When corporations and other organizations confront difficult challenges, they sometimes seek guidance from outsiders perceived to be insightful and trustworthy. In many cases, they hire a team of management consultants to analyze their problems and identify potential solutions.
Consulting is a lucrative profession for MBA degree recipients, who typically earn six-figure salaries if they work in this industry, according to compensation statistics from the U.S. News Best Business Schools rankings. The average consulting salary among MBA graduates in the class of 2018 who earned their degrees from ranked full-time MBA programs was $130,656.
Management consulting experts note that although an MBA is not mandatory to obtain a job in this field, it improves the odds of securing a position.
"It is extremely valuable to have the education that an MBA provides if one's goal is to venture into management consulting," Karrie C. Prehm, founder and CEO of Global Regulation Advisers Corp., a Florida-based consulting firm, wrote in an email.
"MBA programs are generally designed to help refine certain hard and soft skills that professionals might not otherwise have the opportunity to exercise," adds Prehm, an alumna of the executive MBA program at Florida Atlantic University. "It is those skills in analysis, collaboration, application, problem solving, partnering, and communication that really catapult a consulting career, and also pave a path for other leadership or entrepreneurial opportunities down the road."
What Is a Management Consultant and What Does a Management Consultant Do?
The job of a management consultant is to discover the root causes of whatever issues a client faces and use that information to come up with a fix. The consultant must then present his or her proposal to the clients and tell them how to solve their leadership quandary.
Management consulting requires an ability to make sense of confusing and conflicting data. Consultants must also be creative, since a significant portion of their work involves brainstorming original business ideas.
Additionally, management consultants should be clear and persuasive communicators, since they need to offer compelling justifications of their recommendations to opinionated executives. Plus, they may be asked to provide comprehensive explanations of their proposals.
Karin Ash, a former director of MBA career management with Cornell University's S.C. Johnson School of Business for seven years, describes an important distinction between the jobs that MBA grads and college grads are hired to do at consulting firms.
"Although consulting firms hire B.A. and B.S. students, they are often relegated to handling the presentation preparation passed off to them by the consultants," Ash, who is now an admissions consultant for the Accepted consulting firm, wrote in an email. "MBAs are hired as members of consulting teams that are assigned to company projects."
How to Become a Management Consultant
Gaining a foothold in the management consulting industry is not easy, experts say.
It's even more difficult without an MBA, says Scott Edinburgh, an admissions consultant and former management consultant who has an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.
On-campus recruitment at business schools provides MBA students with networking opportunities that are unavailable to others, says Edinburgh, founder of the Personal MBA Coach admissions consulting firm and a board member with the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants.
Joshua A. Gerlick, a former management consultant and current Ph.D. student with the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio where he is both a Doctor of Management Fowler Fellow and a Doctor of Management Nonprofit Management Fellow, says management consulting positions are "highly coveted" among MBA students and that competition is fierce for such jobs.
"Simply being the strongest academic scholar will not guarantee you a job offer," Gerlick wrote in an email. "Your ability to think logically about a problem and argue a convincing solution are far more important."
Gerlick, who has an MBA, suggests that MBA students who dream of working for management consulting firms get involved with their business school consulting club and aim to excel in strategy case competitions. They should also strive to secure a management consulting internship, he says.
Future management consultants should take a wide array of MBA courses, Gerlick adds, including classes on strategy, quantitative data analysis and operations management. But he says the most important skills to develop are presentation skills.
"Taking courses in both written and oral communication is a minimum prerequisite, but adding electives in high-stakes or crisis communications, data visualization, and public relations management might be the differentiator that earns you a job," he says.
How an MBA Impacts Consulting Job Prospects
Edinburgh notes that people who are hired as management consultants after college often go back to business school because they believe an MBA will accelerate their career trajectory. In general, management consultants with MBAs are promoted faster than peers without that degree, he says.
Katie Thomas, an associate director with the Masters Career Center at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business, notes that an MBA is especially helpful for individuals who wish to become generalist management consultants. Those types of consultants tackle projects that involve multiple industries and various business functions.
For careers in generalist consulting, "the most common entry point is post-degree, whether that is after undergrad, MBA or even a Ph.D. program," Thomas says.
She notes that individuals who enter the consulting sector after having a nonconsulting career are usually specialist consultants with subject matter expertise and a clearly defined focus area, as opposed to generalist consultants.
"This is fine for some, but for many, the appeal of management consulting is the exposure to a wide range of clients, industries and functions," she explains.
Thomas emphasizes that consulting firms have a significant track record of hiring MBA grads, which shows that consulting firms particularly appreciate the MBA credential.
"For MBAs in particular, the sheer volume of consultants hired upon graduation by most top-tier consulting firms shows the value of an MBA," she says.
David Magnani, president of consulting services with M&A Executive Search, a Minnesota-based global recruiting and consulting firm, says major management consulting firms generally prefer MBA-level job candidates who earned their MBA from top-ranked business schools.
"Hiring managers typically are focused on the top national MBA schools partially because of the strengths of the programs but also because these schools only accept top candidates from a GPA, GMAT, and past work experience perspective," he wrote in an email. "So if you are interested in an initial consulting career with a major management consulting firm you should focus on getting an MBA from one of the top-name schools."
Nevertheless, Magnani notes, it is feasible to make a career pivot into the consulting sector after excelling in a different industry.
"Many of the major management consultancies have moved away from strictly hiring generalists with MBAs and have put more emphasis on hiring specialists from an industry or functional perspective," he says. "This has been driven by their clients who want deep knowledge and expertise in areas where they are lacking in their organization."
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