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Hi Folks. I am a PhD candidate in a STEM field at Stanford. I’ve decided that academia is not for me, so I have been exploring various career options. It seems the two most reasonable options for me are management consulting and R&D at a DuPont/3M/Dow Chemical. I’ve been working hard on getting the case studies down, but I’ve recently asked myself “What’s the point?”

A post-PhD MBB consultant makes, say, $200k all in. R&D scientist is closer to $80-90k. No brainer so far. However, the difference between the two career paths seems to really drop after the two-year stint in MBB. A Glassdoor search for “strategy manager/senior manager” shows that a typical Fortune 500 manager in strategy makes about $110k-130k. This seems like a pretty typical exit position for an MBB consultant.

Now a $30k difference between the two paths is nothing to sneeze at, but it isn’t life changing. And I imagine that R&D is a lot more interesting than “Senior Manager of Midwest Operations” or other middle management. Am I missing something here? Maybe my numbers are off or perhaps MBB alumni shoot up middle management quickly while the scientists and engineers languish. What do you all think? Thanks!

Comments (21)

  • devildog2067's picture

    "The point" is that, generally, being in consulting opens doors that you would otherwise never have an opportunity to walk through.

    Do you want to be in a F500 strategy group? If so, consulting is a good way to get there. If not, why is that what you're comparing to?

  • UFOinsider's picture

    An IBD associate I know couldn't stand working in the chemical business after a while, so got an MBA and jumped into industrials banking. Another guy, a trader with a PhD, was jealous of his brother who went into academic research....even though the incomes are vastly different. My point?

    You have to ask yourself: do you like doing research and do you think you can excel there OR do you want to learn how companies run and shoot along that track? Do you have any type of long term vision, or are you just trying to open up your options while you figure that out? Have you talked with others in your camp about what's out there?

    Maybe, and I'm running a hypothetical, try MBB for a while and see how you like being on the adminstrative/executive side of things. If you like it, then stay. If you like it but still long for developing new information, then you may be able to use industry connections to position yourself as a lab chief (sorry, don't know the lingo) who yes gets to do research, but also runs things: I met a guy years ago who ran several labs and just had money coming in from all over the place (NIH, industry, private) and got to work on his ideas while choosing his own staff. Nice work if you can get it. Industrial R&D will always be there, especially with you academic pedigree, so use that as your safety. There's a lot of variations you can work, you just have to figure out what you want, what you're good at, where there's a market, and what's available at the time you're actually making a decision.

    Just curious why you didn't like academia. Too stuffy and political? That's usually why people bail out, just curious...

    Get busy living

  • phdconsultant's picture

    For me, the career path in RD is much much slower than MBB. My end goal might be to exit to a senior leader position in a research company. I can achieve that goal with a few years from MBB but it might take 8+ years if you aim to get there from an internal position.

    Also, the pace and impact of the work at MBB is so much faster than research. In all my stints in pharma before MBB, my mind went numb after 3 months because I found the day to day to be incredibly boring. Same for grad school. After 2 years, I was thinking "I have 3 more years of this?" Every week is something new at MBB and the learning is much faster.

    Cnsulting is definitely not for every STEM PhD and many are better off staying with RD so learn as much as you can before you take the leap.

  • TylerT's picture

    I will add, from my limited experience consulting at R&D Companies, they tend to be very promote from within type companies, even for running the businesses. So, as far as a career fast-track to helping run a R&D firm, it may backfire. You may have the business skills from MBB, but they will want to see your technicals skills in the lab still. Just my experience, and one of these firms I was at is a leader in the world for what they do. The entire senior executive committee is PhD's in STEM (most Engineering).

    Side note, they were a fantastic client, one of the best I've ever been on. Bright, open, and as a firm that offers technical consulting on the side they really understood why we took our approach etc. If I went to industry, they'd be a place I'd love to work.

    TT

  • phdconsultant's picture

    In all of my pharma research expereiences, I saw promotion cycles to be excruciatingly slow, and as a researcher, you will not be making strategic business decisions. You'll be making be making research-related business decisions (i.e. how do make this faster, better, etc).

    At one point, I was working on a promising phase III drug product one week, and the next week, the whole project was sold off. Everyone on the scientific team was taken by surprise, from senior scientists upto director of manufacturing.

    That's the real difference between choosing the research track or a management track. Consulting puts you toward the management track and RD keeps you in the research track.

  • In reply to UFOinsider
    Pee H. Dee's picture

    Thank you all once again for the very useful comments. Our department is very academia oriented, so it is difficult to ask these kinds of questions to my colleagues.

    UFOinsider wrote:
    ...

    Maybe, and I'm running a hypothetical, try MBB for a while and see how you like being on the adminstrative/executive side of things. If you like it, then stay. If you like it but still long for developing new information, then you may be able to use industry connections to position yourself as a lab chief (sorry, don't know the lingo) who yes gets to do research, but also runs things: I met a guy years ago who ran several labs and just had money coming in from all over the place (NIH, industry, private) and got to work on his ideas while choosing his own staff. Nice work if you can get it. Industrial R&D will always be there, especially with you academic pedigree, so use that as your safety. There's a lot of variations you can work, you just have to figure out what you want, what you're good at, where there's a market, and what's available at the time you're actually making a decision.

    Just curious why you didn't like academia. Too stuffy and political? That's usually why people bail out, just curious...

