What is the Typical Consulting Career Path?
Management consulting is one of the most prestigious and well-remunerated careers out there – but also one of the most challenging.
You might be thinking of applying to a consulting firm and wonder what your future might hold. Alternatively, you might just be curious about what life is like at some of the most influential firms in the world.
Either way, we have you covered in this compact guide to the consulting career path. Let’s start at the beginning with what you need to have in place before you ever apply to become a consultant.
The road to a consulting career starts early. Competition for jobs at top firms like McKinsey, Bain, and BCG is incredibly fierce, so you will have to have a stellar resume to get your foot in the door.
Specifically, you are going to need:
- Top grades through your education. Ideally, these should be in a relevant subject, like engineering or economics.
- Those top grades should ideally be from a top institution – Ivy/Oxbridge level or equivalent.
- Great extracurriculars – you need to prove you have very developed soft skills.
- Great experience – ideally, you should have internships at top management consulting firms or in related industries.
- Entrepreneurial and/or charitable experience.
On top of this you should add:
- Networking – Your best chances of a job will be when you have spoken to people in the office in advance.
- Research – If you want to work for a firm, learn everything you can about it and especially your target office.
So, you have great grades from an excellent university, some great internships, and tons of extra-curricular. Now, you have a few key hurdles to clear
- Application Screening –More than 50% of applicants are cut just from their resumes.
- Screening Tests –Tests like the McKinsey Digital Assessment or the Bain Online Test filter out even more candidates.
- Case Interviews– Simulating the consulting job itself with a highly challenging case study that you have to work through under extreme time pressure. You will have at least two rounds of these interviews.
The success rate for some firms is as low as 2%, so good luck! You should set aside weeks to prepare for the case interviews alone.
Levels in the Hierarchy and Salaries
Generally, you will enter consulting either at the Associate level if you have an undergraduate degree or standard masters only or at Consultant level, if you have an MBA, Ph.D., or considerable industry experience.
From there, if you perform well, you can expect to be promoted every 1.5 to 3 years with significant pay rises each time.
Pay rises are large as firms struggle to retain staff, due to how harsh the conditions are and the great exit opportunities.
Precise earnings will vary according to where in the world and with which firm you work, but here is a good guide to the pay scale for major firms in the US:
- As an associate, expect a base salary of $80,000, and a signing bonus of $5,000. If your work is exceptional, you’ll receive a $12,000 performance bonus.
- At the MBA/Ph.D. starting level, expect a $150,000 base salary and a $25,000 signing bonus. Appreciation for exceptional performance is $45,000.
- As a manager or project lead, expect a $200,000 base salary and a $100,000 performance bonus. Usually, from this level, you’ll have the luxury to negotiate your signing bonus.
- As an Associate Principal, you’ll get anything between $200,000 and $300,000 as a base salary. The performance bonus is between $100,000 and $200,000.
- As a Junior Partner, the base salary is between $300,000 and $400,000, with a generous performance bonus ranging between $300,000 and $500,000.
- At the Director level, the stakes are high, and so is the compensation. Expect between $400,000 and $600,000 as of the base salary and anything above $500,000 as of the performance bonus.
It is worth mentioning that promotion might not just be an option, but a requirement.
Here’s why. Many people who get into consulting do not make it to partner level. They often leave the consulting firm for greener pastures in other industries.
While this is great for the employees, it’s not for the consulting firms who are hemorrhaging talent. So to improve their employee retention rates and productivity, firms offer high salaries and have a strict policy against non-performance.
Under the ‘up-or-out’ policy, most firms have adopted, employees have to perform great and be worthy of a promotion or be let go. Employees can see this coming and often plan their exits. If they can’t make the mark for promotion, they ship out while they are still ahead.
Do I Need an MBA to Be a Consultant?
There is a persistent – but false – idea that you need an MBA to become a consultant or to climb the ladder once you are one.
As we have seen above, you can enter at an Associate level simply with an undergraduate degree or a standard masters.
An MBA from a top business school will certainly help you to go straight in at the Consultant level. However, it is a myth that it is a necessity.
For one thing, a Ph.D. is regarded as equivalent to an MBA.
However, relevant industry experience is also regarded as acceptable.
This is even more so nowadays due to the changing nature of consulting requiring more and more specialist knowledge to deal with client problems.
But this doesn’t mean you’ll have an easy time. To land the offer, you’ll have to work twice as hard just to get noticed. Here are some good tips to help you get ahead without an MBA.
- Network, Network, Network. It might seem as though this tip is overused, but it’s not. It’s a great tool to even the playing field. As you reach out to your consulting contacts, have a plan.
- Do not depend on a single contact as there is only so much that can do for you. When reaching out to your consulting contacts, be creative with your approach. Remember, you are asking them to spare some of their scarce time with nothing in it for them.
- After the first message, follow it up with another and then progress to calls and setting up meetings at specific times and to specific spots. It’ll work against you if you start negotiating about the meeting.
- Once the meetings are set, be ready for anything. Have your optimized resume in hand and ready to dive into the recruitment process immediately. You’ll be in a better position if you practice solving case interviews. Note that this doesn’t mean memorizing frameworks but instead learning to think and solve problems like a consultant.
Exit Opportunities for Consultants
A consultant’s career does not end when they leave a consulting firm.
One reason to be a management consultant at all is the excellent exit opportunities.
Many pragmatically do the job for some time to be more employable or command a higher salary in other areas.
After two years, they can exit into around the same pay but better working conditions. Or go to some finance roles for more pay and more hours. Typically they receive a 30% pay rise.
Generally, this will be into an industry they have worked with as a consultant. Thus, a consultant with an oil and gas specialism might exit into an oil and gas firm.
Thus, exit opportunities are something to consider, even when applying.
But like everything else, great exit opportunities are not guaranteed. You’ll need to plan on how you’ll leverage your consulting experience to earn you more when you make the shift. This includes networking with other professionals before you dive in.
Management consulting is a tough career and only the best and brightest will be able to secure a place. However, promotion can be rapid, with pay going up almost exponentially.
All the while, consultants are being given the exposure and responsibility which opens so many doors when they decide to exit the profession – ensuring that their careers will continue to be successful well into the future.