From PhD to Management Consultant

Mary Anne Kidwell is a former graduate student at Berkeley who finished her PhD in Molecular and Cell Biology in 2014. She has transitioned to the consulting world and was kind enough to conduct an interview with us to talk about her experiences.

BA: How did you become interested in management consulting?MK

M: There were a lot of reasons, but what was most inspiring was watching a grad student in my lab start a business with my professor. The graduate student had taken a lot of business classes and told me about management consulting. I thought was a very interesting career path, especially since the business side of biotech and pharma industries really interests me. So I took some business classes, and I also got involved in the Ph.D consulting club on campus. One thing led to another, and I eventually got an internship with C1 consulting and then my job at a large management consulting firm in D.C.

BA: What does a management consultant do?

M: A management consultant solves a variety of problems for other companies in a short amount of time. These problems could range from supply chain problems, improving manufacturing processes, to counting the number of pills in bottles in retail stores.

BA: Wait, what? Who counts the pills?

M: So in one case, a pharmacy was having problems with their inventory. They were ordering too much of the wrong thing. Or not enough of the right thing. And it was because…

BA: [Interrupting] It was because no one was counting the pills.

M: …no one was counting the pills! The consultants solved other problems too. But that’s an example of a problem a management consultant might encounter. Management consulting is training to understand certain parts of the business world. After several years, consultants have the option to focus on what they are more interested in and eventually move more toward that industry. Some consulting companies may help a consultant get a great position in one of these industries. Later, when trying to solve a problem, the former consultant will have a strong network of connections from the previous firm that may then be called upon. Many consultants see management consulting as a learning opportunity and a stepping stone to a great career.

BA: And recently, many management consulting firms have been recruiting PhDs.

M: Yeah, I guess they figure a Ph.D may have more maturity than someone who has just finished their undergraduate degree.

BA: What’s the intensity (long hours, etc.) of working at a big MC firm? How does it compare to life as a grad student?

M: I think management consulting is more intense but grad school is still stressful. Those of us in grad school are used to working 12-15 hours per day in the lab and have to be constantly thinking about your experiments. And you don’t have to do that in consulting, you can always work from home. But the pace is much faster in MC and there isn’t downtime throughout the day as there often is with experiments. The nice part about management consulting is that people are more conscious of the value of your free time, so you don’t have to be constantly replying to your email during the times you’ve outlined with your team. At least that’s what I’ve heard. But other parts of the job are fulfilling—for example, there are opportunities to work within a team and you get to see your work be immediately valued (which many don’t frequently encounter during their grad school experience).

BA: So how did you get your initial internship?

M: Like most jobs, it was through networking. Through a friend of a friend of mine. Having that connection really accelerated the interview process. I was interested because this company specialized in consulting for marketing in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries. As an intern, I analyzed surveys and worked on presentations, listened to interviews. It was interesting to see hear that side of the process.

BA: What was most interesting?

M: We did an analysis of certain diseases—it had to do with assessing other drugs on the market, whether our drug has a unique mechanism of action, how many substitutes are on the market, lots of thing I never considered when working on the science alone. From the marketing side, it was interesting to see how much work goes into an advertising campaign. For example, how do you make a drug get viewed in the right way by doctors, nurses and patients because it will influence the way that drug is eventually used.

BA: How did your scientific training help you adjust?

M: Being able to quickly assimilate a lot of information helps a lot. Having a general understanding of diseases and the mechanism of drugs also helped in this type of consulting. We do still read a lot of papers, and a lot of time is spent trying to understand another person’s research. It’s similar to the process of writing a literature review. Attention to detail and having a structured and meticulous approach to problem solving is also very valuable.

BA: What was the interview process like?

M: It depends on the company to some extent. Generally, you will have 2-3 days of interviews with 2-3 different people per company per day. It’s intense but fun. They give you problems to solve that are similar to what they would face. To prepare, I would suggest practicing a lot of interview problems. For instance, a tire manufacturing company is being undercut by a competitor—what should they do? The competitor is producing the same quality tire for cheaper because they are outsourcing the labor.

BA: What would the solution to that problem be?

M: One answer might be to follow suit and outsource the non-union labor. Another option would be to aim for a premium market (which would be hard to do with tires and other products that are viewed as commodities). Other practice problems are also available in case books.

BA: How would you suggest that current grad students/postdocs who are interested in management consulting get started?

M: I would recommend keeping up with what’s going on in the industry, networking and working on cases, they should get some real world experience—which doesn’t have to be an internship with a company. There are a lot of programs at UCB or UCSF where you can work with startups (e.g. biotech) and take classes that are centered around group work of this kind, like Cleantech to Market and Greener Solutions (both offered at UCB). I would also get experience working in a group on aspects of business. The consulting club on campus has options, as does QB3. You could also get involved with UCB’s Technology Transfer office (which may involve working with patents coming out of UCB). Do something that interests you and you’ll meet people who share that common interest.

BA: How do you network? How could someone learn to network?

M: That’s like asking someone how to flirt. Step one: find someone. You could start by finding a seminar being given by someone from the sphere you are interested in (e.g. a biotech company) and follow up with them. Join student group email lists. And then unsubscribe when you’ve identified which ones you are really interested in. Go to business classes and talk to your neighbor. Be like, “Hey, how do you like this class?” Everyone in business is friendly. I took the business fundamentals class. I don’t know, is that networking?

BA: Yeah that sounds good. Thanks for telling us about your experiences. Do you have any other suggestions?

M: Take classes, network with people. Be prepared for it to take a while (1-2 years from start to finish). Even though you won’t be getting experience immediately, there are tons of opportunities available on campus. Mostly, seek out opportunities that interest you!