UPDATED: November 6, 2014, at 9:00 p.m.
“It’s a magic way to spend two years.”
Bruce B. Simpson, who is originally from Scotland, is wearing a grey, pinstriped suit. He’s representing McKinsey & Company, a management consulting firm where he’s worked since 1986. He has just given a presentation to a group of Harvard Business School students in the Charles Hotel’s ballroom, sharing photos of his family’s adventures paddling in kayaks and hiking on tundras. Throughout, he compared the whales and glaciers they have encountered to the problems consultants must solve.
If he had his way, Simpson says, he would encourage prospective consultants to consider staying longer than two years, the duration of most firms’ initial contracts; but two years is a good place to start. “I think what’s magic about those two years,” he elaborates, “is the variety of work you get to do….[and] the range of problems you get to touch.”
Off to the side is a navy blue wizard’s hat with white stars, which Simpson, a director at McKinsey’s Toronto office, wore during his talk. The hat is not a normal part of his wardrobe, but, since it’s the night before Halloween, he’s taken his cue from the dozens of audience members en route to an HBS bash, dressed in full or partial costumes.
Still, there’s a funny symbolism in his invocation of the supernatural and his choice of accessory: Consulting does seem to have an uncanny ability—a magic power, some might say—to attract a sizeable portion of Harvard students, year in and year out. It’s not just HBS alums who flock to the profession, but undergraduates, too. Whether or not the job itself is “magic,” as Simpson believes it is, few seniors know enough to surmise.
According to data collected in Harvard’s annual senior surveys and distributed by the Office of Career Services, over the course of the past four years, between 8 and 11 percent of graduating seniors became consultants right after college. The Crimson’s own senior survey data shows that of those seniors who enter the workforce directly after graduating, the percentage of consultants is far higher; for the Class of 2014, it was 14.42 percent.
And yet, less than one percent of those entering the workforce said they expected to be in consulting in 10 years. Of course, this projection could be only speculation. Few, if any, seniors are certain of the paths their careers will follow.
The consulting industry is uniquely positioned to profit from this uncertainty, offering a limited-commitment alternative in the form of two-year contracts to good thinkers eager to learn how to solve problems in business and management. The major consulting firms have a highly visible presence in on-campus recruiting and promise to expose their youngest employees to high-powered leaders across industries and around the world.
For Harvard seniors seeking intellectual stimulation and professional prestige after college, an application to these firms can make good sense. The firms can, and almost always do, serve as stepping stones, training their young hires in technical skills and business know-how that open doors to a variety of jobs in other fields. But though Harvard alumni invariably describe their tenure at these firms as educational and enriching, many find that they are no closer to certainty about their futures after two years of consulting than they were when they began.
As far as its dealings with undergraduates go, the Office of Career Services might better be described as the Office of Next Steps. The prevailing philosophy among the group’s leaders, these days, is that undergraduates will not—and should not—see the first ten years after they graduate as part of a single career trajectory, but as a series of next steps.
At the Office of Career Services on Dunster St., I start to ask OCS Director Robin E. Mount and Deborah A. Carroll, who oversees the On-Campus Interview program, if it’s fair to say that consulting is a career choice that lends itself well to the project of path-finding.
Before I can finish, Carroll interjects. “I’d be careful with the ‘career’ word,” she warns me.
Mount quickly agrees. Later in the conversation, she explains, “Our students are panicked about choosing something for ten years. ...They’re commitment-phobic.”
About 83 percent of Harvard graduates, Carroll and Mount point out, go back to graduate or professional school at some point after college. “What [that number] really means,” Mount says, “is that people are testing hypotheses. They are doing what we’re calling ‘next step experiences.’” OCS’s promotion of this outlook, she says, has helped to take some of the pressure off undergraduates as they look ahead. “Ever since we’ve buried the ‘career’ word and started talking about ‘next steps,’ you could just see this huge weight get taken off of a lot of students.”