    That is my thinking too. It will be difficult to re-enter R&D after a MBB stint (if that is indeed what I want), but nigh impossible to enter MBB from R&D. The MBB PhD combo does offer unparallelled signaling that "this person is technically smart with good business acumen." I would be well-positioned for positions that require both. (Obviously, landing a consulting position is no small feat, but that is a topic for another day.)

    To answer your question on leaving academia, there are a number of reasons. (Warning: long post ahead).

    Our department is remarkably free of petty politics, so that has not deterred me. What has deterred me is hearing warnings from 80-90% of my colleagues to stay the hell out of academia. These are people that did great PhD work and that I respect a great deal. There seems to be three major factors at play.

    One, the economic downturn has killed hiring at both public and private universities. Some of the very best PhDs (think, the top 3-10 candidates in the whole country in a particular field) who, in normal times, would land a faculty position right away are now sitting in post-docs for several years. This has a trickle-down effect on the whole market. Everyone except the absolute top one or two studs are sitting on post-docs for a couple of years before washing out or getting spit out at Northwest Utah State (no offense). I really really really want to avoid the post-doc if possible. Money isn't everything, but poverty sucks.

    Two, the downturn has also dried up extramural funding (NIH and NSF grants). Old-timers and NSF administrators have told me that in the past about 20-25% of grants proposals result in funding. Now rates are closer to 10% in my directorate-- lower for new professors. At a

  • In reply to phdconsultant
    Pee H. Dee's picture

    phdconsultant wrote:
    For me, the career path in RD is much much slower than MBB. My end goal might be to exit to a senior leader position in a research company. I can achieve that goal with a few years from MBB but it might take 8+ years if you aim to get there from an internal position.

    Also, the pace and impact of the work at MBB is so much faster than research. In all my stints in pharma before MBB, my mind went numb after 3 months because I found the day to day to be incredibly boring. Same for grad school. After 2 years, I was thinking "I have 3 more years of this?" Every week is something new at MBB and the learning is much faster.

    Cnsulting is definitely not for every STEM PhD and many are better off staying with RD so learn as much as you can before you take the leap.

    Thanks for the comment. The comment on the pace hit the target with me. I love the discovery phase of research, but once I have a problem figured out (that is, I "know" the answer but don't yet have the data to pass peer-review) I start to lose interest. From what I hear, in consulting you are constantly in that "ramp up" phase. That sounds exciting.

  • phdconsultant's picture

    I left academia for pretty much the same reasons. When my labmate had the cover of Nature and 15 first author papers before graduating could not get a professorship, I knew it was time to jump ship.

  • In reply to phdconsultant
    UFOinsider's picture

    phdconsultant wrote:
    I left academia for pretty much the same reasons. When my labmate had the cover of Nature and 15 first author papers before graduating could not get a professorship, I knew it was time to jump ship.

    Just as an aside, do you think academia would benefit from mandatory retirement policies? I know that big4 consulting mandates requirement by I think 65 with the intention of preventing a bunch of senile oldies from crowding out the future. Just as an outsider to academia....what say you?

    ...and again, sorry to deviate from the topic at hand

    Get busy living

  • In reply to UFOinsider
    Pee H. Dee's picture

    UFOinsider wrote:
    phdconsultant wrote:
    I left academia for pretty much the same reasons. When my labmate had the cover of Nature and 15 first author papers before graduating could not get a professorship, I knew it was time to jump ship.

    Just as an aside, do you think academia would benefit from mandatory retirement policies? I know that big4 consulting mandates requirement by I think 65 with the intention of preventing a bunch of senile oldies from crowding out the future. Just as an outsider to academia....what say you?

    ...and again, sorry to deviate from the topic at hand

    I don't mind deviating for the topic if others do not. I think mandatory retirement could help, as long as there was some mechanism for truly productive senior professors to stay on in some capacity. For example, my advisor is nearing that number and is doing some of the best work of his career.

    I'd prefer to attack the issue from the supply side. Why in the world is New Mexico State, University of South Dakota and Youngstown State, as examples, cranking out PhDs? Where are they going? It's a mystery to me.

    I'd like to see fewer PhDs in the US, and the creation of some kind of 3 year degree. Perhaps like a Masters with a 1-1.5 yr research experience tacked on. Professors would still get their cheap labor, but at least they would be somewhat more employable.

  • phdconsultant's picture

    I think there is an overall glut of academics at all ranks and only part of it is the lack of churn of the oldest professors. Some professors are actually quite productive after 65.

    I think across the entire system elements are broken.
    1. Professors have no incentive to retire and clog up the pipeline.

    2. The construct of a post doc position allows budding academics to be placed in a holding pattern, or academic purgatory. There are never corrections to the supply market. It just keeps bubbling up. In some fields like biology, it is common to do 3 three year post docs before getting a professorship. Therefore, when one professorship opens up, you have 9 generations of postdoc and final year phd students applying for that one opening. You end up with mediocre researchers skipping from post doc to post doc hoping to catch lightning in a bottle to land one faculty position.

    3. Phd students are trained to be highly specialized and the job market seeks to hire them as specialists not generalists. And therefore you end up with highly skilled people that are too specialized and can't find a job. On the flip side, academia can reward specialization.

    4. And lastly, the incentives for tenure (bring in lots of funding) and funding (write lots of papers) encourages the increase in supply of grad students. Grad students are the cheap labor that do the work and the write papers so that professors get tenure.

    Short answer: forced retirement might be a good thing but won't solve the problems in academia.