Q&A: PhD -> MBB (with some steps in between)

Hi everyone,

I wanted to do an AMA for people who might be in the same situation I've been the last couple of years, as I have often seen very little to no content for this group: PhDs looking to transition out of academia and considering consulting.

Little background on me: I come from a large EU country, studied in the UK, worked at a F500 automotive-sector company for a year, went on to do a PhD back in continental Europe (in social sciences), then spent most of 2020 applying to 15-20 jobs a day (ended up with ca. 500-700 applications, most were throwaways).

Offer-wise, I had an almost offer at an econ consulting firm (literally 2 weeks after first lockdown), later got one at a government regulator in the UK (where Brexit kicked in and kicked me out), found another job in econ consulting at a large financial service firm, and now I am due to start at MBB in 2 months in the generalist consulting track (as opposed to a specialised or technical role).

My CV/cover letter/LinkedIn profile went through a lot of iterations, and I often found the info for PhDs lacking. This is of course logical, considering there aren't too many of us, and even fewer who want to go to consulting specifically. So, if anyone has any questions about how to approach it, when to consider moving, what steps to take to gear/present your profile in a consulting-friendly way (like what to put in your CV and how to present it in your interviews), I'm here. I'm happy to talk about my experience, or answer questions about yours, and I have a ton of material (for CVs, cover letters, test and interview prep, networking) if you like too, although to be honest a lot of it is covered better elsewhere by much more experienced people.

If you want to discuss it more in-depth and less publicly, feel free to PM me, I'm cool with that too.

Most Helpful

Well, I was half interested in doing a career in academia. I loved the intellectual stimulation, very much liked the people I got to know there, but there were a few factors that led me to reorient myself toward the private sector in the end.

1) There is an inherent bottleneck for professorships. Each year, in any given country, there are far more graduating PhDs in a given field than there are academic positions (even adding up Professorships, Assistant Professorships, Postdocs, and Researchers at institutes). This is something I did not consider when I started, and every professor just said to us "Oh you do your phd, defend, then apply, and get a job, that's it." As if that was a done deal and there was no difficulty. This simply isn't true. Now, when you add the fact that you are competing not just with people in your country but with everyone from every country, this makes it very hard. I did economics, and in our field everyone applies to 100-200 academic jobs usually, with about 10-15 interview invitations, and if you are lucky, you may end up with 2-5 offers. If you are unlucky, that final number is 0.

2) It turns out that merit in academia (I can't speak for all fields, only for mine) is very largely overshadowed by connections. It matters more where you are from, and who your supervisor is, and who your supervisor contacted, than what you have in your paper. The topic of your paper will determine which positions you apply to of course (if you have a micro paper, you wont be applying to a macro position), but your chances of success are far more determined by factors external to your actual paper and research output. This is something that greatly frustrated me, as I believed academia was completely about ideas. Now don't get me wrong, I have to concede that on average, people at better universities with better supervisors do better research (I absolutely admit to that). But I have seen very many research papers of very high quality from low ranked unis going nowhere, and very bad papers from high ranked unis get published in top journals by young academics.

3) This one is more of a personal issue (while the other two are more structural in nature), but I didn't want to keep working with people like my supervisor or other professors I had seen like him. Now, again, I have seen and met many very good professors, very friendly, very interesting, and even quite fun. But, I have seen a sufficiently large proportion of professors who once they get their tenure essentially give up on doing good research. They just do what they want, when they want, develop completely unrealistic views about the world, and end up sabotaging their students careers. Not just with mine, but with at least 5 other people I have seen just in my immediate circle, across 3 universities. Again, to be honest, it doesn't seem to be that way at top universities, there it appears that professors remain competitive, and engaged. But at mid-ranked and low-ranked universities, some people will just be the most ineffective and least empathetic people I have seen.

Overall, I decided that I would rather work in the private sector, than deal with those issues. I have had interviews with very good universities/institutions when I was applying for academic jobs (Oxford, Barcelona, ECB, etc.), so it's not like I couldn't have tried more, but there are other aspects that bothered me and I haven't elaborated here (e.g., how long it takes to publish a paper and how rude and aggressive reviewers were, how stressful it is to make tenure and have to publish in top journals within a certain time frame, the fact that you have to start again if you cannot make it before the end of your tenure-track contract, etc.).

Now, there are many great things about academia still: the collegial nature of the environment, teaching is fun, research in itself is super fun, the people you ll talk to are often very clever and well read into your field, and there is the spirit of shared struggles that creates strong bonds among PhD students. And you get to travel for free, by going to conferences 2-3 times a year and taking out of your chair's travel budget, which is kinda cool.

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