Consulting firms specialize in marketing next steps. In the world of management consulting, and, by extension, in the landscape of on-campus recruiting, three major firms loom large. “The Big Three,” as insiders refer to them, widely considered to be the most prestigious in the industry, are McKinsey & Company, The Boston Consulting Group, and Bain & Company. All three are privately held. Their primary work consists of studying problems and suggesting solutions to the companies and organizations they count among their clients. These “cases” or “engagements” can last anywhere from several weeks to several months, and are typically executed by a pyramidal team of consultants led by one or a few senior employees. At the bottom of the pyramid, overseen by mid-level “engagement managers,” are the newest consultants, often freshly out of college, who help generate analyses and ideas for the team to present to the client. They work long hours on research and build Microsoft Excel models and PowerPoint presentations to buttress the team’s proposals. In between cases or case phases, young consultants are reassigned, joining new teams on new engagements, and so on and so forth. Even within the two years they often sign on for, then, their professional commitments are short-term. As for what comes after these two years, all three of the Big Three firms are explicit in stating that they do not expect their new employees to make a life-long commitment.
A McKinsey recruiting pamphlet, for example, assures potential applicants, “As profoundly stimulating as it is here, people do leave. We’re okay with that.” The recruitment literature of the other two major firms is similar—and comes across as similarly welcoming to those who may fear commitment. BCG’s website touts the opportunity to “[develop] new skills and experience to help you at every stage of your career—at BCG and beyond,” while Bain’s website explains that the firm’s entry level position is “a great way to set yourself up for future success—at Bain and beyond.” Taking a job at one of these firms, they imply, is just as much about the firm as it is about the “beyond.” As it is advertised, the message seems to be, “Come here to learn and grow, and if you want to leave after two years, you’ll hardly have to explain yourself.”
Many Harvard seniors become consultants precisely because of this appeal.
Michelle Wu ’07, who began work at BCG after graduating from Harvard, says she was attracted to consulting “because of the opportunities to learn and the fast-paced environment and the intellectual challenge of it.” Equally compelling, she adds, was the timeline. “The other motivation for me was that it was a two-year commitment and therefore relatively short term, [so it would] let me think about what to do afterwards.”
Consulting jobs present themselves as low in risk and high in reward. “The way that someone explained it to me that I thought was very accurate and applicable to my view of consulting was that as Harvard...students, we inherently are curious creatures and we want to open as many doors as possible for ourselves,” says Bonnie Cao ’12, “and consulting is essentially the extension of that.” Cao, who worked at McKinsey, adds, “If you’re not positive what you want to do after college, consulting is always the safer route….It never closes any doors, it only opens more.”
Connie Lee ’12 says she came to Harvard with a vague idea of becoming a lawyer. “I was so indecisive in college and not sure about where I wanted to go,” Lee says. She interned at BCG the summer after her junior year and decided to return to the firm after college. The level of responsibility and exposure to various industries she had there, she reasoned, would make BCG “a great launching pad” while helping her to better identify her own interests.
Others see consulting as providing the logistical means to fulfill concrete personal goals in the short-term. Andrew S. Alcorta ’11 wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted to do after graduating, but he knew he wanted to have a job that would enable him to travel while strengthening his professional credentials. “I did want to build up some skill set and some resume credibility before rolling the dice a little more,” he says. Taking time to travel after graduation, Alcorta started working at BCG in the winter of 2012. Still with BCG, he spent the past year in Istanbul.
Conversely, for some international students, taking a job at a prominent American consulting firm is a straightforward way to obtain a visa and remain in the U.S. past graduation.
The ubiquity of consulting firms in Harvard’s on-campus recruiting program can make them unexpectedly attractive even to those who are more confident about the direction of their careers. Osman Shawkat ’11 concentrated in physics at Harvard and considered going into academia. But put off by what he perceived as the slow pace of academia, he was reluctant to pursue that option. “When somebody told me you can go do a new project every couple weeks [as a consultant]...I thought, ‘That sounds amazing.’” Shawkat says. “With everybody and their brother doing either consulting or finance, the exposure is there. It seemed like a good idea, and I went for it.”
In her Baccalaureate address to the Class of 2008, University President Drew G. Faust reflected on the forces at work at Harvard College that lead so many of its graduates to seek employment in the finance and consulting sectors.
