Consulting is huge at Michigan — the job prospect is so popular and widespread that it’s even designated its own season. From August to November, a large section of the student body is busy sending out their resumes, getting in touch with alumni and practicing for interviews.
When recruiters from major firms hold events on campus — most commonly in the Ross School of Business or Blau Hall (the University of Michigan’s premier business hubs) — students flock to auditoriums just to shake their hands. The goal is to network your way into an interview and prepare for possible “case” questions they could throw at you — tests on scenarios you might have to face at their firm. Students say, all-in-all, it’s like adding another class load’s worth of work to your semester. But by Halloween, you start hearing about people signing with Deloitte or McKinsey & Company; by Thanksgiving break, the dust has all but settled. Everyone can hang up their suits until the summer when they either start the internship or start the whole process over again.
Despite all the stress and the work, the formula of consulting is apparently a part of its appeal: There’s a clearly outlined path to success if you’re willing to play by the rules. And if you’re lucky, at the end of the summer, there’s the all-important return offer.
I’m a senior in the Ford School of Public Policy, and while it’s not the primary avenue public policy students take after graduation, consulting is always on the table. Around this time of year, my career counselor starts sending out emails about information sessions, consulting workshops and case demonstrations.
While I have never been actively interested in consulting, there was a time where I was at least mildly intrigued by the prospect. Working on projects for short periods of time with people approximately your own age — it sort of sounded like school. Ultimately, I decided I didn’t want to do something so closely tied to business (partially because I do math at an eighth-grade level and partially because I want to do something more creative) and didn’t take it any further.
To be clear, I don’t hold any judgment toward people who are motivated to go into high-paying careers. If you want to put in 70 hours a week inputting numbers for your finance job to bring home a six-figure salary, more power to you. It’s the narrative around consulting that makes it feel a bit more disingenuous to me.
People I know in Ford frequently say they want to go into consulting to “make a difference,” and it’s not hard to figure out why.
Consulting firms’ websites often espouse the same “positive-impact” ethos: McKinsey’s tagline on its Public and Social Sector page is “Making change happen, around the world.” Bain & Company’s front page talks about an “opportunity for impact.” Accenture invites you to “work at the heart of change.” It’s the appeal to our adolescent sense of optimism and desire to make an impact that I find off-putting.
For all of McKinsey’s rhetoric about its commitment to change and its meaningful work, the company has gotten a hell of a lot of blowback. It’s been embroiled in scandals for its connections to Purdue Pharma (a major driver of the opioid crisis) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but even beyond McKinsey’s specific scandals, I’d challenge the idea that a company that large and deeply entrenched in capitalist markets could ever be an “agent for change.”
Even Ford students — who are ingrained with the idea of public service and the importance of government intervention — are susceptible to the neoliberal idea that meaningful change is created in the private sector.
Maybe that’s because university campus culture can make consulting feel like one of the most prestigious things you can do after graduation — it’s a high-paying, stable job with a multi-year contract. It’s possible some of my cynicism may come from the fact that I don’t have half the drive or organization to get myself to one of those introductory meetings, let alone land one of those internships, but I think more of my apprehension comes from the term “consulting” itself.
The definition of the word is “the business of giving expert advice to other professionals, typically in financial and business matters.”
Expert advice. From students who graduated from college no more than three months prior.
The term within itself also seems so nebulous and vast that it could encompass anything. And because it could mean anything, it feels like it means nothing. Different types of consulting firms do different things, but the gist of most roles is this: Companies hire consulting firms to strategize projects that will ultimately increase profits or business production in some way.
Beyond that, it’s hard to understand what the job entails other than it being mostly analytical work that involves a lot of travel. You could be advising a health insurance company on how to streamline service. You could be helping a congressional candidate target specific voting blocks. You could be working with a hotdog manufacturer to increase their means of production.
“I would say consulting is like providing professional services to firms to ultimately help their firm progress and grow, whether that be financially, socially or in any other way,” Faegenburg said, a Business senior who will be working for Accenture Strategy & Consulting after graduation. “I know that each consulting firm has their own special practice, and that’s also something that’s relevant in the sense that you can be a consulting firm who specializes in their taxes. I worked at Accenture who specializes in technology, so all the different facets of the specializations kind of come together so that each firm can give off what they think they do best for their clients.”
So you could be doing any kind of work on any subject?
“Yes, correct,” she said.
