My employer, PIP, is a management consulting company working across a diverse set of industries to deliver business improvement results. Business improvement is a pretty all-encompassing statement, but in line with that PIP’s workstreams are pretty diverse. Right now I’m staffed at a pulp mill to deliver bottom-line improvements in a tough market and industry climate. My biggest project to date has been managing the company’s policies around hiring external maintenance workers. External labour costs the company a lot of money, and it’s been exciting to watch the measures I’ve helped to implement directly reduce the number of labour hours used. It takes about 50 full-time employees to maintain the plant, which I found really surprising. I’ve never studied engineering or anything remotely mechanical before, so it’s been a real learning curve.
I grew up in Auckland, NZ, and went to a large public high school. I felt that university in NZ wasn’t for me, so I looked abroad and, to the slight chagrin of my family, stumbled upon one of the furthest-away possible locations in which to study: Abu Dhabi, where NYU had just opened a portal campus. I got shortlisted and sent there for a candidate’s weekend, and got offered a full scholarship two weeks later. I and my entire family cried. 9 months later, after working four jobs to save travel money, one of which was driving a bread delivery van from 4.30am – 8.30am every day, I was on a plane to Abu Dhabi. I spent the next four years travelling to over 20 countries and meeting the most extraordinary people from all over the world. It was completely life-changing for me, which is cliched but true in a very literal sense. The environment at my university was very special: hard to explain and even harder to replicate. I'll never forget what it was like to go through so many realizations and emotions and learnings in a single day, to be in one meeting of deep practical importance in the morning and then some kind of delightfully abstract philosophical conversation that same night. I will never forget the people who became my second family and made me realise in large part who I am and where I am comfortable. PIP was my first job out of college and has been a whole new world in which to get comfortable.
Consulting is a famously non-discriminatory industry when it comes to degrees – it’s much more about problem-solving and analytical ability. However, PIP hires mostly engineers, and as a behavioural economist I do feel a little behind my engineering peers in certain areas such as data manipulation. Having said that, I do think consulting in general can be done by anyone trained in the right way and with the right mindset, and I’m pleasantly surprised how much my - at first glance - irrelevant degree has translated into the work I’m doing. I think the driving force behind behavioural economics -- how people think, act and make decisions -- is visible in pretty much every facet of the work I'm doing now. As a consultant I'm expected to gain a quick understanding of business processes and an equally quick one of how to change them. And in my experience so far, change has always come down to people -- how they problem solve and take action (or, often, fail to). I’m sure there are ways you can apply almost any degree to the consulting industry; it’s more about how compatible you are with the lifestyle (constant travel and being away from home, relatively long hours, constant drive to deliver significant results).
I love seeing the direct changes that occur as a result of something I or my company has implemented. It’s really rewarding to make a suggestion one morning, for example to the maintenance manager that he should track the number of tasks that his team completes each day, and then the next day to give him a simple bar graph that he can draw on to show the number of tasks complete vs. target and to actually see it being used. So you feel like you have a very immediate and very direct effect on the operations of the client you’re working with, which is really cool. There have been a few moments where employees here have said “oh, your process is actually working and helping us” and that makes me feel really good about what I’m doing.
I think the limitations are not about my company, but just about my industry. As a consultant you need to be where the client is, which for me at the moment is a 40-minute flight and then an hour’s drive from my home city. In the grand scheme of things that’s actually a very easy commute. So biggest thing to prepare for is being away from home during the week and having to constantly accustom yourself to new cities and environments. On top of that, you need to be prepared for high pressure from day 1, but also expectations that you’ll drive your own success and take initiative. If you like easing into your work or working very set hours, consulting is probably not for you.
I wish I had put less pressure on myself in my final year to have complete and finalized plans for post graduation; if I had just owned it and planned to spend some quality time at home instead of spending a year panicking about my supposed failure to tie anything down, I would have enjoyed said quality time much, much more. Pragmatically: enjoy your final year! Don't get obsessed with your thesis and with keeping your GPA up. I know it's a cliche, but I didn't believe it either and now I know why it's a cliche, because it is absolutely true. In terms of post-graduate plans, talk to as many people as possible who are doing all the different things you're thinking of doing. There is NO better research you can do into consulting than talking to real life consultants. There is no better way to get a feel for gap years, or NGO positions, or law school or med school or anything else you're considering doing, than talking to people who are already doing them.