The truths you need to know about management consulting jobs

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The popularity of consulting firms among top students has perhaps never been higher. Why all the recent love? The reason most often cited is that top consulting firms can offer that middle ground of strong compensation without the brutal hours associated with investment banking, though there has been some debate about the latter point. The starting salary for 2018 Harvard Business School grads who took a job in consulting was same for those who headed to hedge funds and private equity firms ($150k), yet above what the average investment banker was offered ($125k).

Of course, every industry has its own particularly quirks – the things you don’t know about the job until you actually begin the work. We talked to several current and former management consultants to flesh out some of the unspoken pros and cons of the job that outsiders may not be aware of.

You work for two companies

Sure, anyone who with a client-facing position answers to both their boss and their customers. But consultants describe a more polarizing environment. Unlike bankers, management consultants will often spend much of their time at a client site. While many clients will stay out of the way, this isn’t always the case. “On a personal level, you can feel like you’re working for someone who’s more demanding than your real boss, but they weren’t the ones who hired you,” said one Big Four consultant. “If they get on your boss, you then have two people riding you.” And you get a new set of bosses with every client.

For one assignment, the Big Four consultant and his team were actually drug tested at the behest of the client before getting started, despite working for the firm for many years. It never happened to him before or since, but it's certainly something to keep in mind.

Of course, there is the other side of the coin. The stars can align where clients leave a team to do their work and the big boss is back at the main office. “Those are dream scenarios,” he said.

The unpredictability of travel

One consultant based out of Florida told us of a time when he was working for a particularly “anal” hedge fund in Connecticut that housed his team in a completely different building than their main office due to security concerns. Still, the fund wanted them on site Monday through Friday until the project was finished. Recently the father of twins, he would fly home every Friday and return late Sunday night. The project went on longer than anyone expected, and he spent nearly three months on the road. Meanwhile, other assignments involve little or no overnight travel. But the volatility can change things at home.

Being “on” all the time

Again, this depends greatly on if you’re working regularly at a client site. “Small things you take for granted like joking around with colleagues and loosening your tie don’t really happen if you’re constantly on-site,” said a current director at a New York consulting firm. “Always having to be ‘on’ can be subtly exhausting.” He compared it to the feeling of starting a brand new job, over and over again.

Rarely seeing outcomes reach completion

In most jobs, employees who don’t jump ship early get to see the results of their work. This rarely happens in management consulting, where the outcomes to solutions that were implemented or suggested only become clear long after the firm moves on. This wasn’t an issue for anyone we interviewed except one: a former Big Four consultant who said she didn’t like the lack of gratification, both externally and personally. “It can be unfulfilling,” she said. On the other hand, not having be there if a solution ultimately backfires doesn’t sound like the worst option.

Seniority adds a strange new role

Reaching the upper rungs at a consulting firm – director and MD – often adds a new responsibility that years of hard work may not directly prepare someone for: being a salesperson. “The more senior you are, there are pressures to generate new business while continuing to execute," said one Wall Street recruiter.

Consulting finished sixth in our recent ranking of the most stressful jobs in financial services – right in the middle of the pack. But almost every role considered to be more stressful had a revenue-generating component to it. Risk management was the only outlier. Adding business development responsibilities dramatically raises the ceiling on compensation, but it can also increase a person’s blood pressure, particularly when it’s a new role.

Plenty of exit opps

Working at a top-ranked consulting firm can provide near unlimited exit opportunities for those who don’t want to stay in the industry forever. Consultants told us that many of their former colleagues went on to work for ex-clients, if not directly than within a year or two, depending on their non-compete.

However, this can be a double-edged sword. Those who have stayed in the industry complain about the high turnover rates in consulting, due to people using it as a jumping board for a different career path as well as the large number of employees who leave to go back to business school. The general consensus is that a given consulting firm can see an annual turnover rate of about 20%, mostly at the junior ranks.

For senior consultants, this means a constant string of fresh faces and lots of on-the-job training. “You’re prepared for it and you get used to it, but the lack of continuity year-to-year is always a challenge,” said the director.

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