One-fifth of Business graduates and 10% of Public Policy graduates go into consulting. It’s also the ninth most popular career for people coming out of LSA, right above government service. This means Michigan pumps out somewhere around 450 graduates per year who go into full-time consulting positions, not including those that just get summer internships and the many others that recruit unsuccessfully.
Altogether, that’s a lot of people.
My own cynical brain conjures up an image of these students marching in uniform lines to uniform jobs with no real idea of why they’re headed there. But, maybe that’s what I’ve been taught to think as someone pursuing writing — a narrative of uniformity and dissatisfaction to rationalize my own lack of direction.
When I ask people what makes them interested in consulting, I’ve typically gotten three answers: It’s a high-paying job, the application process is formulaic and it gives you the flexibility to try different things for a few years before deciding what you actually want to do.
These are all valid points, but it’s the last one that intrigues me the most. Research shows people stay in consulting for an average of two and a half years. After that, some people go back to school, others go into the corporate world and some head to the nonprofit sector. The role seems to be a jumping-off point for everything.
But consulting is not altogether unique. You can gain the same skills — communication, problem-solving, collaboration — in lots of different fields. With that in mind, why does seemingly everyone want to be a consultant?
A big reason that comes up is the early recruitment process. Some students start feeling the pressure to lock down a post-grad job as early as sophomore year.
“I think that everyone’s like, ‘Oh my God, I need to get a job,’ and so consulting is really just the first one that comes up,” Faegenburg said. “I think a lot of people are like, ‘Okay, I don’t really know what consulting is, but it seems cool, seems like you make some money,’ and that’s all you’re thinking about.”
Faegenburg was initially in this camp: not so much interested in consulting as she was anxious to find any job at all. Because she didn’t know much about the industry, she began casing for strategy as well as human capital consulting, but once she found Accenture — a human capital firm — she knew it would be the right fit.
That’s the way the story seems to go for most of the people I know personally, as well: They hear about consulting as this exalted, prestigious field, start pursuing it and make their actual judgment later — typically after they’ve either gotten the job or been rejected.
After her summer internship (and the ensuing return offer), Faegenburg has decided that her excitement is less to do with consulting as an industry and more with her specific job with Accenture.
Between those two extremes — the devotees and the marginally interested — is an expansive gray area. LSA senior Lily fell squarely into that gray space. Lily was interested enough in consulting to start networking and send out applications last fall, but not invested enough in the idea to study for the case interviews or devote the dozens of hours necessary.
Like many people who start the process, Lily hadn’t made up her mind on consulting and just decided to throw her hat in the ring. She’s a classic fence-sitter, spending weeks at the beginning of the semester grappling with whether or not to fully commit to the recruitment process. The end result was somewhere in the middle.
With such a competitive and often cut-throat applicant pool, a casual approach did not secure Lily an internship at one of the top firms she was interested in. In the end, she decided that consulting wasn’t for her and instead landed an amazing internship in marketing last summer. At this time, Lily realized she wanted a role where she could create a tangible product of her own as opposed to strategizing the work of others.
In the beginning, Lily gave the same rationales most people do when asked about her interest in the industry: the money, the flexibility, the clear track. She has a lot of diverse interests — she studies history, plays guitar, loves reading and worked on a farm last school year. Lily’s a creature of habit and thrives in a weekly routine. I just couldn’t picture her enjoying the travel, the long days or the grinding analytical work.
I relate to this feeling completely. As I barrel 60 miles per hour toward a future that’s starting to look a lot like unemployment, I’m scanning for anything to slow me down: Should I go to graduate school? Should I take some time to travel? Should I join a cult? Anything to keep me from having to confront the fact that I don’t know what I’m doing. At least in consulting, “I don’t know what I’m doing” would include a $60,000 paycheck.
In the past few weeks, some have started to get those golden return offers, a guarantee that they’ll have somewhere to go at the end of May and everything will be alright. Although I’m so happy for them, there’s a voice in my head screaming — it feels absolutely terrifying to feel like the world is about to begin without you.
So maybe my vendetta isn’t against consulting per se, but instead the culture of pressure that pushes us to jump blindly into fields like consulting.
Maybe some of the people I know going into consulting will wake up in 15 years and think they made the wrong choice. Or maybe I’ll wake up in 15 years and regret being so cynical. Or maybe I’ll realize we’re all 21, and it’s OK not to know what we want or why we want it anyway.
Statement Correspondent Lane Kizziah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.