“I think you are worried,” she told the class, “because you want your lives not just to be conventionally successful, but to be meaningful, and you are not sure how those two goals fit together.” She placed some of the blame for this worry on the tone set by Harvard’s faculty and administration. “We have told you from the moment you arrived here,” Faust said, “that you will be the leaders responsible for the future, that you are the best and the brightest on whom we will all depend, that you will change the world. We have burdened you with no small expectations.”
There are neat echoes of these great expectations in consulting firms’ job descriptions. The firms guarantee that the high achievers they seek to hire will have the chance to make a real difference through their work. The McKinsey’s brochure’s selling points, for instance, include opportunities to “Change the world” and “Improve lives.”
Further, consulting firms’ preference for excellence is attractive in that it is not limited to particular areas of expertise but is open to a range of accomplishment. If figuring out how to change the world can seem daunting to liberal arts graduates who leave college with little technical training, the firms make it clear that they are prepared to train them. According to its promotional literature, McKinsey invests more than $100 million annually in “learning and training programs.”
“When considering applicants, we generally look for examples of excellence—strong academic performance, interesting work experience, and meaningful leadership positions,” William B. Dechard ’01, who recruits for McKinsey at Harvard, wrote in an email. “Harvard students fare very well because they have tremendous drive, a desire to apply their critical thinking skills in a business setting, and an eagerness to seek out new opportunities and challenges.”
James C. Winter ’11, who works at the mid-size strategy consulting firm OC&C, called me from a train in rural England; he’s currently working at the firm’s London office and was returning from a weekend trip. When the connection failed, Winter followed up with an email. “The liberal arts education can feel like it limits your options,” he wrote, “but consulting does give you license to concentrate in what you want but still enter the business world seamlessly after graduation.”
A history concentrator with a secondary in ethnic studies, Gary D.J. Gerbrandt ’14, who now works at Bain in Canada, went through on-campus recruiting last fall along with many of his friends from various fields of study. He says he thinks consulting firms “look for people who have a diversity of interests and a diversity of backgrounds.”
This willingness to hire students of all academic interests is made possible by consulting firms’ extensive training and mentorship programs. “You see a lot of our students, because of the liberal arts background, feeling that if you want to work in business, you need some business training,” Mount says. Consulting, an industry that has maintained large budgets for training as other sectors have cut back, is a tempting track for those who want the chance to change the world.
“It’s like finishing school,” says Mount. “It’s advancing your learning.”
Joseph M. Kerns ’08, a social studies concentrator, chose to work at McKinsey after realizing that his main goal in a first job was developing leadership and business skills. Kerns says that inexperience is almost expected of entry-level consultants. In addition to formal training, pre-MBA-level consultants learn a great deal from hands-on experience. Most describe a steep learning curve. From business etiquette to methods of numerical analysis and presentation formatting, Harvard College typically teaches few of the skills that are central to the daily lives of consultants.
“You get better over time,” Kerns asserts. “The cool thing is that McKinsey...has a model of hiring smart, talented people who don’t necessarily know anything when they start and everyone knows that’s how it goes.”
Beyond the excitement of learning new skills and the promise of solving problems on a global scale, some find the reality of arduous schedules overwhelming, and the lackluster client lists disappointing.
Most new consultants are aware of the long and unpredictable hours that the work entails, but say it can be difficult to fully grasp what this means until they’ve experienced their first string of fourteen-hour days. “It’s such an obvious thing,” says Rebecca A. Zofnass ’09, who worked at Bain for three years after graduating from Harvard, “but you just don’t really think about it.”
James T. Kloppenberg, a member of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Standing Committee on Public Service and a history professor, says he thinks it’s strange that consulting has come to be perceived as a glamorous job. “They’re extremely challenging jobs,” he counters.
Kloppenberg’s son took a job at McKinsey when he graduated from Amherst College, and while he “found the work interesting,” Kloppenberg reports, he described the conditions as “abominable.”
“There is that underside to it that that these are extremely talented people who are being exploited for other people’s benefit,” Kloppenberg notes.
Kloppenberg recognizes that some of the excitement comes from the high level of demand. “Even though you’re the lower person on the totem pole,” he says, “you’re dealing with people who are very well qualified, and very hard-driving, and very talented, and so there’s a kind of buzz that goes along with that.”
