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Life as a management consultant at BCG

uczjvwa11 May 2016

Alex Bostrom graduated from Oxford with a PhD in History. He tells us how he started his career in Boston Consulting Group and what being a management consultant is like.

Tell us about your jobBCG

I work as a management consultant at the Boston Consulting Group. Consulting covers a wide range of activities, but essentially our job is to help companies to improve their performance, working with them to find solutions for existing problems and develop their strategy to move forward. We generally work with clients for two to three months at a time, so our projects are short and intense, but always interesting.

How did you move from a PhD to your current role?

I studied History for my undergraduate and Master’s degrees, and then for my doctorate. It’s fair to say that I did not originally see myself as a consultant. I loved my PhD, and thought seriously about being an academic, but I realised that while I was fascinated by my research, my thesis was only likely to be read by a couple of people, and one of those would be my mum! I applied to consulting as my research drew to a close, attracted by the opportunity to experience a wide variety of challenges in a very short timeframe, and the chance to work on real life practical issues. Once I got started, I never looked back!

What does an average working day look like?

 The great thing about consulting is that there is no average working day. It sounds like a cliché but it’s true. The pace of the work means that each day we are continually encountering new challenges and tackling new problems. One week I might be flying off to the client site to discuss the company’s recent performance, others I might be in the office brainstorming ideas or training. The exciting part is not knowing what new projects you might be working on next.

How does your PhD help you in your job?

Despite the apparent disconnect between French military history and modern business, my PhD comes in useful every day. Studying for the doctorate taught me key research skills: being able to assimilate data quickly, formulating and testing hypotheses, and communicating findings clearly and concisely are pivotal tools as a consultant.

What are the best things about your job?

The job has many things in its favour. Working on fascinating projects for multinational clients is exciting, but the best part of the job is the people I get to interact with. Everyone is highly motivated, intelligent, but also humble. There is a great culture where everyone is eager to offer help and advice whenever you encounter a problem. The willingness to go the extra mile to help out a colleague never ceases to amaze me.

What are the downsides?

The workload can be challenging, but everyone is aware of that when they join. Part of the job is being willing to turn tasks around at short notice to meet tight deadlines

What tips would you give researchers wanting to move into the same, or similar, role?

I would highly encourage researchers to consider consulting, even if they feel they do not yet have deep business knowledge. While it is useful to gain some preliminary understanding of business strategy, at the start, all that’s required is the ability to think logically. You will quickly learn all the rest. The best approach is to attend one of the many recruiting events held by consultancy firms, and speak with them to get a feel for the industry and whether it would be a right fit for you.

Turning social science into a business

uczjsdd1 June 2015

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADr Zuleyka Zevallos earned a PhD in Sociology from Swinburne University, Melbourne, where she remains an Adjunct Research Fellow. She currently runs her own business, Social Science Insights, a Research and Social Media Consultancy working with small to medium businesses, government, and not-for-profits who require social research, training and policy advice. She also provides research-driven social media content to help public education and health campaigns. Here Zuleyka shares her career journey, and offers tips to researchers thinking of moving out of academia.

How did you move from studying for a PhD to starting your own consultancy?

After completing my PhD at the end of 2004, I continued to work as a lecturer. I left in 2006 because there was no job security in academia. I found it difficult to find full-time academic work in my field, but once I started looking in business and policy sectors, the job choices were surprisingly abundant. I’ve reflected on the fact that, at first, it was very disheartening to give up on my dream job in academia, but once I realised the multiple career possibilities in other industries, the decision to leave was empowering.

A career beyond academia leads to diverse experiences, and the work will likely take you to places you may not have expected. Having had little luck for months trying to get an academic job, I decided to apply for unconventional roles that sounded interesting. I received a number of different offers, which showed me how valuable my PhD degree was to non-academic employers. I took a job in federal government as a Social Scientist. I moved interstate to take the position. Within five years, I had led two interdisciplinary team projects working on social modeling and intercultural communication, and I also conducted research on a range of topics, from political violence to media analysis to the socio-economic outcomes of migrants and refugees. The role was varied so that I worked with many different clients, and I also attended conferences and published articles, which kept me engaged with my academic peers.

In late 2011, I decided to move back to my home state permanently. I worked as a Senior Analyst on an environmental health and safety investigation. I led a team of 23 researchers examining 30 years worth of reports and company data, as well as analysing interviews with 300 emergency service workers. We evaluated the connections between training and environmental practices, the chemicals used during exercises, and the high rate of cancer and other illnesses amongst emergency service workers.

After the investigation ended, I decided to set up my business. I had plenty of leadership experience, and had worked autonomously in setting up various projects in my previous roles, plus I had worked with many different client groups. Setting up the business required a lot of research, and I also took a business management course. I’ve been working as a consultant for the past couple of years.

What does a normal working day look like for you?

