To consult or not to consult

A Harvard Crimson survey showed 20 percent of 2015 grads are going into consulting, 25 percent of employed Yale graduates enter the consulting or finance industry and I was not able to find a statistic about University of Mannheim but from the gut feeling I can say that at least half of my friends have applied or is going to apply for a consulting career. This is a lot of people. These are not just some people but smart, young and passionate people at the age of 23-24-25. If every second person around me is talking about consulting career I must be asking the question: WHY?!

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I still remember the world in my first year of studies and surely almost nobody enters the university with a clear vision of becoming a consultant. Surprisingly, right now just before the graduation, it seems to be the obvious choice for so many of us. The standard narrative goes like this: ‘Actually, I want to have an impact and change the world for better but right now the best way for me to gain essential knowledge and save some money is working for the consulting industry for some years.’ It’s this and prestige. Or let’s call it social status. You are trying to prove the world, your friend and mostly yourself that you, as well, can, if you want to, get a job at one of the top 5. And obviously if McKinsey or BCG say you’re cool than you’re cool.

But do we all really know what this job means for our daily life? For our time, precisely almost any of our time? Here is a short relation of a former J.P. Morgan intern: “Working there was a combination of the least fulfilling, least interesting and least educational experiences of my life. I guess I did learn something, but I learned it in the first two days and could have stopped my internship then. In the next two months I learned nothing but still came into work early and for some reason had to stay until ten,” he said. “I would see these people who loved it but honestly it seemed like they were either uninteresting or lying to themselves.”

More quotes, and this one is truly brilliant (Kevin Hicks, former dean of Berkeley College):

“As for the argument that consulting provides an extraordinary skill set with which one can eventually change the world, I just don’t buy it,” he said. “Everyone knows what the skill set is for most entry-level consultants: PowerPoint and Excel.” He sees a huge problem with the idea that consulting and finance are good ways to prepare oneself for a career elsewhere. “Most firms are looking for people who will stay up until 3 a.m. seven nights a week making slides for a partner who goes home to Wellesley for dinner every night at 5 p.m. — and who will do so thinking that they’re ‘winning’.

There are a half-dozen more life-affirming ways you can acquire those same skills, including taking a class at night at a junior college while you do something more interesting. I suppose I’m open to the idea that consulting may truly be a great first job for someone, but too many seniors march lemming-like towards it because everyone else seems to be doing it, and it’s the next opportunity for extrinsic validation. If McKinsey says you’re okay, you’re okay.”

Yeah, so that’s what I see right now: lots of my smart, brilliant friends marching lemming-like towards those jobs. Because everybody seems to be doing it and because if you do not have other idea than this is the first one that appears in front of your eyes at our university. Obviously, those firms have a brilliant marketing. You can constantly participate in some kind of any events, talks, dinners with good food and ever-smiling representatives in suits made perfect for their size, shining with their big watches while they pronounce the favourite sentence: ‘I love my job!’ Sounds convincing, doesn’t it? They have the resources to make fascinating recruiting efforts and since they are smart as well, they do a great job at convincing young talents. If you visit a career fair here, why there are no stands from non-profits, public institutions, art and music industry, small start ups? They probably do not have the time or resources, or both, in order to do such an extensive, loud and strategic recruiting.

I am not trying to say that all the consulting companies are pure evil. They are not. But still, is this all right that every second of my friends and every fourth of Yale graduates is going to become a consultant? Definitely not! It worries me because it is a hell lots of talent that could make a big change somewhere else. They are entering a career when they are not directly adding value, producing something great, helping others or engaging in things they are truly passionate about. Even if this is just for some years, these are the most important years and these are many, many people within their important years. That’s a big deal.

Why is nobody talking about it if this is really a big deal? Maybe I am overreacting and those firms are a fantastic, friendly and inspiring environment but it worries me so much. I have seen already some people starting their careers or even just internships as consultants and I am terrified that they started to believe it to be the best way to spend any of the time they have right now. What about their dreams they were talking about before entering university? What about your social startup, vegan restaurant, innovative secondhand or revolutionary high-tech solution? I do not want us to forget what do we really want to do. And if we do not know what we exactly want to do, I do not want us to settle for a commonly accepted solutions. Maybe I am too idealistic but I feel like this is us, my generation, who are responsible for changing the world for better. We were so lucky to grow up in a stable environment and to get a great education, we need to do something about it!

Maybe, before you forget what your dreams few years ago were about, before you answer the perfectly personalised message in your linkedin account starting with ‘Dear John, I’ve noticed your interesting profile and would like to invite you…’, before you take a decision as important as your postgraduate plans, ask yourself the existential question that nowadays seems to be: To consult or not to consult?

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*This post was strongly inspired by the essay Even artichokes have doubts written by Marina Keegan. I read it a long time ago and it came back to me right now more relevant than ever before.

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