Because cases are assigned to consultants by more senior employees, recent hires can’t predict exactly what they’ll be working on as they begin projects.
When Ben L. Brinkopf ’11 started at BCG’s Dallas office after college, his first assignment was to a team of consultants working with “a very small carpet-cleaning company that literally manufactured machines that you would rent at the grocery store.” He was most interested in learning about the airline industry and had expected to travel; surely, he remembers thinking, he had been misinformed. A carpet-cleaner, he jokes, “is the most un-sexy product you will find. And I thought at that moment that…[going into consulting] was a complete mistake.” The project lasted for several months.
The size of the carpet-cleaning company, however, proved beneficial, enabling Brinkopf to take on a greater degree of responsibility than he says is typical for a first case. “Often you work your way up in consulting so that after you’ve mastered the fundamentals, then you take on more parts of the project and start interfacing with clients even more,” Brinkopf says. “But in my very first project, since it was such a small company, it was very easy for us to interact with senior members of the leadership team.”
Ultimately, Brinkopf says, the case helped him realize that his future clients’ industries or products would be far less important to his experience as a consultant than the team he was working with. He cites a larger tenet of management consulting: “At BCG we like to say, even though there may be a hierarchy of positions, there’s no hierarchy of quality of ideas.”
More often than not, though, new consultants have a far less influential position within their teams than they expect they will. Though, in retrospect, Brinkopf sees his first case as unusually hands-on, at the time he was somewhat disappointed with the role he was expected to play. “I came out [of Harvard] with the idea that in my first month I’d be giving the pitch deck to the CEO telling him or her what the company needed to change and how they could do it,” Brinkopf recalls. “Quite honestly, I was mistaken.”
Proximity to power does not always amount to influence. Alex J. Lee ’06 has worked at Novantas, a small consulting firm in New York City, since he graduated from Harvard eight years ago. “Let’s be honest,” he says. “If you’re a 24-year-old kid with 55-year-old CEOs, they’re not going to be sitting there listening to you,” Lee says. “It’s a sexy idea,” he concedes, though he’s quick to add it rarely happens that way.
There are, to be sure, tangible benefits to working at a “brand name” firm. Bigger firms encourage their employees to attend business school and even pay for them to do so if they agree to come back to the firm for several years of work afterward. They also help facilitate externships everywhere from the United Nations to tech companies. And even beyond the material support mechanisms, names like McKinsey, Bain, and BCG never hurt on an application.
While interviewees uniformly praised prestigious consulting firms’ treatment of their employees, most also recognized that the field of consulting itself is simply not for everyone. It rarely works, they say, for those who have already identified a job they would rather be doing elsewhere.
About a year and a half into her stint at BCG in Boston, Michelle Wu had to take a leave of absence from the job in order to return home to Chicago and take care of her mother, who was ill. “The company had very generously offered to let me think about changing offices,” she says, but ultimately she realized that the time commitment of working as a full time consultant, even if she were to be based in Chicago, would be too great a burden.
Wu says she hadn’t considered the constant travel a downside when she started as a consultant. Instead, she saw it as a perk. But after moving home to become her sister’s legal guardian, she recognized that she “wasn’t going to be able to travel on a moment’s notice,” she explains. “The lifestyle wasn’t going to be able to work for me.”
Forced to take time off from consulting, Wu found that she did not want to go back. “It was very interesting to go from topic to topic and become really skilled and learn a lot about what you were consulting the company on,” Wu says, “but then oftentimes the case would end right after you had developed the solution, and you wouldn’t get to see what happened.”
She wanted to see the results. “I really realized that I enjoyed having a direct impact in making people’s lives better, and with consulting you’re not only in the business world, for the most part...but you’re one level removed from the work that is going on,” Wu says.
Using the skills she had gained at BCG, Wu opened a tea house in Chicago and began to consider attending law school. She was accepted at HLS, and looked to her legal studies as a means of further involvement with neighborhood small business and city government. Today, after graduating from HLS in 2012, she serves as a Boston City Councilor At-Large.
