I recently saw Avenue Q (the cheeky puppet musical that tells the story of new college grads) and one of the characters was a lovable, unemployed comedian who was having a hard time finding a job and figuring out what it was that he was good at.
At the end of the play as things started neatly wrapping up for the cast, (spoiler alert) we find out he found a job as a consultant. The NYC crowd in attendance went wild: The insinuation was he had no idea what that meant, but it paid well and heck, even this wanderer could fit in there.
As a consultant, imagine my indignation! So I did what every other normal person in the same situation would do—start fervently whispering my defense of consulting to my friends. For some reason, they didn’t seem to care, but now that I have your attention, I’ll continue it here.
Honestly, consultants can have a bad reputation. From Kalon, the luxury brand consultant in The Bachelorette, who made his grand entrance onto the show via helicopter (seriously—even I can’t defend you, Kalon) to the popular phrase “consultants take your watch and tell you what time it is”—the image isn’t always positive. However, the industry has survived despite these stereotypes and it still continues to attract top talent across the world.
Why? While there are many reasons, I attribute it most to the way consulting develops its people. Consultants are exposed to a wide variety of experiences and are taught how to apply lessons learned in other situations to the ones at hand. Moreover, consulting instills in its recruits an extraordinary amount of discipline and technique that they would be hard-pressed to gain at such an intense and focused level elsewhere.
Consulting can offer you incredible experiences and career prospects—but it does also ask for a significant investment of your time and energy. If you’re thinking about consulting, here is what you should consider as you make your decision:
1. The TSA agent will know your name and you won’t run into Ryan Gosling at the airport
Yes, consultants travel all the time, and no, it’s not glamorous. Don’t get me wrong: It can be fun at times, and there’s a certain amount of self-discovery that occurs when you’re eating alone at Cheesecake Factory in some random town, but you have to be prepared that your Monday–Thursday are no longer yours to schedule as you please. You will learn to methodically plan your Friday–Sunday to squeeze in family, friends, doctor’s appointments, haircuts, and any other semblance of a personal life. If you’re in a relationship or have kids, it makes it even harder to leave that physically behind every week. Of course, most firms try to accommodate special circumstances, but travel is still a major part of the job description.
You’ll find ways to make it fun, though. Frequent flyer on Delta and Platinum status at
2. Flexibility is not only a requirement for yoga
When I worked in industry (that’s consultant-speak for non-consulting jobs), I’d write myself a to-do list for the day, and more often than not, I’d do just that. I enjoyed the specific, tangible work we did and I developed a close relationship with the people I worked with and for.
Fast forward to consulting, where I can barely plan my schedule for the next week, I have yet to see again people I worked with during my first few months, and the work I’m doing includes everything from financial analysis projects to IT assessments. Recently, I found myself ending a week discussing the Affordable Care Act and it’s stipulation around Health Insurance Exchanges, then beginning the next talking about metadata and its proposed structure within a technology.
Consulting can be a great way to gain expertise in all kinds of areas—but it also means that you have to constantly adapt and be as flexible as possible with your aptitude, time, and work style.
3. Dust off your elevator pitch
Consulting is really the art of making connections—not only in terms of the work, but perhaps more importantly, with people. Developing solid networks, both internally at the firm and externally at the client, is crucial. Within consulting firms and on client sites, you are constantly convincing (and proving) to new people that you are and would be a valuable asset to a project.
The job also requires you to share ideas, explain concepts, and present findings almost on a daily basis. You’ll be working on teams of people you may have just met, but you must show clients a united front forged from the fires of Mount Doom to ensure that their projects will be executed seamlessly. If you run into the SVP in the elevator and she casually asks how your team’s recommendations are coming along, you’re going to want to make sure you can calmly summarize things the same way your teammate did when she met with her peers that morning—or five minutes ago.
I don’t mean to imply that introverts need not apply (one of my firm’s most well-liked and admired partners is a self-proclaimed introvert), but you will have to learn how to push yourself out of your comfort zone and become an effective communicator like she has.
4. Start your engines
This one isn’t consulting-specific by any means, but I think is important to highlight here. It can be easy to get lost in the mass stampede of Type A personalities you’ll typically see at consulting firms, especially the big ones. To set yourself apart, you have to be a self-starter and know how to efficiently manage your time.
There’s no dearth of opportunities within firms waiting for you to seek them out—somewhere to volunteer, some proposal to write, some article to contribute to—but that, combined with your client work, can equal some late nights and long weekends at the office. (I’ve found myself burning the midnight oil with a Chipotle burrito wilting at my side more than once.) It can be intense and overwhelming, and it’s easy to feel burnt out quickly. But finding the balance between asking for new experiences, managing your time, and preparing for the occasional long night or weekend will help you take full advantage of consulting.
Consulting will help you develop a great number of skills (including how to use a delayed flight to your advantage). You will be constantly challenged and asked to do things that you may never have done before. But remember, contrary to what Avenue Q will tell you, it requires more than just the desire to do it to succeed.
Sheila is a Senior Consultant in Ernst & Young’s Healthcare Advisory Practice, where she works with healthcare organizations across the nation targeting operational efficiency issues. She graduated Barnard College, Columbia University with a double major in Economics and Political Science in May 2009.
Photo of consultants courtesy of Shutterstock.