in the field. For life sciences, I spent a lot of time reading Fierce Biotech, Fierce Pharma, and Endpoints.

Know Thyself

While preparing for consulting, I found it hugely helpful to reflect on what my skills were, what I was actually good at, and what I actually enjoyed doing. For me, this took the form of AAAS’s myIDP and Strengthsfinder 2.0, but there are tons of resources out there to help you. The key is to reflect on yourself now and where you want to be in the future, and I don’t mean in a vague way of “I want to be happy and have a fulfilling job.” I mean more like “In five years I want to be leading expert for the aerospace industry” or “In five years I want to be co-founding companies” and then figure out how you get from here to there.6

I’m graduating and haven’t done any of this!

Depending on who you are, that could be totally fine; I know people who read Case in Point, went for interviews, and landed a role at a great firm. But with most firms doing multiple rounds of interviewing with multiple cases per round, the odds aren’t in your favor. While there is the opportunity reapply, how firms view candidates who are reapplying isn’t transparent and depends on the individual. Interviewers can tell when a person is looking for “anything but a postdoc” or running from a postdoc. Don’t be that person.

If you’re dead set on consulting, approach it from a consultant’s point of view and stack the odds in your favor. Take a few months to a year to prepare. Getting a job that will pay enough for you to live and leave you with some free time, stay on as a postdoc in your lab, and get some consulting experience. You’ll be far better prepared for consulting interviews and the actual job with it.

Footnotes

1 Yale had three consulting clubs: the Yale Consulting Club (run by undergrads), the Yale Graduate Consulting Club (by advanced degree students like PhDs), and the Yale School of Management Consulting Club (for MBAs).

2 At Yale it’s called the Office of Cooperative Research and at Columbia it’s called Technology Ventures, just to name a few.

3 Yale had a super-generous policy on this. I could take any SOM class for P/NP, provided I paid a “materials fee” of $35.

4 In my time as a student, I held positions as a Graduate Resident Coordinator, Graduate Writing Center Fellow, Teaching Assistant, iGEM Mentor, and Consulting Club Pro-Bono Project Lead. Some were great, some weren’t. All gave me valuable skills and insight into what I was good at.

5 When trying out these roles, don’t be afraid to quit and move on if it’s not the right role for you, but if possible make some kind of contribution. One, it’s a thank you for those who put time into your learning. Two, it’s something you can always speak to later as an impact you had in that role.

6 The classic problem is knowing your future dream job requires you to be familiar with what that job entails in practice, which requires you to do the job (or something like it) to actually get experience in that role. You will have this problem. They key is overcome the paralysis that frequently results from it. Build knowledge about what the job entails, then find something to simulate it (this is what the above resources do). If you find you don’t like it or the simulation is poor, try another way to simulate the role. If in collecting data points you find that you don’t like what you would be doing in your future dream job, consider changing your future dream job. It’s a simple as writing down new roles you think you may like and repeating the process, but this time with skills and experiences you learned from the last round.

The Smallest Self-sustaining Ecosystem: Part II

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The research process, and a preliminary answer

Preface: “AUGHH, SO BORING!” is probably the first response I expect from this post. I can hear the sound of dozens of laptop screens shutting or browsers navigating away to avoid reading this post. It delves into the daunting world of academic and scientific literature, where the English language is changed into some strange, twisted version of itself, lengthened in sentence and peppered with weird acronyms that are meaningless to all but the most entrenched in the field. But reading research literature is absolutely essential to how we arrive at answers, especially in academic fields like the science. And it’s getting easier to do; academic researchers have realized the importance of making their work accessible to everyone, and have pushed to make the language they use easier to understand.

So if you want to get your feet wet in the academic literature, you want a glimpse into what a lot of grad school is about, or you’re just curious about what researchers in the sciences do for MUCH of their time, this post will tell you.

In the last post I defined our question, which was “What is the smallest self-sustaining ecosystem that we could send to space?”. Now I’ll cover where and how to look for an answer to that question in the scientific literature and give a preliminary answer to our question. By the end of this post, you’ll know how to use scientific literature to answer questions of you own!

