Lessons from Management Consulting

Management Consulting

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, one of the fields I’ve been investigating is management consulting. I did a few informational interviews with management consultants several weeks ago (both in big firms and smaller boutique ones). I was initially drawn to consulting for a number of reasons. I like the teamwork and problem-solving aspects. I like the idea of a fast-paced work environment (but not necessarily the reality of it, as I’ve mentioned). I like the earning potential. I could be earning more after 5 years as a consultant than I would ever make as a professor, even a tenured, full professor. I was also drawn to the fact that many (but not all) firms tend to recognize the PhD–even when it’s in a Humanities field. By this I mean that PhDs don’t necessarily have to start in entry-level positions with recent BAs/BSs. A downside, for me, is the need for quantitative skills (I do not have them, and I do not really want to learn them). I think my inability to perform back-of-the-envelope-fourth-grade-math might be a dealbreaker. There is also the question of work/life balance. The consultants I talked with emphasized the long hours (60+ hour weeks) and travel time, but were quick to assert that they had a fine work/life balance. One person noted that the people he knew who had quit over these kinds of issues had problems in their next jobs as well; they just weren’t good at establishing boundaries. I think this is probably true. Any task can expand to fill the time you have, and if you’re not good at fiercely defending your free time it’s easy to wind up without any.

This is a huge problem in academia, in my experience. Not only are you working all the time, but your schedule can be so flexible that you feel like you should be working all the time. Because you can. Because one more article, one more conference paper, one more essay graded, might be the difference between getting a tenure-track job and spending a year eeking it out with adjunct work. This is completely false, of course. Just one more of X won’t really matter at all, but this has nevertheless become an insidious way of thinking within academia. Because if we believe this to be true, then when people don’t find tenure-track jobs, it’s not because the labor market has shifted to a part-time, contingent model or because qualified graduates vastly outnumber job openings. It’s because someone went to the park one afternoon instead of working on an article, demonstrating that he or she obviously didn’t have the requisite discipline required for the job. Such nonsense.

At any rate, I’m not sure I want a 60-hr. work week—in any field. There’s an sense in the U.S. that working all the time is somehow more honorable and deserving of reward than maintaining and protecting time for pleasure and self-reflection. Time spent with friends and loved ones and pets and even time spent meeting strangers is somehow seen as less productive, less worthy than time spent working for a paycheck. People call themselves “workaholics” as if it’s a good thing instead of crazy talk. This state of affairs has become even more striking to me now that I’ve been living in Europe for 8 months. Today is Sunday. Shops are closed. People are lingering at cafes, chasing their kids around playgrounds, tossing balls to eager dogs. Later this afternoon, I’m meeting friends for a picnic in the park. Because that’s what people do here on the weekends. This is the land of work hard, play hard—and it’s pretty great. Can I be sure that there aren’t legions of people holed up working in their apartments across the city today? Of course not, but I doubt it. After all, European nations dominate the list of countries with the best work-life balance according to a recent OECD report, while the U.S. finishes dead last of the countries ranked.

So, Lesson #1: I should seriously consider what I want my life to look like when choosing my next career.

While researching how people go about making the move from PhD-to-Consultant, I kept reading about how one major stumbling block for PhDs is the way consulting requires you to draw conclusions from incomplete or limited data and make recommendations for actions based on those conclusions. While I kept seeing this mentioned as a problem, I kept thinking that it was a problem for those other PhDs. You know, scientists and engineers. People who conduct exhaustive experiments and test for all possible variables. English isn’t like that. We work with incomplete data all the time—gaps in a historical record, lost knowledges, missed allusions or references. I told myself that I would have no problem with this and got all self-congratulatory about my obvious flexibility and mad consulting-applicable skillz. Until I realized I was wrong. I’ve been working on some materials for a job. I need to put together a short project model. It’s a brief overview. Like, 2-pages long. I got the idea for the project almost instantly, so what did I do? Did I just type it up and be done with it? Of course not! My instinct was to research and read everything published on similar projects in the last 10 years. I didn’t want to be blindsided by overlooking something crucial or make an error that would expose how obviously under-informed I was. I was several hours deep into this kind of crazy before I stopped and reminded myself that a 2-page report is not my dissertation. It’s not even like this is a new area for me—I have been following current events and the published literature on this topic for years¬†and I still felt the need to perform exhaustive research on the subject and felt anxious about making a recommendation based on incomplete research. So, yeah, I get it now. Hopefully I can learn to recognize these compulsions as they occur in the future and take things down a notch.

Lesson #2: People do not expect you to produce a dissertation every time they ask you to complete a task. It is okay to not know things.

I admit that I am still drawn to consulting, even with the downsides. Especially niche consulting firms, like those that work with non-profits or higher education. I think academic/student affairs and university administration is a much better fit for me, so that’s what I’m actively pursuing at the moment, but if I’m still job hunting by the time the fall recruitment season rolls around I’ll be pretty tempted to give it a go.

Finally, I would be remiss not to give a big thanks to the two friends who sent job leads my way this week. Thanks, guys! You know who you are.

Lesson #3: Tell people what specific fields you’re looking for work in, so they can help you.

Enjoy your Sunday, folks (and stop working!).

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2 Comments on “Lessons from Management Consulting”

  1. Emily George says:

    Love your comments on work/life balance! I do think that American society in general, and academia as a subculture thereof manages to warp us quite substantially on that. It’s been a mental struggle for me to be able to admit to myself that a 40-hour work week is a priority–and that I’d be willing to sacrifice prestige to get it. I’ve long had this mental picture of myself as this super-ambitious person who will go anywhere and do anything for the job. And even though I’m increasingly convinced that I’d rather be *happy* than ambitious, and that that might even involve moving back to my hometown (which I resist on principle, since I always swore I wouldn’t be “one of those people” who lived their whole lives there) to be close to family. But there’s this mental block, related, I think, to this nonsense that being a “workaholic” is a good thing. Not the easiest thing to overcome, though, I’m finding. (Maybe I need to move to Europe!)

    • Come to Europe! It’s lovely here in the spring! More seriously, I too have a mental image of myself as super-ambitious. But if I *really* were the high-powered go-getter type I think I am I probably would have an MBA and a well-paying job by now, so I should probably adjust my self-image a bit. I’m a little sad that working a 40-hr./full-time job doing interesting and important things no longer seems to count as an ambitious career, because that’s about as ambitious as I’m feeling at the moment! New goal: working smarter instead of harder, maybe?


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