Beyond Academia: Transitioning from PhD to Consulting

By Yoko J. Bian

Speakers (seated left to right): Fon Powell, Ph.D.; Brent Osborne, Ph.D.; Alex Porras, Ph.D.; LaWanda Thompson, Ph.D.


More and more, Ph.D. graduates that seek careers outside academia are going into consulting. Such movement into this field isn’t new. For years, Ph.D. graduates have been joining firms with a specialized business focus that draws on their previous field of expertise in graduate schools. For example, economics Ph.D. graduates have been pursuing careers at econometric consulting firms, biology PhDs are employed by biotech consulting firms, and psychology PhDs take up consulting for market-research firms.

On the business side, many large consulting firms have found that PhDs, particularly those with a strong quantitative background, have the potential to become effective management consultants, and tend to value the ability to think critically over specific knowledge. In a manner significantly different from the way that traditional MBA students are trained, most doctoral students receive training to identify underlying problems, devise ways to solve them independently, and incorporate new information while thinking on their feet. “More and more Ph.D. students are favored by evidence-based business now,” opined Dr. Porras, a consultant at McKinsey & Co.

If you find yourself in love with solving problems, excited by uncertainty, and comfortable with not completely controlling a project, a consulting career would be a good fit for you. Companies hire consultants to help solve problems ranging from profitability increase to strategic implementation of new technology into sectors of the existing business—tasks which often require strengths in listening, authenticity, and comfort with the unknown. Most importantly, skills such as these that are required for a successful career in consulting seem to be parallel to those obtained during the graduate school training.

When talking about what persuaded the panelists to go into consulting, Dr. Thompson, the founder and president of Sustainable Outcomes, smilingly shared: “I was really good at bench science, especially when working with animal models. But in the meantime, I enjoyed managing and working with people, and I realized that consulting is a better match for me. I like it because of its wide variety and ever-changing work environment. My PI was sad that I decided not to stay in academia, and he said ‘LaWanda, you can always come back one day when you are tired of the business world.’” (Laugh) It is the passion that drove Thompson to consulting, and she made it successfully.

“Chance favors the prepared mind” is the best answer for those asking about the best way to land in the consulting world, and Dr. Powell can be made a good example. Having her own medical device startup (S.A.L.T.) on the side while still in graduate school, she learned how to best leverage her expertise by joining Flagship Ventures in Cambridge, MA as a VentureLabs fellow, besides being active in various non-profit organizations advocating for women and minority representation in STEM fields. Years of interacting with people from diverse backgrounds through her various pursuits further honed Dr. Powell’s soft skills.

Dr. Porras offered a different perspective, highlighting the work graduate students may have already done to prepare for consulting careers. “University consulting clubs are a great starting point. But if you think about it, the skills we obtained through various training in grad school are transferable. For example, the communication and analytical skills you practice during group meetings can be totally transferred into consulting. You don’t realize it, but you are being shaped and molded throughout the years in a positive way,” Dr. Porras added.

Dr. Osborne nodded: “I’d totally agree with Dr. Porras. Going beyond that, students may need to give some thought to differentiate themselves from other candidates. Go out and do some extracurricular activities in your free time to help broaden your perspective. Also, follow business news and latest trends if you are preparing to land in consulting upon graduation—where are the deals being done? Good sources are Wall Street Journal, CBC insight, and Endpoint among others.”

In terms of a timeline to prepare for recruiting, Dr. Porras advised that students plan at least a year ahead of time by attending consulting club meetings and practicing case studies. Some of the clubs in NYC are well equipped with training material and should be able to help with one’s approach to questions. For McKinsey & Company, there are typically four rounds of interviews starting in May. Details that will guide the applicants through the process can be found on the official website. “BCG (The Boston Consulting Group) is less traumatic, and they only have two rounds of interviews,” commented Porras. Most consulting firms have flat systems, with variations depending on the individual firm.

A common question students would likely ask during an informational interview would be the daily routine at work—what is a typical day for a consultant? Dr. Thompson was excited to share her flexible daily plan with us as she started her own business after years of working at Pfizer: “It varies day by day; typically I’d have an hour-long session for individual coaching clients followed by proposal writing and checking the ongoing project. My work involves lots of traveling.” Establishing her own firm has given Dr. Thompson freedom to determine the company’s mission, strategy, and flexibility.  

However, not every consultant works remotely on a flexible schedule. As a consultant at a boutique consulting firm with a special focus in pharmaceutical, biotech and healthcare investment industries, Dr. Osborne had another style of typical day to share. “Mine was a little different—I walk in the office and I’d engage with an MBA-based analytics team. I prompt them to lay out the landscape and see where the white space is. It really depends, and every day is different,” Dr. Osborne observed. “Sometimes, I jump on the phone with physicians, and present clients’ products to ask questions to see if they make sense clinically. Essentially, I understand the problems, and I help clients navigate the process through while building trust.”