Diving into scientific literature

Scientific literature can be daunting because it looks unlike anything else we read, but it is the fount of all scientific information. It is the original source of all the information and data, which is collected by news articles and websites to deliver to you, the reader. As with anything involving interpretation, news articles and websites can leave out important information or get things outright wrong when they report on information from the scientific literature, but the only way for you to know is to go read the original scientific article or research report yourself. So if you want to truly know something, read the scientific literature.

We’ll divide our dive into the scientific literature into three sections: searching the scientific literature for research articles, sorting out which research articles in the literature are useful, and analyzing research articles to answer your question. Doing these three steps successfully is difficult and will be slow, especially if you’re new to the scientific literature. Give yourself time when searching the scientific literature and write your question at the top of your page or next to your computer to keep yourself on track.

Step 1: Searching for research articles that might hold answers

In this step I collect several research articles that might have answers to my question to search through in depth later. The best ways to search the scientific literature are Google Scholar and NCBI’s PubMed. Google Scholar searches research articles and primary literature instead of webpages, but works in a similar way to the standard Google search engine so we won’t cover it. NCBI’s PubMed is also a search engine, but it searches all of the primary literature indexed vetted by the National Institute of Health to create a customizable, highly-specific, extensive output. It is the go-to site when I need to find research articles.

Try PubMed by clicking here and typing in something you want to search.

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Search results on PubMed. Each numbered entry in the list is a research article that might hold answers to your question.

Like Google, you’ll see that a search will yield research articles. Clicking on an entry pulls up the PubMed page, which contains the research article information, including the title, author, journal it was published in (which, like magazines have varying degrees of prestige and veracity), and a super-useful summary of the paper called an Abstract that will help you determine if the paper is useful. I prefer to cast a wide net in this step, saving anything that might be useful or interesting to read to answer my question.

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An example entry on a research article in PubMed. Your access to full text links will be the rectangles on the upper right. In this case, the full text is available for free.

If you read the Abstract and think this research article has answers, your next goal is to get the full research article, which is easiest through the “Full Text Links” in the upper right of the PubMed entry. This can get…uh…tricky. In the best cases, the article is free either from NCBI or the journal that published it and the box under “Full Text Links” will say “free full text” or “free final version”, which you can click to get to an HTML or PDF version of a research article. If a full version isn’t available for free (you’ll know because the link you clicked on will say ask for $$ to access an article), then there are a few ways you still might be able to get a research article for free. The first is to check the lab website, which can be done by Googling the name of the last author (here, Pace) and the article’s title–some professors will post PDFs of their research articles on their lab website. A second option is Kopernio, which searches a few websites to determine if the article is freely available. If you don’t find a PDF using these methods, you can also contact an author through ResearchGate or via email and ask for a copy of the article; most authors are happy to share. And the last option, one of dubious legality, is to pirate it from the Russian repository Sci-Hub. Whichever way you choose, save the research articles you can as PDFs into a folder to use in step two.

Step 2: Sorting out which research articles matter

Now you have a pile of PDFs in a folder, one (or some) of which may have the answer to your question. But most PDFs won’t and there are more papers in the world than hours you have to read them, so it’s time to start sorting.

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My file organization system for research. The “not useful” papers usually get deleted, and I go through the “less useful” papers if I can’t find an answer in the papers here. “Round 2” comes from my second round of research (reapeating step 1 again) and I prefer to keep them separate so I know what I have finished reading and need to read next.

I like to sort into three categories: useful, less useful, and not useful. To figure out which papers are useful, I’ll open the file and skim the Abstract, figures, and figure captions — 90% of the time, this is enough for me to figure out if a paper isn’t useful. If I still can’t decide, I’ll read the paper’s Discussion section. If it doesn’t have my answer or any useful related info, it goes into the “not useful” folder. If it doesn’t clearly have my answer but might have some useful info,  it goes into the “less useful” folder. And if I think it’s useful, I leave it in the main folder.

