“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both,” read the first two lines of the famous poem The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost.
Students and fresh graduates looking to step into consulting face a similar dilemma as Frost i.e. to begin their career path in consulting vs industry.
Consulting allows you to work with multiple clients, get exposure to many industries, and enjoy greater autonomy though this comes with long hours and high-stress work culture. Industry offers in-depth knowledge and expertise in a particular niche with better stability and work-life balance. However, there’s less freedom and variety.
What is Working in Consulting Like?
Consultancies offer their services directly to customers who are usually large organizations or government agencies. A typical client might be a multinational corporation, a non-profit organization, or even a state department.
Top-tier consulting firms such as ‘The Big Three’ (McKinsey, BCG, and Bain), Deloitte, PwC, Ernst & Young, and Oliver Wyman are a big draw among undergraduates and MBA’s looking to get a foot in the door in consulting.
Let’s now take a look at the perks and drawbacks of working in a consultancy:
Pros of Working in Consulting
1. Consulting Pays Better
It’s no secret that the consulting industry has a place among the highest-paid professions. But even within this field, consultancies offer higher compensation than working in the industry, especially at the entry-level.
According to Movemeon, there’s quite a bit of difference between salaries in a consulting firm compared to the industry, even though the job title might be the same. A senior analyst earns around 35% less in industry while an associate earns around 25% less and a manager up to 8%.
In fact, entry-level salaries for undergraduates at top consulting firms start at a whopping $90,000 in the USA.
2. Consulting Offers Continuous Learning and Network Building
Most consultancies have training and mentorship programs to help new hires learn about various technologies and business processes, so you can expect a rapid learning curve in a consulting firm. No two days are the same in a consultancy due to the vast scope of work so you will be continuously learning on the job as well.
You’ll pick up skills that’ll help you grow both professionally and personally such as leadership, communication, problem-solving, research and quantitative analysis, flexibility, and teamwork. And exposure to varied types of businesses will develop your understanding of how people think and behave within organizations.
A common saying goes, ‘Your network is your net worth’. In a consulting firm, you’ll be working with multiple high-profile clients and interacting with the top brass at diverse organizations throughout your tenure. In addition, you will be able to build strong relationships with senior management team members which can help you land more challenging assignments down the line.
3. Consulting Offers Flexibility
Consultants working in consulting firms enjoy greater autonomy which means they set their own schedules and decide how to best use their time. They don’t always report directly to someone else or follow strict organizational hierarchies as most corporations do. This allows them to focus on client needs rather than company politics.
Consultants are not tied down by office hours either since many choose to come into the office only when necessary.
Cons of Working In Consulting
1. Consultants Work Long Hours and Have Higher Work Stress
Consultancy requires long hours due to its fast-paced nature and intense pressure from deadlines. Time is money and the focus is on billable hours. Consultants find themselves working late nights and weekends to stay ahead of the game and 60+ hour workweeks are the norm.
Clocking in and out at 9 to 5 is a distant dream and consultants often burn out due to the demands of the job. The work culture doesn’t promote taking breaks from work because everyone wants to stay productive all day, every day. High stress levels can also lead to health issues like insomnia, anxiety, depression, and heart disease.
2. Less Control Over Projects
While it may seem like consultants get to take charge of everything, this isn’t necessarily true. Most companies hire consultants to solve specific problems but there’s no guarantee that recommendations will ever see the light of day. The client might decide not to execute the suggestions and just shelve the file.
What is Working in Industry Like?
If you prefer a stable environment while gaining in-depth knowledge about a particular industry, pursuing a consulting career in a corporate might be the right fit for you. While working in industry, you have access to internal resources such as HR departments, IT teams, and marketing experts.
You also get to form more lasting relationships with the people you work with as you interact with them on a regular basis as compared to consultancies.
Pros of Working in Industry
1. Industry Gives You More Control Over Your Schedule
Industry roles usually require regular 8 am to 5 pm, Monday to Friday business hours. Client requests don’t come through at odd hours and you mostly have the weekend to yourself. There aren’t usually any crazy deadlines so you won’t feel pressured to meet unrealistic expectations. In addition, you’re not competing with your colleagues and can focus on the task at hand.
2. Industry Gives You More Stability
The jet-setting lifestyle of consultancies is absent when working in a corporate and there’s more stability and a better work-life balance. This is especially important if you have a family as you get to spend quality time with them.
In contrast to consulting firms, corporations also usually don’t let go of staff members easily. They’re much more willing to keep experienced workers around even when business slows down.
3. Industry Gives You Deep Knowledge in Your Area
While working in a corporate, you’ll gain valuable expertise in a niche area or industry. This allows you to be a specialist in that particular field through real-world experience gained on the job.
A Quora response by a former partner of Booz Allen Hamilton who spent the first five years of his consulting career in industry says that one can “acquire more depth in a particular industry and possibly a functional area such as manufacturing, operations or finance.”
Cons of Working in Industry
1. Industry Gives You Less Autonomy
As opposed to consulting firms, most corporations operate under strict hierarchies. Your boss has ultimate authority over what gets done and how things should be accomplished. There’s less room for creativity since everything must follow established procedures.
The organization is also your employer so if something doesn’t align with company policy, you may face disciplinary action unlike in consultancies where you work for diverse clients.
2. Industry Offers Less Variety
Many companies stick to standard operating practices because they know these methods will generate profits.
It makes it difficult to learn new skills and develop innovative ideas. You also don’t get exposure to different areas of business as you only do work related to your specialty and there are also limited networking opportunities.
What Are the Key Differences Between Working in a Consulting Firm vs Industry?
Nature of Client Relationship
While working in a consultancy, consultants maintain relationships and work with multiple clients during their tenure. It’s more of an outside-in perspective when working with a client in a consultancy as the client is not their employer. On the other hand, while working in industry, consultants typically deal with one single company i.e. the organization that employs them.
Control Over Projects
In a consulting firm, consultants work on a project and then move on to service other clients. You rarely get to be present for the execution phase and see the fruits of your labor. Whereas in industry, you’re in it for the long haul and get to see your recommendations be executed.
Learning Opportunities and Growth
In a consultancy, there are continuous learning opportunities as you get exposed to multiple clients, projects, people, ideas, trends, and technologies. Whereas many industries have standardized processes and ways of doing things. While you’ll gain in-depth expertise in the particular field, your role will be more focused.
Employees in a consultancy are expected to put in long hours and even work on weekends as per job demands. The high-competition, high-stress work environment sees some consultants burn out and also contributes to the high churn rate in this field. A former ‘Big 4’ management consultant says on Quora, “I remember hearing the head of one of our offices at Deloitte say that if our employees don’t cooperate you should ‘crush them like a bug’.” Many working in consultancies make a switch to industry after a few years due to the work culture.
Working in corporate offers better work-life balance and a structured environment with less frequent travel which is especially important if you have a family.
Scope of responsibility
Consultancy usually has an all-hands-on-deck approach, especially with tight deadlines. In industry, consultants mostly have a focused area of responsibility with everyone concentrating on their own work.
As a Student or New Graduate, What Is the Right Fit for Me, Industry or Consulting?
When you’re starting off, a consultancy might be a better option to get a wealth of exposure and experience, build up your network, and learn. It is said that a year in consulting is worth two in the industry.
However, if you’re sure of the industry and specialization you want to pursue in consulting and also value stability, getting into the industry right away might be the right choice for you as you’ll get niche expertise in that field from the get-go.
Click on this Reddit thread to read through consultants’ views on both sides.