There’s no normal working day for me, per se, but my days are long (I work late into the night) and I also work seven days per week. The only thing that’s constant is that I read a lot of research and media articles. When I’m working on social media, I spend the first half of the day liaising with clients or their partners and stakeholders if we’re collaborating on a community event, a product launch, or cross-promotions. I constantly monitor and analyse social media metrics (what works, what doesn’t, industry trends and so on). I write blog articles, which means conducting research and writing, or I otherwise write social media posts and respond to reader questions on Twitter, Facebook and so on. I tend to leave the second half of the day to work on design, like making posters and artwork for clients, as well as taking photographs and making videos for their Instagram and blogs. When I’m working on research articles and projects, my day is similar to my day as an academic: I spend most of the day reading and writing. In between, I am always working on future projects that I want to get off the ground, and I work towards applying for grants and otherwise seek funding for my own research.

What are the best things about working in your role?

I have a high degree of flexibility about how I structure my daily activities, but this depends on what work needs to be done. The best thing about the social media aspect of my role is the interaction with followers. I’ve worked with very different organisations and I never cease to be amazed by how generous people are in sharing their stories. As a sociologist, I’m invigorated by the opportunity to interact with different types of people and learn about their lives. I love answering their questions about science in particular. There’s a lot of misinformation on health issues, so it’s interesting to see how the public engages with lifestyle and health advice that they read in the news. I’ve also been very lucky to be able to work on research projects that directly speak to my passions, such as gender and diversity in the workplace.

What are the biggest challenges you face in your work?

The toughest aspect of my job is that consultancy is contract-based and therefore ultimately impermanent (ironical, given I left academia for its casual contracts!). Being a woman of colour, and being relatively younger than my clients, my professional knowledge is often questioned in a way that would not happen if I was a White man. Most of my clients have been lovely, but I’ve unfortunately also faced many other pressures such as having my work plagiarised and misappropriated.

It is difficult not having someone else to take over when you’re feeling ill or when you’re overwhelmed with work and other unforeseen issues. Working for yourself is a joy, but it’s also exhausting and it can be alienating. I’m constantly asked for professional advice by peers who think my work should be free, including friends, former colleagues and academics. Potential clients constantly ask for discounts or expect you to give away work “for exposure.” This is highly demoralising as it is a constant aspect of interaction; but unfortunately it is a common occurrence amongst consultants and freelancers, especially for women.

How is the role similar/different to your time in academia?

The role is similar in that everything that I do requires research. Whether I’m writing a blog post, or putting together a report or creating images, I use social science concepts and research to guide my decisions and my writing. It’s different in practice because I cannot use jargon language. I’m answering everyday problems for the public, or addressing specific business and policy concerns. You can’t end a report or project saying, “More research is needed.” I need to give concrete answers and I’m expected to directly demonstrate the immediate benefit for clients. I rely more on visuals to convey ideas than I did as an academic. Businesses in particular do not like to read long reports with lots of text; they want succinct responses to specific problems.

Where do you see yourself going from here?

I’ve learned not to expect a clear trajectory as my career evolves. As a student, I had seen myself as having this neat career path from student to early career researcher, to lecturer, to senior lecturer and so on. Moving outside this academic path, I have gone on to work with many different organisations doing work I would have never imagined. I’ve learned to adapt wherever opportunities emerge. I’d like to focus more on my own research in the near future and ideally, I’d like to be in a position to work on longer-term public education campaigns.

What top tips would you pass on to a PhD student/post-doc interested in this type of work?

There are lots of opportunities in social media at the moment. The market is over-run by SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) hunters who may have some technical skills, but lack research training and strong writing and communication skills. This means there’s a niche for science writers. Many local governments and councils in particular are looking to hire people with degrees to run online public health and community engagement campaigns. Research opportunities in social policy have been shrinking in Australia and other countries due to funding cuts, but there is a higher demand for research skills in industry. One of the best things I did as a PhD is to take advantage of various interdisciplinary courses. I did a two-year leadership program with other postgraduate students from different fields. This helped me tremendously in getting my first job outside of academia, as I showed that I had experience working with different scientists, and I could speak with authority about how to navigate issues in cross-disciplinary collaborations. Most employers beyond academia are looking for researchers who can work with people from different fields, and who understand how to problem-solve across disciplines.

While my specialty is in qualitative research, my degree also exposed me to quantitative research, and during my time as a student, I did short courses on running focus groups, working with analysis software (NVivo and SPSS) and bibliographic software (Endnote). University libraries run these courses free all the time; students should take advantage of these courses, and play around with as much software as possible, and it would be wise to take a coding course, even if it has nothing to do with your thesis. If you can weave these skills into your PhD research, all the better, as mixed methods are especially impressive to employers. If you’re able to do an internship, or address an applied research question, this will give you a competitive edge. Having a strong understating of the practical applications of your thesis will be a bonus at interviews.

Students should also use social media but approach it professionally. This means being focused about what you write and share. Start working on the job you want at least a year before you finish your degree, using social media. Tweet about your research, share your papers and slides if you can online, write a focused blog and think about it as your online portfolio. Make sure you have a well-filled in LinkedIn profile, and be discerning about whom you connect with and what you share. Many employers explicitly ask for your LinkedIn profile, or at least use it to screen applicants and head-hunt talent. I’m always amazed at how poorly students use LinkedIn; it’s a great resource for job searching.