If you happen to find the answer to your question while skimming a paper, that’s awesome! It does happen, especially if you’re looking for a specific fact or statistic. But for more complex questions, you’ll probably need another step.

Step 3: Finding your answer by analysis and synthesis

In this step, you’ll read the articles you’ve found in depth to piece together the information you need to answer your question. This step takes the longest – while the last two may have taken hours, reading through all the papers you think are relevant and synthesizing an answer can take days, or if the question is really big or you’re really new to this process, weeks.

Since this is the long haul, it’s best to start by getting organized. Pick a method of keeping notes, be it on paper or digitally, and stick with it. If you have more than five or six papers, you’ll likely want to keep track of your notes by paper. I use Mendeley to organize my papers, and OneNote to keep track of all my notes on them, including quotes and excepts from papers I’ve read.

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A sample from my OneNote research notes to answer this question.

Now, down to the actual reading. It will take time for you to read a research paper, especially if you’re new at it. Be patient with yourself and start with small steps, maybe reading only one paper a day. If you’re also new to the field of your question, then doubly so– you’ll be learning new words and vocabulary as well as how to read a paper. Look up definitions, write down acronyms on a sheet of paper next to you, and take notes somewhere on things relevant to your question. Try to rephrase the findings of a paper in your own words, which tests how well you understand it. Be patient and steadfast and the papers will grow easier to read.

The last part of this step is synthesis, using what you’ve learned from the research and your brain to make an answer. It’s difficult and will also take practice. Try to answer your question after each paper you read; write it down, read it, and see if there are still missing pieces in your answer. This isn’t a research paper, so your answer need not and should not be a whole essay unless that is what you need to answer your question. A sentence, three sentences, or a paragraph is better if that’s all it will take.

The true test of whether you’ve answered your question is to give the answer to someone else. Take your question and answer to a teacher or friend or family member. Tell them the question and explain the answer to see if you can help them understand. If you’re successful, congratulations! You just taught someone something they might not know. If you’re not or they disagree with you, try to be humble and ask for advice. If they disagree, ask where they get their answer and go look it up. If they ask questions, you can return to the research and dig for more answers. Like an adventurer, keep following the threading trail until you find the answer. It might be something no one has ever answered before.

A preliminary answer to our question, or one is the loneliest number

Phew! The above was an essay I hadn’t originally intended to write, but I started it and it seemed to matter so much in a day and age where there seem to be so many questions that need answers. Thank you if you read through all of that.

I promised a preliminary answer this week and an answer you shall receive!  An early answer to “What is the smallest self-sustaining ecosystem that we could send to space?” is….drumroll please….

ONE (Chivian et al., Science, 2008). Yes, a ecosystem of one was discovered deep in the Earth’s crust. It was found  in a mine shaft in South Africa at 2.8 km deep, or around 933 floors if you take a floor as about 3 meters tall. If you were taking a standard elevator down to this depth, you’d be on waiting in it for a little over two and a half hours.

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The Chivian et al. 2008 paper describing the discovery of D. audaxviator.

The lonely microbe’s name is Delsulforudis audaxviator (we’ll call it D. audaxviator), which as far as I can tell with Google means “the bold traveler of the sulfur lineage.” And it’s capable of living alone because it carries a complete toolkit of genes that help it do everything it needs to survive – helping it ‘eat’ carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and formate, ‘drink’ the nitrogen it needs from out of the air as nitrogen gas, and ‘breathe’ sulfate compounds as we breathe oxygen. While we breathe out carbon dioxide, it breathes out hydrogen sulfide gas, which smells of rotten eggs. It’s a one-microbe jack-of-all-trades, do-it-yourself word down there, and D. audaxviator is well-prepared.

