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Transitioning from PhD to consulting

By uczjsdd, on 24 February 2015

Bernardo FotoBernardo Alvares is a final year PhD student in Cancer Immunology at UCL who is passionate about entrepreneurship and social-impact projects. Prior to joining UCL, he completed a BSc in Biomedical Science at Cardiff University and worked at GlaxoSmithKline Pharmaceuticals. Bernardo has recently secured a full-time position with the management consultancy firm McKinsey and Company, in the Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) office. In this article, he shares some tips for PhD students thinking about transitioning from academia into business.

How did you make the decision to leave academia?  

Whilst working at GlaxoSmithKline Pharmaceuticals, I enjoyed working as part of a vibrant team where scientists put their knowledge and skills together to deliver results. I also found it extremely rewarding to understand the relevance of my project in the context of the company’s drug-development strategy. I felt that my future career needed to have elements of teamwork, fast-pace and a strong customer focus.

After my participation in extracurricular activities whilst at UCL, in addition to personal experiences such as travelling and team sports, I discovered my leadership abilities and realised that my excellent interpersonal skills were not being fully utilised in academic research. Moreover, I attended a range of business and entrepreneurship courses at UCL and enjoyed reading about business, psychology and management, and realised that my interests are not limited to science, which made me really curious about exploring other career options.

Why management consultancy?

I first learned about Management Consulting at the UCL Management Consultancy fair, and the diversity and fast-paced nature of the career really attracted me. I followed up this initial interest by attending additional company presentations (at UCL and off-campus) and speaking with current consultants. I realised that a career in Management Consultancy would allow me to build on the skills developed during my PhD, such as problem-solving and delivering effective presentations, combined with the opportunity to developing leadership and project management skills.

I also strongly believe that understanding how organisations are structured, the challenges they face and how to improve their performance will equip me with the skills and contacts to build my own venture in the future. Strategic consulting offered an excellent match as it addresses the important questions that can change the direction of the world’s biggest organisations.

How do you think the skills you learned during your PhD will help you in the role?

In my opinion, running a PhD project is analogous to managing a small company, where you need to spot a “gap in the market” (something unique in your research area), plan a strategy to tackle the issue, mobilise resources, meet deadlines, manage expectations and communicate clearly with your stakeholders (such as the PhD supervisor). I feel that overcoming the uncertainties and complexities of a PhD helped me build the strength and endurance to tackle any challenge in my life. I came out of my PhD as a more entrepreneurial and confident individual, ready to make something new happen and embark in new challenges!

A series of skills developed during my PhD are extremely relevant to consulting. For instance, breaking down complex problems into manageable solutions, and then putting the parts together and reaching conclusions in the context of the overall problem. In addition, communicating research findings in a clear and effective manner to audiences who are not necessarily familiar with details of your work (such as the CEO of a major corporation) is part of a daily life of a consultant.

Are the skills acquired during your PhD enough to break into business?

The simple answer is: NO. I have met several PhD students who decided to move into business towards the end of their PhDs without having complemented their CVs in order to get there. Although some organisations do hire PhD students primarily based on the analytical/research component of their PhD (eg. maths/physics students who can develop ultra-robust algorithms for trade modelling in finance), most companies are looking for a broader skill-set in addition to the problem solving, self-motivation and attention to detail PhD students usually excel at. Relevant skills include leadership, commercial awareness and teamwork – which can all be developed through both your research and extracurricular activities.

I decided early on during my PhD to build my CV to make the transition into business. My first “target” was leadership skills. I joined a very entrepreneurial society called Enactus, which basically uses business skills to develop projects that bring benefit to society. I set up the UCL plus project and led a team of 9 students helping young people write CVs, prepare for interviews and develop transferable skills, in partnership with UCL Careers Services. We run over 50 hours of workshops in five schools and community organisations in deprived areas of Camden (North London). This project also served as a good example of Entrepreneurship since we did something no one at UCL had done before and received really good feedback from teachers and the young people.

I developed invaluable skills in business and management after attending a range of courses run by UCL Advances, such as Business Marketing, Enterprise Bootcamp and the Value Creation Workshop. I also attended a London Business School MBA elective course titled strategic innovation, where I learned about the challenges that businesses face and how decisions are made, in often ambiguous and uncertain scenarios. I would really recommend these courses. UCL is such a fantastic and entrepreneurial university and I feel very privileged to have had access to all these resources.

How did you make sure your applications and interview performance were as good as possible?

Put simply, the interviews for the most prestigious consulting companies are tough. The case-type interviews require a great deal of preparation. Although there are examples of students succeeding with only one-two weeks of preparation, I strongly believe those are exceptions. At the beginning I felt helpless at solving cases. However, with effort and preparation you can get there! I prepared for about 2 months (15 hours/week), initially by reading case books and then solving a total of about 30 to 40 one-to-one cases in the website Preplounge, which I would really recommend. I practiced with people from all over the world, including MBA students from the world’s top business schools.

In the case interview (which probably requires a separate blog article), the candidate is required to tackle a business problem in a structured and logical manner. You need breadth/creativity and depth. For instance, list a range of factors relevant to the given problem, but also justify why and prioritise (ie. which factors are the most important and why). When given graphs and tables, you need to identify the key drivers, perform some basic maths, relate your findings to the overall problem and suggest a course of action. The ability to summarise and communicate your findings at the end is also very important.

Regarding the competency part of the consulting interview, I was asked about examples of leadership and managing conflict in a team. Again, having a high-impact and interesting story (usually in the context of managing and working with people) will put you in a good spot. It is also important to structure the answer well, and you can book an appointment at UCL Careers to practice.

Any final thoughts?

My take-home message is: be curious, get out of the lab and try the amazing resources UCL has to offer, even if you are not sure if you want to leave academia. You never know what you may discover about yourself and the opportunities out there. I also strongly recommend the employer events run by UCL Careers service and the one-to-one appointments with the Careers Consultants, some of whom are ex-academics themselves and have experience supporting PhD students who are exploring alternative career options. Wish you the best of luck in finding the path that will help you shine!

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