From the Bench to Consulting – How I built my own career

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On 29 August we had a talk by Prateek Mahalwar at the NGC Career Talk Series. He started with an introduction to his academic career, how he moved from India to Germany to do his masters in integrative neurosciences in Magdeburg and then moved to the Max-Planck Institute in Tübingen to do his PhD under the supervision of the Nobel laureate Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard. After a successful PhD (with publications in high impact journals, such as Science) and a very engaged curriculum (spokesperson of the PhDnet, co-founder of the N2 network and member of the ECAG of eLife, among other activities), he decided to leave academia and started out as a consultant. Now, he is a co-founder of a couple of start-ups.

In his talk, Prateek gave a great overview of how it is like to be a management consultant and named a couple of points to reflect on in situations where one has to make a decision. For instance, if you are unsure about whether you should follow a career in or outside of academia, you could reflect on these points Prateek mentioned during his talk:

  • What are your interests? (e.g. Do you like working in the lab? Analyzing data?)
  • What are your skills? (e.g. You can also start improving your skills with online courses, such as in the business area)
  • Who would you like to work with? (e.g. CEOs or students)
  • Where would you like to work? (e.g. pharma industry)
  • Make a short list of companies you would like to work with
  • Get inspiration (Connect with people on LinkedIn, job shadowing, attend talks/events)

It is important to try and get some work experience by doing an internship at a company, for instance. The lack of work experience, he points out, is a major reason why PhD graduates are not invited to interviews in the industry.

If consulting has been an area of your interest, be aware that it is a fast paced job with tight deadlines. The quote “You are not an expert, but an expert” mentioned during the talk, pretty much sums up the job. This means, you be will be faced with a variety of clients, topics and problems and you have to understand the matter in a short amount of time and come up with a possible solution for the problem. You will be mainly working with CEOs, who are fast thinkers, so you will have to adapt to that. You will be travelling a lot and working hours can vary from 12-18 hours a day. When working with clients, it was quite normal for Prateek to finish up work around 9 PM. Usually, people tend to do the consulting job for a couple of years and then move on to something else, like Prateek did with the start-ups. If frequent travel is not an option, there are also internal roles, which are not as fast paced as an external one.

The typical workflow starts with the clients briefing the consultant about a problem and the consultant’s task is then, to simplify the problem by dividing it into sections and figuring out which section is the most problematic, followed by analyses and problem solving in a team setting.
So, what is one of the major differences between science and consultancy? T
he scientific method is often question-driven and not solution-driven. Consultancy, however, focuses on finding quick and efficient solutions.

Prateek emphasized that a very crucial point during a job interview for a consultant position are case interviews. It is important to pass all the cases you will be presented. During the interview, you will be given a couple of cases and the task will be to find a solution for the problem. For instance, if a company is not selling their products how they used to, then you will have to suggest a solution for how to improve it. It is highly recommended to prepare for these case interviews and especially to practice it in front of people. The interviewers will be observing the interviewee while a case is being solved and they are interested in the thought process which lead to a solution. One tip would therefore be: if you have a company in mind, for which you would like to work, you should consider applying to other less interesting companies first to get some experience in being interviewed.

The key elements to solving a case are to make sure that you understand the problem by asking relevant questions. Structure the problem. State a hypothesis  and ask for more information, which could help in solving a case. In the above mentioned example, where a company is not selling their products how they used to, you will need a full picture of their business and for that, you will need more data from the interviewers. Think out loud and let the interviewers to follow your thought process. Refine your hypotheses as you get more information. There are also a lot of resources on the internet to prepare for case interviews.

If you are interested in a career as a consultant, be ready for long hours, on-site work and lots of hard work. These efforts will pay you off by boosting your CV and virtually allowing you to be ready for your next career step, whichever you want it to be. "An expert, but not an expert".

Some resources mentioned during the talk:

Crack the Case System: Complete Case Interview Prep - David Ohrvall
Case in Point: Complete Case Interview Preparation - Marc Cosentino

Written by Rathiga Varatheeswaran; Edited by Radhika Menon & Chiara Galante. Featured Image by NGC/Design.
We thank the Gutenberg Nachwuchs Kolleg from Mainz University for the financial support in organizing this event.

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