Unlike my thesis committee, these people will not be impressed by pretty pictures of cells.
October 1, 2010 3:09 PM   Subscribe

Cool, I have an interview at a consulting firm even though I have no business experience whatsoever! (Uh-oh... now what do I do?)

(Anon because I am slightly paranoid re: anything to do with work) I am finishing a PhD in a subfield of biology. I don't want to remain in academia or do any more laboratory research after my PhD, so I'm applying for all sorts of different non-academic, non-lab-research jobs. One of the areas that most interested me was strategic consulting. I figured that even getting my foot in the door at a top firm was highly unlikely (I had awesome SATs and GRE scores, but my undergrad GPA wasn't that great, and I did very well with graduate coursework but don't have a great publication record), but I applied to the consulting firms I knew of that sometimes hire non-MBA advanced-degree holders. I didn't hear back from anyone for a long time, so I assumed nobody was interested in me and kept pursuing my other options.

Then, this week, I got an email from the firm that interests me the most, inviting me to their first round of interview-ish stuff (consisting of a written test and a round of "practice" case interviews). This takes place next week, so I don't have very much time to prepare.

I did a lot of research before even deciding to put in an application, so I am pretty familiar with the company, its history and its work, and its selection criteria. I have not made it to a stage where I'm likely to have significant one-on-one time with interviewers or be asked any experience-type questions. I need to do well on the written test in order to make it to the next round, but I feel pretty confident about that after taking their practice test (actually, I found that test to be very easy and I got all but 1 of the answers right). I've also been practicing case interviews, but I don't have a partner to work with and I have run out of online ones. (I also seem to be pretty good at breaking the cases down, given that the answer keys on the websites match up closely to what I come up with. Sometimes I don't come up with every single point listed on the answer key, but I have never totally missed a question -- I've gotten really good at thinking on my feet in semi-hostile territory, from all my committee meetings and data presentations). I'm planning on getting Case In Point this weekend and looking it over.

As someone with absolutely no education in business, what else can I do to be as prepared as possible for this interview? I have also read the related AskMe threads:


tl;dr: I was trained to be a scientist. I think I'd rather be a consultant. I have a golden opportunity next week and I don't want to screw it up. Help me help myself.

(Also there is a secondary issue: The email says that the dress code is business casual with no suit required. I don't really have that much non-suit business-appropriate clothing. I do have 1 black skirt suit, some sleeveless shell-type blouses that cannot be worn without having a suit jacket on top of them, and a pair of gray pinstriped wool trousers. I have two pairs of cotton twill trousers, but they are a little more casual that I would be comfortable wearing in this context. Clearly I need to buy a clothing item to cover my top half. What the hell should I wear to this thing, and why can't I just wear my Protective Armor of +1 Professionalism?)
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (9 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Congrats. (McKinsey? Or some firm that does McKinsey style interviews ...) Wear a suit if you want; about half the people will be wearing a suit and it's hard to imagine that mild overdressing would be a negative.

For the written test, you know what to do; presumably you've been doing written tests for your whole life. Read through Case In Point, which should be good for teaching you a way to think. Check out http://www.caseinterview.com/ which I found quite helpful too. For the first round, if this is the team case thing, make sure you are cooperative but distinguish yourself -- try to have good analysis but build on what the other team members say, transition smoothly, etc. My understanding is that people skills and teamwork ability really matter, and while they may not be judging you too much on the actual answers you provide, how you carry yourself will clearly matter.
posted by bsdfish at 3:26 PM on October 1, 2010

Bain has sample cases and a walkthrough of their interview process: http://www.joinbain.com/apply-to-bain/interview-preparation/default.asp

You may have done these ones already but if not, do them. I think it's OK to do them yourself, just go through it all. You'll be ahead of most candidates.
posted by GuyZero at 3:30 PM on October 1, 2010

Go to Bain, BCG, and McKinsey's website and read all their interview stuff. A ton of BS, but consulting is all about wading through BS...the point is to learn a vocabulary, it's about learning how to frame your experiences and your goals, etc.

Case In Point is invaluable, but you DO NOT want to just read it. You want to read a couple, understand the framework, and then find someone ideally who has done consulting or something similar and have them give you cases. You literally need to do this as much as possible (when I was interviewing for consulting, I did 3 a day for 2 weeks). In about a week you can get it down.

THe most important thing is structure structure structure. Take some time to think, then lay out how you'll tackle the problem, etc etc. The websites should have some interview examples.
posted by wooh at 3:34 PM on October 1, 2010

I went from academia to finance, so can't comment on the first half of the question. But for attire, you totally can and should wear your "Protective Armor of +1 Professionalism". Business casual means business if you are a job applicant at a consulting or finance firm.
posted by shazzam at 4:04 PM on October 1, 2010

Mefi mail me, I can help. (Full disclaimer, used to work in consulting).

Yes DEFINITELY on the suit.
posted by zia at 4:12 PM on October 1, 2010

If you submitted a resume that even vaguely looks like your real qualifications, you should probably expect that they want someone with "real" knowledge, not another worthless MBA (or, alternately, they already know who they want and just need to go through the motions to keep it looking legit, in which case you have no shot anyway).

So, play your strengths, don't try to respond to theirs with a weakness of your own.

Now, if you exaggerated like a madman on your resume - Play it like a 7-2 off as a blind. ;)
posted by pla at 7:42 PM on October 1, 2010

The thing to remember with management consulting is it's all about process. When they ask you a question ("how many rubbish bins in San Francisco"), they're not interested in your answer per se ("80,000"), they're interested in how intelligently and persuasively you can articulate the process for getting to the answer ("population x waste generated x whatever).

This is because the ability to sell consulting projects is closely wrapped up in your ability to articulate the process you would follow, and the ability to deliver a consulting project is closely linked to your ability to follow that process. Everything else can be learnt, mostly on the job.

Good luck!
posted by runkelfinker at 4:48 AM on October 2, 2010

The thing you need to bear in mind is this:

(1) They are hiring you to be fungible with MBAs, net a slight bias towards assignments in the life sciences -- your substanative science knowledge is not the driver, any more than knowing the law is the driver for their JD recrutiting, or being able to practice medicine for their MD recruiting. The time you spend describing lab work and research should be oriented towards showing that you are an ambitious, creative, robustly analytical people person.

(2) Despite #1, they are not expecting you to have an MBA level of business knowledge. You must practice cases and gain (in additionl to case method) the broad-stroke control over the drivers of profit, loss and return on investment that this confers, and you must have the layman's currency that comes from reading the Wall Street Journal cover to cover starting a month ago (use the archives online) and ending the morning of your first interview ... but do not try to fake having the granular knowledge of accounting principles, capital markets theory and practice, marketing buzzwords, etc., of an MBA (who typically has 3 or 4 years of professional business experience plus 1.5 years of b-school). There a 100 MBAs for every single seat they are trying to fill if they wanted every seat-holder to have that knowledge.
posted by MattD at 6:46 AM on October 2, 2010

nthing find someone to practice case interviews with you. I coached someone through this process and he passed, and we just went through case after case from any source we could find. There are also typical personality-type questions they ask you ("Tell me about a challenging work experience" type stuff) for which you should look up the most commonly asked ones and come up with canned responses that will cover them.

And yes, wear the suit. They don't require it because some people feel less comfortable in it. If it makes you feel more pro, you go ahead and rock that suit like you were born in it.
posted by little light-giver at 5:22 PM on October 2, 2010

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