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So, you’ve got great smarts, and you rock the quants. You love numbers, and analysis. You might have studied a business qualification, or engineering, or even ancient history - but you are convinced that your path lies in climbing the corporate ladder, either as a long-term career, or for a few years to get the necessary experience for starting your own business.
Now, it’s time to make the crucial decision on next steps. You’re considering both Consulting and Finance as great stepping stones for your future. But it’s really tough to choose between them! The skills and abilities required at entry level for both fields are similar, but the paths can turn out quite differently.
We certainly can’t offer the answer. But we can give you the top 5 things to noodle on when making your decision.
This is typically the start of a long debate. Some people advocate for deepening knowledge, rather than broadening knowledge. Over time, they argue, people who specialise tend to do better in their career than people who remain generalists.
On the other hand, runs the counter-argument, getting deeply specialised (especially early on in your career) can result in long-term unhappiness and ‘getting stuck’. It’s easier to move careers as generalist than as a specialist.
Finance is a specialist field. Although there are very many different tracks within Finance, broadly speaking, it can be difficult to move industries once you’ve been in Finance for a number of years. Typical career exits include moves into Private Equity, Venture Capital and Asset Management firms.
Management Consulting, by its nature, is a broad field. Any given year can expose you to industries as varied as mining, soft drinks and apparel. It’s a good way to get exposure to a bunch of different industries, and typical career exits include moves into companies operating in these industries.
Both of these approaches have merit, and typically, the choice between specialising or broadening will be made on individual interests.
In both industries, the work can be exhilarating in that your peers are exceptionally bright and the pace is intense. It can be great fun to work in such a rarefied, fast-paced, highly-achieving environment with other bright sparks. On the flip side, it can be exhausting and stressful. Many people suffer from Imposter Syndrome (yes, it’s a thing).
Despite (or perhaps because of) the extreme nature of the work, you will make good contacts and establish strong networks in either industry.
Bear in mind, that in Finance, most of the contacts that you make will remain in the field of Finance in one field or another. In Management Consulting, however, your exposure to different people in different industries is much greater. You will develop relationships with your clients - typically, C suite or high-level executives in various different roles in various different industries. When you decide it is time to leave, you will have a wide network across different companies in different industries.
Both Finance and Management Consulting will give you exposure to international opportunities. These are however, different in their nature.
Some areas are Finance can be country-specific, and difficult to transfer to other countries. Examples include financial legislation and financial systems. It is much easier, for example, to move to a new country and apply the principles you have learned in Management Consulting about best operating practices for warehouses, than it is to move to a new country and apply principles of tax legislation.
Of course, there are fields in Finance that are generalisable and transferable - these include valuation, asset management and other methodologies that are not country-specific in the way that tax legislation can be. On balance, however, Management Consulting lends itself more to international mobility than does Finance. Even within projects, Management Consulting firms tend to staff up with experts from around the globe, whereas that seldom happens with Finance except in the M&A field.
Here, Finance takes the gold medal, both initially and over the course of a long career spent in one or other of the two fields. Salaries start off higher in Finance (c. $100-150,000) than they are do in Management Consulting (c.$65,000-85,000), and the increases and bonuses tend to be relatively higher, too.
Correspondingly, lifetime earnings in Finance are, on average, higher than they are in Consulting.
Of course, that is on average, and there are always exceptions. Also, the pace of work in both industries means that it is not often that people choose to spend their lifetime in either field!Which brings us to the critical issue of ‘Lifestyle’...
The pace and focus of work in both Finance and in Management Consulting is not for the faint-hearted. Long hours are the order of the day, and the work is intense. In both industries, your peers are exceptionally bright and dedicated, and the competition is fierce for promotion and other tokens of appreciation of hard work and achievement.
Both work long hours, although Finance takes the prize. In Management Consulting, analysts typically work 60-80 hour weeks, and in Finance typically 80-100 hour weeks.On the flip side, Management Consultants spend a large part to their time travelling to clients, either days at a time if the assignment is in a different city, or for weeks at time if the assignment is in a different country. Those in Finance travel far more seldom.
As you can see, there is no right or wrong answer to question, ‘Consulting or Finance ?”. The most important thing to bear in mind is what matters to you. What are you passionate about, what are you looking for, and where do you want to find yourself in the next 5-10 years?