Before her two-year contract at McKinsey’s Stamford, Conn. office was up, Bonnie Cao spoke to a mentor at the firm about her interest in the entertainment sector. She wanted to know if there might be further opportunities to engage in entertainment consulting at McKinsey. “He was very blunt with me,” she recalls, “and I appreciated it.” Cao’s mentor told her that the best way to spend the majority of her time in the entertainment industry was to look for a job in the entertainment industry. He encouraged her to get started right away.
Though it’s rare to leave before one’s contract has expired, as Cao did, she credits McKinsey’s training sessions on personal growth and the mentorship she received there with helping her find a job she loves.
Within weeks of conversing with her mentor, Cao moved across the country to begin working for Sony Pictures in Los Angeles. She considers her experience to be far from the norm. “When I left,” she explains, “I actually got a ton of emails from my McKinsey colleagues, being like, ‘Let’s chat, I want to figure out how you got to this point.’” The whole experience has underscored a point for Cao: “The reason that we get into consulting is that we’re not sure.”
Osman Shawkat, the physics concentrator who chose consulting over academia, is glad he did, though he ultimately realized that his interests lay elsewhere. “Consulting is fun, it teaches you a lot of skills, but you’re not really making anything,” he says. “Your product is a [slide] deck,” he continues, before ceding, “I think the job we did was important, I think it was useful.” Given his abiding interest in engineering, Shawkat has concluded that, for him, slideshows are not enough to hold his interest: “I just need to make something a little more tangible.”
Shawkat says he thinks the culture of great expectations at Harvard can lead the College’s young alumni to place too much emphasis on leadership, causing them to ignore other enriching professional opportunities. “We always just look to be leaders, and I think there’s a risk of being just professional managers,” he says. “We do it at the expense of actually getting into a field, understanding it and being able to do it top to bottom.”
When the fast clip and inconsistent schedule become exhausting—or consultants decide they want to learn more, elsewhere—the idea that consulting “opens doors” does seem to bear out. Joe Kerns founded a startup with a colleague from McKinsey, and Connie Lee works at a startup “founded by a former BCG-er.” Ben Brinkopf is at Harvard Business School. Becky Zofnass graduated from HBS and is now an HBS leadership fellow at Teach for America. Other former consultants end up in more strictly financial positions in private equity and investment banking.
“I used to think [consulting] was not the right step to take,” Kloppenberg says. “But looking at the people I know who’ve done it, I’m inclined to say, if you’re doing it for the right reason, it can be a very good experience.”
It’s a good experience, Kloppenberg says, if “you want to learn about the world outside the university, and because you realize that this is a way to explore a lot of different worlds of work in a two-year period. I think accumulating a range of experience after college is a very useful thing to do. Traveling is a nice way to do that. Teaching English in another country is a nice way to do that. But working for a consulting firm...is another way to do that. ...Those opportunities can open doors, and open doors culturally, socially, in a lot of ways other than simply opening the door to the next promotion.”
Still, consulting is only one of many possible post-graduate experiences that involve novelty, networking, skill-building, and valuable mentorship.
Gene A. Corbin, assistant dean of student life for public service, spends a great deal of time promoting entry into what he calls the “public interest sector.” Corbin is by no means “anti-consulting,” he says, but he’s keen to point out that consulting may not be as uniquely beneficial as undergraduates perceive it to be.
“The notion that if you go into the public interest sector [you] won’t get mentorship and won’t get skill development, and then if you go into consulting, you’ll get all this mentorship, all this skill development that will somehow be transferrable to what you really want to do,” Corbin says, “strikes me as curious.”
The question of “what you really want to do,” Corbin notes, can remain unanswered. “Something that students don’t realize,” he says, “is that you live with that question the rest of your life.”
Often, when it comes to choosing next steps, there is no magic wand.
Since leaving consulting, his first job out of college, Osman Shawkat has done what OCS would call “testing hypotheses,” working at a bike shop and in research and development for varying lengths of time. When I ask him if he has a better sense, now, of his ideal career path, Shawkat pauses, reflects, and then answers: “I think so.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: November 6, 2014
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the class year of Bonnie Cao. In fact, she is a member of the Class of 2012.