So now that we have an answer, are we done? Uh, no. This is a bad answer to our question because it doesn’t meet the rules we set out! Look again at the description of D. audaxviator above. What do you notice? Well, it makes hydrogen sulfide gas like we make carbon dioxide. That’s a waste product. Where is that waste product going? If it just hung around, it would build up. And where are carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, format, nitrogen gas, and sulfates coming from? If D. audaxviator uses them all up, does it starve? Does it suffocate? This systems fails to meet our criteria of self-sustaining.

If you read the source paper (linked here), you’ll find two things of note. One, many of the things D. audaxviator needs to survive are made from chemical reactions in the earth and somehow either make it to D. audaxviator or D. audaxviator finds them. This same method might be used to sweep away any waste products made, so D. audaxviator doesn’t’ have to worry about them. Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of shunting off waste like this while in space. We won’t have the comfort of earth.

The second thing to note in the paper is that while researchers found more than 99.9% of the genetic info from the mine sample comes from D. audaxviator, that is not 100%. There could be some few other microbes living down there, taking the waste products of D. audaxviator as food and turning them into something else. Or maybe they’re taking other compounds and turning them into the compounds D. audaxviator needs to survive. It’s hard to tell for now, and we may not get an answer anytime soon. The researchers couldn’t clearly identify what these other microbes were because there was so much D. audaxviator down there. It’s the majority, and finding the other microbes would be like playing a game of Where’s Waldo, except imagine your book is now more than 2 km deep in the earth and the only chance you get to look at it is through a grainy photograph that’s been fed into a shredder and then put back together again. It might be a while before we get an answer.

So we found an answer to the question, but it’s not a very good one. Let’s follow the trail of research using Step 3 to find a better answer.

Followthetrail

Making sense of the mess: creating stories to understand

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I start my first consulting job this Monday, working with a healthcare consulting firm to help companies solve real-world problems. Before this, I was PhD student working in a research lab and my consulting experience was only pro-bono projects with a graduate consulting club. Nor was I terribly close to the healthcare field—my lab doesn’t do research on anything directly related to healthcare of pharmaceuticals. Given this background, you might be asking how I can possibly work in healthcare consulting. There’s so much I don’t know, how can I possibly succeed? Where do I possibly start learning?

When faced with a huge field containing a lot of information, I’ve found the best way to start learning is to build stories. The human brain is wired for stories because it naturally creates or attributes agency to things. It finds causes and effects. So we can use this innate understanding of stories to go into a field and build a narrative that helps us understand. Think of the story of Newton and the apple during discovery of gravity. Whether or not it’s true, we remember that an apple fell onto Newton’s head and he realized gravity exists. There’s a cause – the apple – and effect – Newton suddenly ‘getting’ gravity as a force that pulls things toward the Earth. In learning this story, we remember more than if someone had simply told us “Gravity pulls things toward the Earth.”

But in a new field, it’s not enough to simply hear the story. It’s the act of making that makes you remember. To truly understand something, build the story yourself. As an example, this isn’t my first field switch; before my PhD in synthetic biology, I got a B.S. in Environmental Science. But the those two fields are far apart, so I built stories that covered the major breakthroughs in synthetic biology. I looked at who had done what and when and who built on that research afterward. It helped me rapidly catch up and graduate on time with my peers. Science also backs me up on this one: writing, or more broadly just interacting with information beyond reading it silently helps you remember it (Sources: PopSci article, Hardcore paper source from recent literature).

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An example of a timeline made in Sutori (link below) to help understand companies in the healthcare industry.

So if you’re jumping into a new field or subject, don’t just passively read stories, make them. How? There’s always pencil and paper, where you can draw a timeline or write a paragraph-long story summarizing what you’ve learned. But if you want something searchable, try making your story digitally. I’m currently using Sutori, which lets you create timelines for free using any kind of mixed media (text, image, video). There are also several other timeline builders listed here, and you can even organize information beyond the timeline and make a flowchart or sketch on Google Docs, Microsoft Office, or wherever else you can find the tools to sketch and write. Get creative, because the more you create, the more you’ll remember.

So feeling lost in a new field? Start making a story out of it.