Tell me about educational consulting
January 1, 2015 11:00 AM   Subscribe

What is it? How do people get into it? What is the day-to-day work like? Am I qualified?

Here is the sum total of my knowledge thus far:

From what I understand, there are independent educational consultants and as well as educational consultancy firms, plus bigger firms that do multiple kinds of consulting, including educational. School districts and universities hire educational consultants to improve their practices, the same way a business would hire a management consultant. Also, though, individual wealthy students hire educational consultants to help them get into college and grad school, and I can't quite tell how these two kinds of work are linked (they seem like very different fields, but seem to go under the same title, which is confusing me.)

Some opening questions:

What kind of work do educational consultants do on a day-to-day basis? How much of it is research and writing reports, vs. visiting schools, vs. sitting in meetings vs. drumming up business?

How much is it like, or unlike, being a management consultant? (I have friends who work for McKinsey and BCG, and in theory it sounds like a dream job--tons of writing and research! always a new puzzle to solve! -- and in practice I know that it's hell because of the travel and the hours and the overall culture.)

How do people get started in this career?

Can you tell me more about the difference between doing this independently and working for a firm?

What are some of the most well-regarded firms in the industry?

What's the pay like?

What's the work culture like?

If you have this job, what are the pros and cons?

Is this a field I could conceivably enter?

(To help you answer that last question: I've got a very shiny Ivy League PhD in the humanities and the research skills to go with it; plus lots of teaching experience + prizes. I also taught public health in the Peace Corps, and have a lot of other volunteering experience that involves community education. I'm endlessly curious about all forms of alternative education, and the way that learning works. This past semester, I've been doing some admissions essay editing (some high school kids, but mostly for foreign students applying to graduate and professional schools) and I've been surprised at how interesting and enjoyable I've found it. I am also a creative writer, so I'm on the hunt for a career that might pay me a living wage without eating up all my hours and sucking away my life force. I thought that ruled out consulting completely...but maybe not?

Bonus: are there other kinds of consulting that a smart, motivated humanities type without super-strong quant skills should explore?

Bonus bonus: does my background scream out some other career path to you?

posted by pretentious illiterate to Work & Money (7 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: PS Apologies for the mountain of typos in this post. Please do not take it as indicative of the usual quality of my work. In my non-defense: It is New Year's Day, and I am very hungover.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 11:01 AM on January 1, 2015

Since you don't mention the latter definition of educational consulting, (which I think is more often referred to as "admissions consulting" for this very reason) it's more difficult to crack the field if you have no experience in college or graduate school admissions.

If you're just getting started with investigating, it might be useful to check out the largest professional organization at the college level: NACAC.
posted by gnomeloaf at 1:40 PM on January 1, 2015

Best answer: When I worked for a test prep company we had some admissions consultants that we referred people to. 100% of them were actively or formerly admissions officers at major universities.

Further, when I was a professor in a professional MA program at an Ivy League university, a lot of the students were university employees, and from what those that worked in admissions told me, it was not uncommon for admissions officers to do this sort of consulting on the side, then build up some references and experience, and then go out on their own.

I think that your PhD will help add to your credibility, but beware that this sort of work is so reputation-based that you'll have to spend a lot of time wooing high school guidance counselors.

If you're really interested in this path, I'd suggest trying to find an established business to learn the ropes.

Good luck!
posted by k8t at 4:52 PM on January 1, 2015

Best answer: Oh, and something that I experienced when I did private test prep tutoring that may come into play for you -- I found that I had a hard time helping those that already had a leg up (enough money to pay for private tutoring, parents that cared, etc.) work the system in order to do better on the prep school exams/SAT/ACT and get into a very good school.

And a lot, if not the majority, of my private clients were people that fell into this category. There were many lazy rich kids. There were many students with special needs that could not be disclosed to me (and I had 0 expertise on how to teach them.) There were a lot of insane parents with high expectations for the kids and for me, the tutor. (And in my test prep job I barely had to deal with the parents and I never had to deal with the parents regarding money.) Occasionally I came across a hard working kid who had just had a rough year or two (parents' divorce, often) and needed a little extra help to catch up in geometry or something. But that was not the norm. I never had a private middle school or high school client where I felt that the parents were really struggling to make this private tutoring happen and thus I felt morally obligated to go above and beyond for that student.

And I learned that with (some) rich people, what they say goes. "You're meeting him at our house at the time that we say." (Being alone with a minor in a house? Yuk. Liability ahoy!) "Melinda has a tennis game this week, so we're moving tutoring up an hour, even though this means you have to cancel with someone else." And this irritated me.

So, tl;dr, if you're going to wander into that world, be prepared to work within a system of privilege that you may or may not be comfortable with. I wasn't comfortable.

