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.