Originally published on my website: rebeccaxliu.com
I get asked a lot about my time in consulting compared to my time in industry, so I figured I’d write about it. To people who’ve worked in both fields, most of what I say might be a no-brainer. But hopefully this is at least mildly helpful to someone considering one or both of these careers. I’m going to discuss a few of the pros and cons of each, but this is by no means a comprehensive guide.
A few caveats:
- I’m the kind of person who remembers previous experiences fondly, so there may be some unintentional bias in the way I recount the past. Any job has its ups and downs, but in my experience, the ups and downs in consulting are more extreme compared to other jobs. That being said, overall I really enjoyed my time in consulting and learned a lot.
- I worked in consulting for three years vs. I’ve worked in industry since April of this year. I’ve never gone into the office or met any of my current coworkers in person. I have a lot more thoughts and familiarity with working in consulting, while my thoughts on industry are still being formed. Some of the pros / cons I’ve listed for industry are more speculative or based on what I’ve heard from other people. “Industry” is of course a really broad term. I currently work at Salesforce and have previously interned at an edtech startup and at Allstate. My experience in industry is primarily with larger companies and while I have some context about working at startups, it’s not what I’m most familiar with.
- These are all my personal opinions and should not be viewed as what THE consulting or THE industry experience is like. I’m sure there is overlap between my experiences and those of others, but there’s also naturally a lot of variance in different people’s perspectives.
Context and catalyst for switching:
I worked in consulting for three years — first at Strategy& (part of PwC) and then at a boutique firm that specializes in growth strategy and due diligence for the education industry. I started looking for jobs in industry earlier this year and was motivated by the same reasons a lot of people have for wanting to leave consulting: wanting to become more immersed in one specific function / company, gaining a better understanding for how businesses are run and grow, feeling burned out from the pace of consulting, wanting to leave client services, etc. Switching during covid was incredibly challenging and I feel very lucky to have found my job working in sales strategy at Salesforce.
- “Glamorous” lifestyle: Consulting can be a pretty bougie job — you have the potential to frequently travel, eat at Michelins, and rack up hotel and airline points. During my time in consulting, I traveled to NYC, Atlanta, St. Louis, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Houston, Dallas, Little Rock, and probably other places that I’m forgetting. On the weekends, you can usually travel to other cities and visit friends if the price of the airline ticket isn’t egregious. This is especially fun when you’re in your early 20s / if you don’t have a lot of other responsibilities (e.g., spouse, kids, pets) to worry about. I’m sure we’re all missing traveling right now, but on the flip side, it can get tired and tedious when you’re doing it 4+ days a week for several months or years.
- Camaraderie with colleagues: Because we work a lot and are frequently in environments without other friends or family (including the nice dinners from above), you can get really close with people on your project teams and other colleagues. Some of my best memories are quotidian things like gchatting / slacking my friends about goofy things that would happen during meetings or at client sites.
- Mentorship and development: Consulting firms place a lot of emphasis on mentorship and development, both unofficial and official. Usually you’re assigned formal mentors, but every project manager also serves as an informal mentor. People really encourage giving and receiving feedback and frequently check-in on development goals.
- Variety of projects: Working on a variety of projects is usually one of the big draws of consulting. I’ve worked on a growth strategy for a cybersecurity company, capacity modeling for a large healthcare payor, value proposition modeling for a tech company, digital learning strategy for a foundation, go-to-market work for edtech companies, and more. You also get to work with a lot of different teams and people. This can be a bummer if you find a team you really like and only have a set amount of time with them, but it’s also a huge blessing if you work with people you don’t jive well with.
- Clear career trajectory: The career trajectory and promotion timeline for consulting is really clearly laid out. You might not always know exactly when you’ll get promoted, but the process and path upward is usually pretty explicit.
- Lack of work / life balance: There’s no point sugar coating this, but work / life balance in consulting is not always great. It definitely varies project to project (as do a lot of other factors within consulting). I’ve had projects where I’m working <40 hours a week at times, but also projects where I’m working 75+ hours a week. Sometimes people not in consulting think this is hyperbolic and that we’re including meals, travel, etc. in this. I think this is very funny and I wish this were true. Frequently on flights you’re working from the second you get on to when you get off, the entirety of the car ride to the client site, (fun, especially when I get car sick) and then continuously through the day (including through meals). It’s not always this bad, but we’re usually not exaggerating the number of hours we’re working (especially since that’s kind of a toxic flex and working long hours is not something to romanticize anyways). When you’re a consultant, it’s easy for work to become your identity. I was probably really boring to talk to when I started working in consulting (or arguably during my three years in consulting), because especially when you’re starting out, it can be hard to talk about things outside of work when you’re working so much.