This all was over a decade ago, and now that I have hired tutors/coaches/specialists for my own kid, I feel a little differently I guess. But if I was paying what those private test prep people were paying, I'd want the tutor to come to my house too. And I've since used career consultants and realize now that there is a lot of work that goes into client expectation management when you're spending hundreds and thousands of dollars on this stuff.
posted by k8t at 5:08 PM on January 1, 2015

Best answer: I don't know what your research skills are, but I can tell you this, as someone who has worked for more than a decade in the world you describe: Consultants are usually either subject-matter experts or educational researchers. You might qualify as the former. You almost certainly won't qualify as the latter, since the field is very social-science-y with an emphasis on lots of statistics and social psychology.

None of this is to say you couldn't make yourself into an educational researcher, but as your resume probably is now, you'd be a good SME but not a good research-oriented consultant.
posted by yellowcandy at 5:24 PM on January 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: What kind of work do educational consultants do on a day-to-day basis?
Here's what I've seen consultants hired for in a big school district. This includes both people with an education background as well as more business-y backgrounds.
-helping with project management (particularly for business/project management backgrounds)
-helping with strategic, long-term planning around large initiatives (again, particularly for business/project management backgrounds)
-helping to work on one-off projects like collecting feedback on systems and structures and making recommendations for revisions. It's helpful having the consultant for these because there may not be a full time person who can add the project to their already full plate.
-training specific types of district personnel on specific leadership skills related to their jobs. This is helpful when the work the trainees will be doing is new and the consultant brings expertise in that area that others in the district don't have.

Can you tell me more about the difference between doing this independently and working for a firm?
We use particular people if we already have relationships with them, or if they're a small company or LLC with a particular area of expertise that's needed and can't come from a bigger firm. Otherwise we most often use bigger companies. Thus, I've only seen people do this independently if they already know a ton of people who will hire them, or have a certain indispensable skill that will be in high demand.

What's the pay like?
It seems to depend on the consulting company, or the rates you set yourself if you're going it alone. I know some consultants who make very good money doing this, and others who don't make as much as they'd make if they worked full time in the district, but like consulting because it's a way to have a full time job without worrying about it after hours.

What's the work culture like?
Again, this is going to depend on the company you work with and the people who hired you. The consultants I've worked with are involved in the day-to-day culture of the district.

Memail me if you'd like more info! I haven't done this job, but I've worked with many people who have on a regular basis.
posted by violetish at 5:26 PM on January 1, 2015

I just finished a 2 year contract in Hong Kong as an "educational consultant." I had to do both test prep (with some kids who seriously needed to learn English first before even thinking about taking the SAT or ACT) and admissions consulting. I also tutored college-prep English and did tailored writing classes for students who asked for it. For Hong Kong at least, the only real qualification they want is to see if you were a top school alum (think top 15 in the US, Oxford/Cambridge) or have an advanced degree, preferably from one of the shiny universities.

The hardest part about admissions consulting is tempering parental expectations. Some parents had seriously unrealistic expectations like wanting their C+ student to get into some top school. Making donations to top schools was also not unheard of and part of the job involved helping parents understand the language used by university development offices. Acting as a go between for the child and parent was also really common. I even had one parent ask me, "What does my son do in his room all day??" Oy.

It was much harder working with parents than it was to work with the kids. I worked in a private center so I avoided all the "Come to our house at X o'clock" deal and had an amazing office manager who would put her foot down on parents who would try to switch lesson times on short notices or on random whims (hey, we are taking kid for a long weekend in Japan). Essay writing in the beginning tended to be a teeth-pulling process for some kids because they would constantly worry about how "unique" their essay was going to be to the point where they wouldn't commit anything on paper. But once the ball gets rolling, everything finishes up relatively quickly and enjoyably. You do get the occasional laughably bizarre essay though. I keep one of my former student's first drafts to re-read whenever I need to cheer myself up with something funny.

I worked with all ridiculously privileged kids. Some were completely grounded and down to earth, but others were scary in how academically unprepared they were despite attending a fancy international school. Others would start out as complete basket cases then all of a sudden work their butts off and do really really well. You also get the kids who started out really really well but gave up and let everything fall away. However, many of them did have parents who were completely clueless about how the US application system works and needed a lot of explanation/guidance to just wrap their heads around the sheer amount of stuff US universities expect out of applicants now.

The work culture I had was pretty great. It was a really small office, and my co-workers and I got along really well. There was a lot of bonding whenever parents would show up with some ridiculous request or another. Everyone was involved whenever we hired someone new just because it would be such a headache having someone that people struggled to get along with in such a small office.

Honestly, if I were you, I'd stick with just admissions essay consulting. It's the most lucrative part of the admissions consulting process without the extra headache of dealing with nutty parents. As for drumming up business for this, once you get word of mouth going, you don't need to do anything. Keeping track of where your clients end up getting into and going helps too. The company I worked for assigns consultants/teachers to students at first, but after my first year, I ended up getting loads of referrals from happy parents.

Memail me if you want to hear more about this form of educational consulting!
posted by astapasta24 at 8:02 PM on January 1, 2015

« Older I want a portico, but is it too complicated?   |   How do I get my life back together after... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.