Career area: Consulting – EMBL Fellows' Career Service

EMBL Careers

A life science careers blog for early career researchers

This blog aims to inspire early career researchers exploring different career options. We provide interview-based profiles of life scientists working in diverse science-related careers and articles on a broad range of career-related topics, with new content added on a regular basis.

Career area: Consulting

Consultants provide expertise, analysis and advice in many sectors. There are a number of well-known international management consultancies – such as McKinsey & Company, Boston Consulting Group and Bain & Company (known collectively as ‘the big three’) – who offer consulting for a wide range of projects across many industry sectors. There are also smaller “boutique” companies or freelance consultants that focus on specific regions, sectors or project types. Some large companies also have in-house consultants.

Management consultancies provide input on potential solutions for overcoming specific business problems, help companies decide whether/how to implement particular projects, or provide industry-specific strategic input on future challenges/growth areas. Such companies employ PhD-level scientists from all disciplines for their communication, analytical, and critical thinking skills. Some consultancies focus on the pharma and biotech sectors, and all projects are related to life-science businesses. Here, a scientific background helps consultants quickly understand, assess and integrate the science underlying a project or process. In large companies working across multiple sectors, life scientists may work on projects with a life science focus or also apply their critical thinking skills to projects from clients in other sectors (e.g. finance, energy, automotive).

Roles and responsibilities

Management and strategy consulting

Management and strategy consultant roles usually involve a subset of the following tasks:

  • Collecting, analysing and interpreting primary and/or secondary data related to the client’s problem / request
  • Conducting interviews and organizing focus groups / workshops
  • Using the information collected, and/or applying different frameworks/methods to:
    • Identify possible solutions and the strengths/weaknesses of different proposals
    • Evaluate a business, an internal process, or the potential market for a new product or expansion
  • Preparing documentation & presentations that summarize the analysis and recommendations
  • Communicating with clients and the team

Often more junior consultants or analysts are tasked with identifying and analysing available data, opinions and options, and preparing slide sets – and more senior consultants bring context and experience of similar problems at other clients, and lead presentations to clients.

Other types of consulting

For freelance consultants and some companies, the focus is providing very specific expertise to a client, often supporting the client with a complex project. The exact tasks will vary depending on the type of consulting/expertise offered, and whether you are working as a freelance consultant or are employed by a company.

Knowledge and skills

In most roles, consultants have to quickly understand problems, identify & analyse relevant data, and communicate recommendations and insights that are actionable and bring value to the client.

In our careers & skills survey, 24 consultants told us the competencies they use most in their daily work  The most frequently selected competencies were:

  • effective communication (selected by 79% of respondents and ranked top for success in the role)
  • organization (selected  by 71% of respondents)
  • team work (selected  by 71% of respondents)
  • clarity of thought  (selected  by 46% of respondents)
  • delivering presentations  (selected  by 46% of respondents)

Language skills

Language requirements for consulting roles vary depending on the working language of the company’s client base. Fluency in the local language (at least B2 level) is sometimes required; for other companies, English is enough.

Career entry and progression

Management consulting

It is possible to enter management consulting roles from a PhD, without additional experience or qualifications. A postdoc is not required and – for many roles – does not provide any advantage. A demonstrated track record of prior achievements & willingness to take on leadership roles can help your application stand out. During the interviews, problem-solving, communication, decision making and numeracy skills are probed, and most interview processes involve ‘case studies’. Business knowledge is not a prerequisite (most companies provide in-house training on this for PhD-recruits). However – to demonstrate your interest in the business of science and to perform well in the case studies that can make up a large part of the interviews –  it is helpful to get familiar with basic business concepts and trends in relevant industries in advance  (e.g. by reading industry publications). Further information about interviews can be found in “interview info + practise case material / tips from the big firms” in further reading below.

Some management consultants remain within consulting, working up to partnership. Alternatively, consultants also often move to management or in-house consulting roles at biotechs and pharma or other sectors.

Other types of consulting

Other types of consulting rely on specific expertise. Some PhDs or postdocs find that their academic work allows them to work as a freelance consultant e.g. on specific types of data analysis. Our experience is that most (but not all) freelance consultants with a life science background developed further expertise in a corporate or industry setting, and then become consultants.

Why consider this career area?

In our careers and skills survey, scientists working in consulting told us that they appreciate that their work:

  • is intellectually stimulating
  • provides opportunities for personal growth
  • is financially rewarding

Want to learn more?

Sources / further information

Management consultancy

Freelance consultancy

Further internal resources

For EMBL fellows

Within EMBL, further internal resources (e.g. recorded career seminars) can be found on our career exploration intranet pages.

Informational interviews

For all career areas, we highly recommend first learning more about the careers using the resources above, then conducting informational interviews to gain further insights directly from former PhDs working in career areas that interest you.

Last update: November 2022

EU flag and text, co-funded by the European Union
The EMBL Fellows' Career Service incorporates the EMBL Interdisciplinary Postdoc (EIPOD) career development programme. EI3POD and EIPOD4 have received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreements 664726 (2015-2020) and 847543 (2019-present) respectively.