BCG and Consultancy Resources

Following the BCG strategy consulting session for PhDs a couple of weeks ago, here’s my summary of some of the points of interest. I’m assuming you can read their website, so won’t repeat it here and will focus on some of the informal comments they made.

However, for those who couldn’t make it or didn’t write fast enough, I’m afraid we won’t be able to get you the slides. (I’ve been waiting for an answer from BCG, hence the delay. Unfortunately BCG say that they don’t make their slides available externally – but given that they did send three consultants up to Manchester and spent a long time answering all your questions well into the evening, I really don’t think we can moan!)

So, first some highlights, comments and interesting facts from the session, then some application/interview hints (in time for this year’s deadline – 7th November), and finally some extra resources to help with these or any consultancy applications:

  • The three consultants were Frank (PhD Biophysics), Juliet (PhD International Relations) and Luke (PhD Structural Biology) – and, yes they were all from Oxford, but assured us that it wasn’t required. (Oh you cynics – look, why would they bother to come to Manchester if they didn’t think they would find the right talent here?).
  • Juliet was refreshingly honest about finishing her humanities PhD, thinking, “I don’t know what I want to do and want a career which lets me find out” – and strategy consulting at BCG fitted the bill. She was also honest enough to admit that “spreadsheets terrified me” but the formal training in finance, presentations and the “mini-MBA” at the start of her career, and the apprenticeship system, with feedback after every assignment, really helps to increase your confidence as you progress.
  • There is a clearer hierarchy at BCG than at Universities, but it’s not a “do as I say” hierarchy. There’s a strong feedback system after each case, both downwards from partners to more junior employees, but also upwards ie you have to give feedback on the partner’s efforts to support you. It seems to influence their culture significantly and gives you clarity on what you’ve done right and wrong. As the senior consultants’ rewards are based on their feedback from those more junior in the team, it means they really look after you. How many would like a system like that for your supervisors …? One of the consultants commented that it’s brilliant compared to a PhD when you meet your supervisor once a month and the comment you get is “yeah, you’re doing alright”.
  • When questioned about how their work would be affected by the financial turmoil, they pointed out that they felt that the amount of work in financial services wouldn’t change, but the type might – from strategies of growth, mergers, acquisitions etc to restructuring and cost-cutting strategies. Maybe consultants are like economists, where their successes are “counter-cyclical”, getting more attention/business when the economy’s going south (can’t claim ownership of this suggestion – it comes courtesy of Prof Joseph Stiglitz’ Foundation Lecture at the University a week or so ago, well worth downloading to the mp3 player of your choice)
  • The question of travel came up – this varied from Frank (the more experienced consultant) who had spent 1 week a month in the US for a time, and had commuted (daily, I think) to Paris on the Eurostar for a month before realising that it would be easier to be based over there for a while, whereas Juliet was celebrating her first trip out – to Manchester (but she’d only been at BCG since March).

They also offered some further information about applying to BCG.

  • Although they have 4 intakes a year, the deadline for PhD applications is 7th November (ie apply now even if you won’t be available for some time yet). If you’re invited for an interview, they also offer an optional practice case study interview session on the week commencing 24th November. There are 2 rounds to the interviews, a first round with two interviews and a maths test, and a second round with three interviews.
  • For CVs, they are looking for evidence of strong academic achievement and also drive, commitment, initiative and achievement in non-academic activities.  Ideally get it on to one page (yes, it is possible) and focus on “the big ticket items”, as they put it – it’s better to have a smaller number of clearly explained, convincing activities than a laundry list of club memberships; if you have 11 published papers, focus on the 2 you’re most proud of (and the journals they’ll have heard of). You need to quantify achievements where possible (it’s part of the work of a consultant to ask how many, how much etc) and show how competitive they were. These are all just as applicable outside consultancy applications – you need to show how big a deal your achievements were, how much responsibility you took, how successful you were etc.
    BCG left us a one page sheet on “Tips and Tricks For Writing A Good CV” – you can pick one up at the Careers Service, Crawford House, along with a booklet on careers at BCG and a range of consultant profiles.
  • The interviews cover the more usual personal discussion, where they’re looking for evidence of drive and passion for making something happen, plus the dreaded case interview. These are simple business problems, where they want you to put some sort of structure around the problem, discuss the problem with the interviewer and come to some form of recommendation. They suggested that you stay away from applying the standard “pre-fabricated” business models or frameworks (like “the 7 P’s” – so if you’ve never heard of them, don’t fret). Their hints were to avoid the temptation to jump straight to the answer. Instead, ask questions and establish a dialogue with the interviewer so they can understand your thinking. Sounds like a maths problem – need to show your workings for full marks. They also strongly suggested that you practice by running through cases with someone else, answering questions verbally. Like most business problems, if you read the answers, they seem fairly obvious, until you try to do them yourself without the answers in front of you.

We have a range of resources to help you if you’re thinking of applying for strategy (or other) consultancy. A key source is Vault, a range of resources which University of Manchester students can access through our licence at the Careers Service. They include short video advice on “guesstimate” types of case problems, downloadable e-books on topics such as Career Guide to Consulting, and Guide to the Case Interview plus industry and company information. I’ve just tried downloading these two, and it took an hour or so for the e-mails with the clickable links to arrive, so don’t panic if you don’t get them instantly.

Vault is an American product, so a lot of resources are specifically US focused, but they have introduced more European focused products (including European versions of the Consulting guide and top 25 consulting employers). However, take care to check which version you’re reading – recruitment conventions can be very different depending on the country you’re applying to and US advice on CVs is very different to UK advice (which is different to German advice etc).

We also have a DVD from Bain and Company on “How to Crack Case Study Interviews” available to view at the Careers Service offices, plus hard copies of the Vault Guides mentioned above. Finally, if you’re looking for further example case studies, we have web links to those we’ve come across in our Interviews “Starting Point” publication (it’s on page 6 of the pdf).

So, your starter for ten – estimate the number of postgraduates applying for strategy consulting in the UK …