Career Spotlight: Life Science Consulting

 In PhD/Postdoc Blog

In a previous article, NIH BEST blogger Chris Smith provided a list of possible “alternative careers” for life science Ph.D.’s. Among these, Chris included life science consulting and through sharing his experience gave us a taste of what one should consider when exploring this career path. Although Chris ultimately decided that consulting was not for him, I, however, have taken a special interest in life science consulting and have spent the last year learning all I can about life as a consultant. Through this article, I hope to provide you with a rather detailed summary of life science consulting as a potential career.

High-paying salary. Great exposure and exit opportunities. Long hours. Poor work-life balance. High turnover rate. That’s consulting in a nutshell. Of course, I am paraphrasing, but ask anyone in the industry and this is how they are likely to describe consulting as a profession.

Whenever I’ve spoken with someone in life science consulting, they’ve described their job as rewarding, fast-paced, and intellectually stimulating, but also absolutely exhausting. However, not all consulting jobs are the same. Through conversations with consultants from different types of firms (and a bit of google searching) I found that there is actually a distinct difference between the “life science consulting experience” one might have at a large management consulting firm, e.g., BCG, McKinsey, or Bain versus a small, specialized firm e.g. Triangle Insights or Clearview. I’ve broken these differences down into seven categories which may be important to consider when exploring this career path. But, before jumping into these categories, let me quickly explain what life science consultants actually do!

What is life science consulting?

Life science consulting, specifically, is a specialization within the management consulting sphere, which works on a contract-basis for businesses to help them do everything from marketing to mergers. You name it, a management consulting firm (at least the larger ones) can probably improve your business do it. Life science consulting, however, is specialized. These firms work explicitly with health/science enterprises (e.g., pharmaceutical companies or medical/research device companies). Whenever I tell someone I am interested in life science consulting and they inevitably ask what that is. I tell them Life science consultants operate on the interface of science and business, helping companies bring their product, whether it be a cancer therapeutic or PCR thermocycler, to market in a manner that will quickly get the product to people who need it the most, but also be profitable for the company. Additionally, I give them this example: Let’s say Drug Company A has a prostate cancer therapeutic in Phase II clinical trials. They have already begun marketing the drug as a prostate cancer drug and are fully invested in this avenue. Surprisingly, during the clinical trials, Drug Company A is presented with new data that suggests their therapeutic may be even more effective in lung cancer. Drug Company A now has a decision to make. Do they continue with the clinical trials with their drug intended for prostate cancer? Do they backtrack to preclinical studies to obtain more data about the drug as a potent lung cancer therapeutic? Do they do both? What is more profitable long-term? What about short-term? These are the type of questions that life science consultants answer. Many of the variables that factor into such a decision are scientific in nature, for example, mechanism of action of drugs already in the market, and that’s why life science Ph.D.s are becoming increasingly valuable to the consulting field.

Disclaimer: These firms also deal with other aspects of business management such as mergers, but I feel as if this example is representative of a good portion of projects at life science consulting firms.

Specifically, clients will come to the consulting firm with some kind of business management related problem. Then the firm and the client will draft a contract on what the firm will provide for the client in terms of data-driven suggestions and when this will be done. Finally, the firm provides a “deliverable” to the client in the form of a presentation and document that describes the type of research done, how it was done, and how it factors into the ultimate suggestion from the consultants.

Life science consultants operate on the interface of science and business, helping companies bring their product, whether it be a cancer therapeutic or PCR thermocycler, to market in a manner that will quickly get the product to people who need it the most, but also be profitable for the company

Job Expectations

Although the basic business and science principles will be the same at larger and smaller firms, larger firms are not specialized and thus require their consultants to take on projects outside of their primary interest. For example, a life science Ph.D. working at BCG might be asked to consultant for an oil and gas company while if he or she was working at a small, specialized life science firm, the only type of projects that firm takes on are related to the healthcare field. Additionally, according to a source who worked in life science consulting for 20+ years, life science Ph.D.s at larger firms will spend less than half of their time on science-related projects. Simply, you’re much more of a generalist at larger firms and, thus, might need to know a bit more about niche business principles. This could be something to consider if you really want to be focusing on business and science.

Work-Life Balance

For me, this is one of the most important considerations. Regardless of firm size, the life of a consultant is often hectic. The job itself requires adhering to the expectations of the client. So, if the client wants to completely change directions the night before the deliverable is due, it is up to you to stay up all night, making sure the proposal fits their needs. But, to provide perspective, MOST of the 3,000+ reviews of consulting jobs at large firms on Glassdoor.com claim “work-life balance” as one of the drawbacks to the job whereas these same complaints are far less frequent on the reviews of smaller firms. I’m sure it comes down to individual time management skills and personal preference, but I believe anecdotal evidence can be pretty useful in these cases.