My final piece of advice is to be open to change. Most students think of non-academic work as a failed career. The reality of the job market is that we have a surplus of PhD students and not enough academic jobs. The likelihood of needing to seek work beyond academia is a certainty for the overwhelming majority of graduates. Going into a PhD with this knowledge will save much heartache later on. This is why I set up Sociology at Work; as I met more applied researchers, I realised how poorly academia prepares researchers for an applied career. We are an international not-for-profit network offering articles and resources to support the career planning of students, and raise the professional esteem of practitioners.

Science lets us answer lots of different problems; the world beyond academia is filled with many adventures and possibilities that should be savoured, not feared. My career beyond academia has made me a stronger sociologist by allowing me to work with, and help, people from many different walks of life. Applied science in action improves policies and processes, changing lives before your eyes. Make the most of your career by expanding your horizons early on!

You can find Zuleyka’s professional writing on consultancy and social media on Social Science Insights, and her research blog is The Other Sociologist. Connect with her on Twitter @OtherSociology

Zuleyka is one of the three founders of STEM Women, a site adressign gender inequality in science. You can read more about the site here.

PhD Life Science Careers – Why should UCL PhD students apply to IMSCG?

UCL Careers20 February 2012

The last in our series of guest blogs by PhD holders who work at IMS Consulting Group. You will find more information about PhD life science careers and IMS Consulting Group in our in our Careers in Clinical Research, Biotechnology and Pharmaceuticals Forum for PhD/research students which will be held on 28th February 2012. Go to the Forum page on the Graduate School website for more details about this event.  We look forward to seeing you there!

Currently there are more PhDs in IMSCG than I can count. PhD students typically apply for consulting because they find that they can apply their problem-solving skills in new ways, work in team settings which can make a measurable impact, and be exposed to a variety of different projects in a short amount of time. In contrast to your PhD, at IMSCG we work on projects that are around 12 weeks long and often can be much shorter; as a result, the breadth of topics is extensive.

In addition to the formal introductory training, everyone in the organization, from peers to senior team members, is interested in your learning and progress. On projects, you will therefore receive on-the-job training and informal mentoring support, which greatly contribute to your professional growth. Furthermore, every new starter is assigned a coach who is part of the senior team – your coach offers mentoring support and advice, and tracks your progress within IMSCG in order to identify particular development needs.

One aspect of IMSCG that I have come to appreciate is that client management comes when you advance to consultant, which is significantly sooner than in other consulting firms. In addition, going to and presenting at client meetings often occurs at the analyst level, which offers the opportunity to witness firsthand how clients think. Given that as a PhD I had presented at few conferences and frequently at weekly scheduled lab meetings, I relished the opportunity to join and present at meetings, which I found to be a welcome challenge and a great opportunity for professional growth.

Overall the environment at IMSCG has many of the things I like about the university environment without the long, drawn out project work or failed experiments. At IMSCG, as in academia, you think of creative ways to solve a problem, you have a network of people who can support and you have the opportunity to work with really smart people.

Maria Kosmaoglou, IMS Consulting Group

PhD Life Science Careers – Why would IMSCG recruit PhDs and how can your PhD help you in a consultancy role

UCL Careers7 February 2012

Here is the 2nd of our series of guest blogs by PhD holders who work at IMS Consulting Group. You will find more information about PhD life science careers and IMS Consulting Group in our  Careers in Clinical Research, Biotechnology and Pharmaceuticals  Forum for PhD/research students which will be held on 28th February 2012. Go to the Forum page on the Graduate School website for more details about this event.

IMSCG’s business is management consulting to the life sciences sector. So it makes sense that the company has two main priorities when recruiting:  the competencies required to be a management consultant and a strong interest in, and perhaps some background knowledge of, the life sciences sector. PhDs, especially those from the natural sciences, are therefore an excellent group in which to find promising candidates with this combination of characteristics.

The tendency for natural sciences PhDs to be interested in the life sciences sector is not surprising (although the emotive and pervasive nature of healthcare in our lives also attracts many PhDs from other disciplines). But what about the management consulting competencies?

A major part of the core skills of a management consultant is bringing objectivity, structured thinking and analysis to a complex and unstructured question. Consultants are curious people who enjoy problem solving. PhDs similarly tend to be curious by nature, interested in solving problems and combining objectivity and analysis in one form or another to a specific issue.

My PhD has definitely been a helpful starting point for these core management consulting skills. It gave me experience looking at a large and complex overall question and coming up with a way of approaching that question in individual steps. It gave me experience thinking about how to organize and present complex data and how to communicate the outputs of my research. And during my PhD, I took ownership for the outcomes of my own work, giving me a good sense of accountability.

That isn’t to say that my academic-type problem solving and analytical skills were enough on their own for management consulting at IMSCG. The thinking in consulting is much more explicitly structured and analytical than in academia; I therefore had to sharpen up on these skills before the interviews. I also had to learn how to do it in a much faster-paced environment, more intensively within a team, and with much shorter time periods for producing and showing people outputs of the work.

As my PhD was in the life sciences it also helped with understanding the more technical side of the life sciences sector. But if you don’t faint at the sight of words like atorvastatin or bevacizumab, then you can also learn that on the job!

Joel Hooper, IMS Consulting