Consulting Career Planning
October 16, 2009 2:28 PM   Subscribe

Wanting to start doing independent consulting work in two years. Advice for now?

I am a phd student at a respected environmental policy program. I am on track to graduate in two years. I do not want to go into academia. The academic job market is horrible and the ivory tower is not applied enough for my taste.

Instead, I want to do independent (freelance) consulting work. Since I would only start consulting two years from now (after I graduate), I was wondering what I can do now to help my future consulting career.
posted by Spurious to Work & Money (5 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Network, network, network.
posted by Jacqueline at 2:31 PM on October 16, 2009

Basically, start looking for a job now. See if you can leverage your Phd work into some part-time consulting gigs. Part of being a consultant means being an expert. So be the expert. Do all the speaking engagements you can. Raise your profile as big as you can in every possible way. Learn the "pain points" of organizations that you would like to consult for, and demonstrate how you will be the right person for the job.

Consider applying to consulting firms (McKinsey, Bain, IBM, and Accenture, etc. ), they can break you into the field of consulting and demonstrate what needs to go down relatively safely. Then you go independent with a better chance of success.
posted by dobie at 2:54 PM on October 16, 2009

Why can you not start now? Bursting out of academia with no actual experience of client deliverables is... possibly not the most forward-thinking plan ever. Can you offer your post-masters, pre-doc expertise to some kind of environmental think tank, or a business with a need and no budget, or something? Some kind of sector portfolio would give you credibility, plus unless you are in one of those rare academic programmes that gives you a lot of real-world experience, you might find that kind of practice very useful from a practical hands-on perspective.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:09 PM on October 16, 2009

Best answer: Start looking now. If you can get experience on your CV without completely killing your coursework / thesis work, do it. Summers, a month over the winter holidays...

Are you interested in domestic work? International? It would help to know because the advice for each would be different.

I used to be a recruiter for a large international firm-- still work there, just not recruiting anymore. I filled about 85 short-term consulting positions and read literally thousands of CVs.


1. Don't send the same (slightly modified) cover letter to every company. Completely transparent, and unimpressive.

2.a. Do send a CV that is impeccably organized. You have about a minute to stick out to a recruiter; put the good stuff up front. Don't front-load it with academic stuff; degree and institution is fine, but keep the publications towards the end. They're important, but not as important as work experience, especially field work. It's not a bad idea to save as PDF.

2.b. Keep your cover letter to one page, CV to three max. Since you have less than 10 years of experience, try to keep it to 2.

3. Language skills are (usually) less important than you think.

4. Ask your professors for leads and introductions.

5. Don't take it personally when you don't hear from companies at all. In the recruiting stage, you're nothing more than a page of accomplishments and experiences, and if they don't fit the task at hand perfectly, that page will end up in the trash.

Independent consulting is rough because you never know what-- or when-- your next gig will be. Living without benefits isn't easy. A transient existence is almost unavoidable. Consider whether this is really what you want; some people love it, some (like me) could never handle the uncertainty.
posted by charmcityblues at 4:34 PM on October 16, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great advice, and keep it coming!

A friend turned me onto the idea of independent consulting. He got his phd 5 years ago and does consulting full time, mostly helping think tanks with policy research in the topic he did his dissertation in.
posted by Spurious at 4:46 PM on October 16, 2009

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