- Client dynamics: It’s not just the hours that make the consulting lifestyle challenging. It’s frequently hard to manage expectations and make plans when you’re on busy projects, because if the client needs something asap, you’re sometimes expected to drop everything to get the client what they need. This also makes for interesting (sometimes not in a fun way) dynamics, because as consultants, you (including the partners!) are basically always beholden to the client. You can spend a ton of time analyzing data and crafting what you think is a great strategy, but if the client isn’t buying it (literally and metaphorically), that’s that. The client almost always has the final say.
- Frequently little to no say for projects: Even though I mentioned the variety of projects you can work on above, you frequently don’t have a ton of say on what projects you’re staffed on. If there’s a “business need” for you to be on a certain project, you might just have to do it no matter how interested or not you are. This can be pretty firm dependent though and there are people who are able to develop a reputation for being the “growth strategy person” or the “edtech person.” Another way to potentially get around this is to work at a boutique firm that specializes in a certain industry or type of work that you’re interested in.
- Work is not always sexy: When interviewing for consulting, people usually talk about how excited they are to solve big, hairy, audacious problems for the client, build client relationships, own models and strategies, etc. You’ll get some of that, but some consulting work is also pretty unglamorous. It’s likely that at some point you’ll have to spend hours formatting a deck, copy / pasting things, or Googling competitor pricing that just isn’t available on the internet no matter how much your manager insists it is.
Sometimes consulting and industry can seem like complete opposites, so some of the pros from consulting might be cons for industry or vice versa. I tried to not be too repetitive and avoid reiterating what I said above. Again, some of these are a little more speculative, since I started working in industry in April and am by no means an expert.
- Work / life balance: Okay, I’m violating what I just said a little in bringing up work / life balance again, but I do think this is an important distinction. I think this is one of the biggest trade-offs between working in consulting vs. industry, because work / life balance for me has been a lot better since leaving consulting. It can be tempting when you’re just graduating college or in your early 20s to throw yourself completely into work (and I think for a lot of people it’s totally okay to be like this even after their early 20s). But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve thought a lot more about how much I value work / life balance especially as other priorities (e.g., dating, having a family, pursuing side projects or hobbies) come up.
- More in-depth learning: When I was in consulting, my projects were usually 3–4 months and the client usually sent over just the relevant data that we needed to do the project. But when I started at Salesforce, people told me it would take almost a year to become a fully productive member of the company, because of how much more there is to learn when you’re actually at a company vs. a consultant for the company. In consulting, I felt like my projects gave me a superficial understanding of certain companies, industries, and functions, whereas working in industry has allowed me to have a deeper understanding.
- Opportunity to explore more functions: From what I’ve seen, working in industry (especially at startups or places where it’s easier to switch between functions after you’ve been at a company a given amount of time) lets you be more deliberate about what function you want to pursue. You could spend time in analytics, growth, product management, strategy & ops, etc. In consulting I worked a little with product, sales, marketing, finance, etc. but I wouldn’t say I had any strong expertise in most of these functions.
- Smaller scope / less variety: Especially at larger companies, your scope is likely inherently smaller (unless you’re at a startup in a more cross-functional role like biz ops) compared to the diversity of projects in consulting. Teams at large companies might own one specific metric or be in charge of one specific process at the org. You might work cross-functionally with other teams, but the main people you’re working with on a daily basis will likely remain the same.
- Potential for repetition: This is partially related to the above, but in industry, there might be certain things you have to do every quarter, month, year, etc. Some of these might be operational tasks that are critical to running a business like reporting and forecasting. I haven’t worked in industry long enough to have a deep perspective on this, but I know this is something that people considering leaving consulting consider.
- Potential to feel siloed: For consulting firms, their main focus and differentiator is their people. Firms get paid on how well their people perform and deliver on projects. But different companies in industry will value different things — some companies may be more product-focused, some are sales-focused, etc. If you’re on a team that’s not the focal point for a company, you might feel siloed or not as valued.
There you have it — my high-level take on working in consulting and industry, based both on my experience and from what I’ve heard from others. Both of these are great career paths, but ultimately very different. If you have questions, resonate, disagree, or anything else, I’m always happy to chat! And if this is interesting to people, I can write a part 2 on the many, many things I didn’t talk about.