Similar to Dr. Osborne, Dr. Porras at Mckinsey & Co continued: “For me, it will be long hours from Monday to Thursday. Typically my work involves going to a client site for mergers and acquisitions cases. For example, one day of the week I would go to company A to help them set up strategies for merging with company B, and help setting up strategies for acquiring company C another day. The goal here is to achieve synergy while structuring the organization,” Dr. Porras added.

“Client-faced,” “problem-solving,” and “uncertainty”— if you happen to love all of these themes, and you decide to apply for a full-time consulting position upon graduation, learn what you can of the industry so that you will be able to position yourself for a consulting position when you complete your degree. Good luck!


Moderator and Panelists Info:

Fon Powell Ph.D. is a current consultant at Bain and Company focusing on healthcare. She is a former graduate student at Weill Cornell Medicine who finished her Ph.D. in Computational Neuroscience in May 2017. She has transitioned to the consulting world and was kind enough to conduct a panel discussion with three other experienced consultants from various backgrounds, who are also PhDs.  During her time in graduate school, Fon co-invented a medical device and was Founder/CEO of a startup, called Sodium Analyte Level Test (S.A.L.T.), which utilized the technology. Fon also spent a summer at Flagship Ventures in Cambridge, MA as VentureLabs fellow. In her free time, Fon is a strong advocate for increasing women and minority representation in STEM fields. She is a mentor coach for America Needs You, a non-profit promoting educational mobility. She also created and served as Director of a summer internship program for minority undergrads in 2015, called TIMS SSRP, which is supported by Weill Cornell Medicine, Rockefeller University and Sloan Kettering. The program has been slated to run for its third consecutive summer in 2018.

Alex Porras Ph.D. is a current specialized consultant in Pharma and healthcare at McKinsey & Company. He is a Ph.D. in Neuroscience, B.S. in Electrical Engineering. Before joining Mckinsey & Co, Porras was an experienced entrepreneur in the field of software and data analytics in healthcare.

Brent Osborne Ph.D.  is a current consultant at Defined Health, a boutique consulting firm with a special focus in pharmaceutical, biotech and healthcare investment industries.  Brent contributes to opportunity assessments, indication prioritization/sequencing, search, and strategy projects.  Brent regularly works on projects in the oncology, CVD, CNS, ophthalmology, dermatology, and fibrosis spaces. Before joining Defined Health, Brent was a postdoctoral fellow in the Wu Center for Molecular Cardiology at Columbia University. As a postdoc, Brent studied the molecular mechanisms of smooth muscle function, which led to the development of two novel mouse models of hypertension. In parallel to his time at Columbia, Brent worked as an analyst for The Solution Lab (TSL), a non-profit life sciences consulting firm in NYC. During his tenure with TSL, Brent advised clients in both pharma and biotech firms develop business strategies through competitive intelligence and quantitative analyses of niche markets.  Brent earned a Ph.D. in Cell and Molecular Biology from the University of Vermont, in Burlington, VT, where his thesis focused on structure-function relationships of novel modulators of protein kinase activity. Brent also earned a BSc from UVM in Biological Sciences where he studied the mechanisms of microbial pathogenesis. Brent has published in peer-reviewed journals, presented his work at national and international scientific meetings and is co-inventor on a patent originating from his graduate studies.

LaWanda Thompson Ph.D. is the Founder and President of Sustainable Outcomes LLC, a coaching, business consulting, and leadership development organization. Her background as a Ph.D. scientist, business leader in a Fortune 100 company (Pfizer Inc.), and Master Somatic Leadership Coach has uniquely shaped LaWanda’s professional career. She combines her expertise in biomedical sciences, traumatic stress studies, somatics/holistic practices, action-oriented communication skills, and mindfulness to help individuals and organizations make long-lasting, sustainable differences in the world. Her areas of coaching and training expertise include: Executive Leadership; Leadership Development for Individuals and Teams; Career and Role Transition Aligned with Potential, Purpose, and Passions; Enhancing Communication Skills; Leading during Conflict and Change; Trauma-Informed Leadership; Leadership Resilience. Her areas of business expertise include: Executive Management; Regulatory Compliance; Strategic Planning; Operational Excellence; Talent Management; Employee Engagement/ Empowerment; Diversity & Inclusion; Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability (Social & Environmental). LaWanda is personally dedicated to delivering tangible results. She is passionate about working with people and bringing forward the best of an organization, both through strong business management and employee engagement/empowerment. LaWanda has a B.A. in Chemistry and Biology from Talladega College, a Ph.D. in Pathology from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and holds numerous certifications. She is the recipient of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association’s 2014 Rising Star Award in recognition of her exemplary leadership.


Keywords: consulting, business careers, leaving academia, career advice

Author: Yoko J. Bian is a Ph.D. student in nanotechnology at the City University of New York.

Editors: Deepti Mathew, Tristan Fehr