Also, consulting requires traveling. Period. But, this is where the size of the firm comes into play. In larger firms, you will travel often. This could mean flying 3-4 times per week for some Senior Consultants. In smaller firms, not as often. Mostly just to kick off and conclude projects, or if there is an unexpected problem that can be resolved through Skype. That said, smaller firms still have global clientele, they just manage their projects off-site more frequently.

When considering work-life balance, I think the ultimate decision should be based on sustainability for the individual. If you’re young, single, and ready to pour most of your life into a firm for a few years, then one of the larger firms might be a good fit for you. This won’t come without reward, as there is often a higher ceiling for exit opportunities at larger firms.  But, if you’re looking for a firm with more sustainable hours and travel expectations, excluding the semi-frequent late nights when projects are due, then a small, life science-focused firm might be a better choice.

Salary

The difference in salaries between large and smaller firm can probably be attributed to some of the aforementioned differences, e.g., qualification job expectations, work-life balance, but both types of firms still pay their employees fairly well. For example, accordingly to Glassdoor.com, the average salary for a Senior Consultant at Triangle Insights group is $96,000-$104,000 whereas the average Senior Consultant’s salary at McKinsey & Company is $89,000-$166,000. Of course, a $62,000 difference in potential salaries is substantial, but this is where the individual must take his or her own values into consideration. Is a proper work-life balance important to you, or would you rather work harder and longer, and probably not too much in the life science sector, for a bigger paycheck?

Turnover Rate

As you might expect, consultancy has a fairly high turnover rate. Most larger firms actually have an “up or out” policy where the goal is to continuously develop talent within the company, or fire people who are complacent. A high turnover rate makes sense in terms of the high-stress lifestyle that usually comes with being a consultant. Large or small firm, such a lifestyle can only be sustained for so long. Consulting is often used as a transitionary job, providing individuals with a detailed understanding of how their target market operates that then allows them to transition to managerial positions within industry. This came as a surprise to me because, ultimately, I see myself as a consultant long-term. I find the fast-paced lifestyle attractive and I think working on new and exciting projects would be very intellectually stimulating.

Qualifications and Interview Process

The expectations of applicants at small or large consulting firms are relatively high. Both tend to look at undergraduate and graduate GPA and standardized test scores, although larger firms tend to place more weight on these particular aspects. For life science Ph.D.s, it will behoove us to leverage fellowships, awards, or publications as sentiments to your work ethic, and your specialization within a field if you’re applying to a specialized firm. Additionally, it will help if you’ve taken some intro business classes or even a consulting class. Both types of firms like to see that you’ve been interested in consulting longer than just the week before the interview.

The nature of consulting is this: You will be expected to take a complex problem, identify all the variables, research how to influence or control for those variables, come up with a plan of action, then provide a “deliverable” to the client in a face-to-face, presentation format. To do this successfully will require a diverse skill set, put simply, you need to be analytical and personable. So, to make sure you’re up to the task, consulting firms put applicants through the wringer with a few rounds of intense interviewing.

THE Interview Process

The interview process to be a consultant is generally known as one of the toughest out there. Each firm has a particular style that they adhere to, and can be found on their respective websites, but will generally contain: 1) Behavioral questions 2) Case interviews. The behavioral questions are open-ended questions that give the applicant a chance to showcase their ability to think on the spot, but also showcase their personality. The questions can range from inquiries about your CV to a question like “Can you describe a time when you lead a team?” There are lists of these types of questions all over the internet, and it is important that you have an idea on how you will answer the most common behavioral questions before going into the interview.

Next, the cases. The case questions are infamously challenging and require practice. Interviewers will provide prompts that are most often real projects that the firm has worked on. You are given the prompt, a time limit, and the ability to obtain more information about the problem IF you ask the right questions. By the end of the time limit, you should have a coherent deliverable that you will present to the interviewers, similar to how consulting actually works. There are particular questions interviewers want you to ask, types of information that they withhold and anticipate you will need, and an analytical method called “developing a framework” that they will expect you to use. All of these things can be learned through consulting courses or joining your university’s consulting club. Overall, make sure you are well-prepared before going in for an interview.

Concluding Remarks

Consulting is a unique career. It requires a diverse skill set including the ability to critically think about a problem, use data to solve said problem, then present this to the client in such a way that they can apply it to their business. Consulting pays well, but does come at the cost of a comfortable work-life balance in most cases. Based on the knowledge I’ve gained about consulting, I have concluded that polishing the necessary skills early on will be important. Becoming familiar with different types of research, the healthcare market through tools like Fiercebiotech or Fierecepharma, and business fundamentals will be key to preparing for a career in consulting. And, if I decide consulting isn’t the route I want to take, a diverse skill set will make me competitive for whatever career I decide to explore next.

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