Careers in Science Issue 16

Careers in Science: Consulting

🕒 7 min

Co-author: Ivana Osredek

Hi everyone! We are continuing with our new topic, where we look at various career paths one can take after studying science. Today we are bringing you consulting, a very interesting career focused on problem solving and strategizing. To get a better sense of what consulting is and what it looks like from the inside, we spoke with our EVO alumni and members Matilda Maleš and Matija Žeško.

Matija Žeško

Matija works as a consultant at McKinsey & Company, where he focuses on strategy development. Before becoming a consultant, Matija was a physics student at the Faculty of Science in Zagreb. He went on to complete a PhD at ETH Zürich, where he studied atomic physics, specifically looking at astro-chemical reactions in a laboratory-created environment. While working on his PhD thesis, he also started doing other things, like Model UN (a debate club where people represent countries and discuss various relevant events) and our very own Summer School of Science. During his Model UN days, he found out about consulting, what it is and what consultants do, and then went on and co-founded a consulting club at ETH. His biggest motivation to go into consulting was a wish to change the unbalanced way finances and infrastructure are distributed in science, especially in some countries.

Matilda Maleš

Matilda works at ZS Associates, a consulting company with a significant focus on the life science and biotech industry. Before her consulting career, Matilda worked in academia.  She studied molecular biology at the University of Zagreb and University of Heidelberg in Germany. After the undergrad, she obtained a Ph.D. in the field of genomics from the University of Heidelberg and European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL). During her Ph.D., she studied the role of non-coding RNAs in embryonic development. However, thanks to her engagements outside of the lab, she also got to learn more about the world of biotech in parallel to her Ph.D. Application of science innovation in the industry sparked her interest to explore possible careers outside of the lab, and as she spoke with alumni from her institute she learned about consulting. She really liked the idea of a job with fast paced and diverse projects that would enable her to learn new things and get a wide exposure to life science-based businesses.

When asked to explain what consulting is, their answers were practically identical – it is a process of helping companies clearly outline complex problems they are facing, and then develop approaches and strategies to solve these problems. In addition, consultants also need to be skilled to guide their clients throughout this problem solving process. The problem stating and solving approach in consulting is not that different from science. However, unlike in science, in consulting you don’t need to have ALL the answers, but just enough to inform a good decision.

How many answers is enough?

After landing the job, their transition from academia to consulting was rather smooth – a lot of the skills obtained during the Ph.D. were applicable in consulting. Communication and presentation skills, which are very important in science, are critical skills in the world of consulting. Being able to clearly communicate solutions to the clients is what differentiates a good consultant from a great one. Also, a Ph.D. teaches you how to learn – in science you usually need to learn new or complex things really fast. In consulting, this is also very important since your projects are fast paced and short. In a typical year, you bounce around diverse topics, which require you to get up to speed on a particular field pretty quickly.

Matija and Matilda picked out a couple of examples from the projects he worked on so you could get a better understanding of consulting:

  • Supported the R&D function of a mid-size pharmaceutical company in the acceleration of clinical development, including development and implementation of a plan and initiatives to speed up site activation and patient enrolment and improve site engagement
  • Worked with R&D and IT functions of a multinational pharma company to develop a technology blueprint and a roadmap to enable decentralized clinical trials for their development programs
  • Conducted a strategy development and execution review of a digital exchange for tokenized securities and cryptocurrencies for the Board of Directors of a large European stock exchange
  • Worked with a cell & gene biotech to improve the experience of physicians and patients using their cell & gene therapy product – mapped the product journey and associated challenges from manufacturing to administration, and developed solutions to improve the physician and patient experience

Consultants work in teams – either on one project at a time, or can be spread across multiple projects simultaneously. This depends on the policy and ways of working of a particular consulting firm. Projects usually last 6 to 8 weeks, and can be specialized in one industry type or span multiple industries. For example, Matilda focuses exclusively on life science and biotech. This is different in Matija’s case – his first engagement was in consumer goods, his second in telecommunication, his third in pharma industry, and his fourth in finance.

Consulting and travelling.

Consulting work can also be divided into on-site and off-site work. When you are working off-site, you are working from the office at your firm (or from home due to the ongoing pandemic). Working on-site means that you are physically located where your client is, and you are working with them there. Ratio of off-site vs. on-site work again depends on the firm’s policy, but also on the seniority of the job position. Usually managerial and more senior roles have more in person presence at the client’s site. Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning that the travelling commitment in consulting is significantly higher than in many other professions.

The pandemic brought something positive as it demonstrated that business travelling is not always necessary, as many meetings can be done online. It also showed that people can be as productive, or even more so, when they work from home. In the future, some consulting firms are even considering hybrid models, where employees work part-time from home and part-time from the office.

When it comes to necessary skills to be a great consultant, many of these can be obtained through studying science: communication, project and time management, analytical skills and teamwork. Communication skills are necessary to get your clients and colleagues on the same page. Good project and time management are essential to complete a project in a fairly short time frame. Analytical skills are required to solve the problem you are given, and in turn inform good decisions. Last, but definitely not the least –  teamwork is a must when it comes to working on consulting projects.

Regarding the structure of a consulting firm, it can vary depending on where you are working. We got an insight into McKinsey, where there are 5 levels of positions you can have:

  • Fellow/Business Analyst (BA) – delivery role (problem solving, analysis, report writing); you usually start as a Fellow/BA when you finish your master’s
  • Associate – also a delivery role (problem-solving, analysis, report writing), you usually start as an Associate when you finish your PhD
  • Engagement Manager – a managerial role where you manage a team of Fellows/BAs and Associates
  • Associate Partner – a managerial role where you apprentice the skills required to become a Partner

The final level is a Partner – someone who negotiates new projects with new or old clients. A similar scheme is also true for ZS Associates, with a few more intermediary roles.

Fast-track progress in consulting.

With travelling requirements and dynamics of fast paced and diverse projects, consulting is often thought of as a demanding career. However, it can be very rewarding as it also offers a steep learning curve and a great exposure to business challenges across industries, different from other career options.

When asked whether Summer School of Science helped them in any way in their career, they agreed the experience helped them practice some of the skills they now use in their job, such as communication, time and project management etc

As a final remark, we asked them what advice they have for future generations. They both encouraged those interested in consulting to apply for internships. These are commonly offered by many consulting companies and provide a great hands-on experience on what it means to work as a consultant. In addition, it is worth attending webinars and in person recruiting events of individual consulting firms, where you can find out more about company culture and type of work they do.

When applying for consulting positions, be aware that these firms usually look for academic excellence, international experience and extracurricular engagements, so try to cover all (or as much as you can) of these! Like in any job application, a great emphasis is also put on someone’s motivation to become a consultant, so make sure you can articulate that well, both to yourself, as well as to the firm you are applying to.

Let us know if you like our new career series! If you have any wishes on careers we should cover next, comment below.

Additional resources

Case studies – an important part of preparing for a consultant’s role

How consulting firms have adapted to the pandemic

Consulting magazine – upcoming webinars

By Mario Zelić

Mario is a medical student with a finite amount of time and an infinite number of hobbies which he tries to squeeze into his everyday life.

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