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You are surrounded by some of the brightest, most driven people in any profession.
You have the opportunity to work on the toughest problems that clients can’t solve themselves.
You learn about diverse industries, types of companies, and interdisciplinary teams.
And if you decide to leave, you attract phenomenal exit opportunities at top grad schools or companies. There’s a lot to like, especially if you are unsure of the industry or job function you want to go into, like I was. On balance, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in consulting and would recommend it to many people. However, like any job, it has its drawbacks. Being realistic about them is an important part of deciding if consulting is the right path for you.
Here are three things to consider before becoming a consultant.
photo by Goh Rhy Yan
The nature of consulting is transitory. Teams come in for a few months, create a deliverable, then leave. Some projects are multi-year, but that doesn’t guarantee the same team will remain for the length of the engagement.
The downside to this is that consultants — especially those 1–2 years out of school — often do not see the long-term effects of their work. If you did an incredible job, you rarely get to see the full impact you made or continue to work on it, because the project is over and you are onto the next client.
On the other hand, if you did a bad job, you’ll be rolled off the project and replaced with another resource. In this case, you aren’t allowed to fully fail. You aren’t held accountable to the same degree you would be if you worked full-time for the client and had to face the failure head on. Consultants are often denied the growth that comes with that.
The tradeoff, of course, is working in fast-paced environments and sampling many types of work in a short timeframe. Both approaches have their benefits, neither one is right for everyone.
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Consulting is a broad field, so painting it with only one stroke is inaccurate. So take this with a grain of salt. Many consultants spend a lot of time producing slide decks, analysis, and internal tools for clients. It can be hard to make a connection between that type of work and actually improving people’s lives.
More concretely, if you improve the sales tracking process for phones, cars, or cereal, how does that make a positive contribution? Sure it could result in more revenue for the client, but is that ultimately creating a better life for consumers? In some cases the positive impact is extremely clear (for example: increasing efficiency in the postal service), but it isn’t always.
Saying that, it's up to you to decide how/if you're going to make a meaningful contribution to the world. No one company or profession can or should do that for you.
This is very personal for me. I realized I didn’t want what the consulting career path promised. I could look “successful” by society’s standards if I did consulting, then got a MBA, and finally landed on the leadership track at some company. To be sure, that is what some people want, but what if that’s not what success looks like to you?
A year and a half into consulting, I realized that the majority of my life had been striving after what society and others had deemed successful. It was time for a change. But what exactly did I want?
I was forced to confront the fact that I didn’t really know. To make important career decisions, I needed to figure out my personal definition of success. I tried and failed to do that while in consulting. So I did something radical. I quit my job to travel and learn from other people and cultures for one year. The goal is to understand what true success is beyond the societal expectations we all grew up with.
But figuring out what you want and value doesn't have to mean quitting a job. In fact, while you're in college, study/summer abroad programs can give you that space/clarity that might not have while knee-deep in the myopic world of university. You could also experiment with a variety of internships that will expose you to different fields, and help you take off the rose-tinted glasses you might view any one profession with.
“We need sometimes to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure hazard, in order to sharpen the edge of life, to taste hardship, and to be compelled to work desperately for a moment no matter what.” — George Santayana
When deciding on what job to take, it’s important that you choose it for the right reasons. Every job will have its positives and negatives. A job doesn’t have to be perfect, but it should align with your personal values and enable you to live a successful, and meaningful life. Consulting is that for some, but not for everyone. Before you accept any job, make sure you know both the great perks and the hard truths.