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What is consulting? A graduate's guide to the consulting industry

Brianne Turk

Careers Commentator
Ever been interested in a career in consulting but not sure what it really entails? Let us help you out.

What is consulting?

The title consultant is unhelpfully vague – it’s no wonder people are left scratching their heads as to what a consultant actually does! This is especially true given that we all act as informal consultants in one way or another in our everyday lives.

Ever offered a friend advice on whether to follow up on that second date? Or brainstormed with a mate about how to make sure their next paper receives the Distinction it so rightly deserves? If your answer is ‘yes’, then good news! You have already been dipping your toe into the pool of consulting. That is, you have given advice – consulted on – an issue. You just didn’t charge for it.

So… if we all have the capacity to offer advice, does this mean that every man, woman, and their dog can work as a professional consultant? Let’s hope not.  

What does a professional consultant do?

In the commercial world, consultants are required to draw upon their innate problem-solving skills, acquired expertise and impartiality to assess a situation at hand and provide solutions. Simply put, companies hire consultants to be expert problem solvers. Sound like you?  

Consultants are high functioning analysts, who for a fee provide advice and solutions. However their skill-base doesn’t stop there. Consultants must have the capacity to communicate effectively with company stakeholders. Typically they deal with senior executives (always handy to keep them on-side!) who may… or may not, be open to new ideas. Like anything, it’s all well and good to pull hypothetical solutions out of one’s ears, but as a consultant, you must ensure strategies proposed can be implemented in a practical and cost-effective way. This is one of the most challenging aspects of the job.

What can grads expect?

In Australia, graduates in the consulting industry are usually known as analysts or associates. Not a bad title, if you ask us. Analysts will complete much of the research and behind-the-scenes legwork regarding a company and the specific situation it is in, while the more senior staff will present findings and liaise with the client. As consultants progress with their career, there is a natural advancement from groundwork and research tasks to direct client-facing work.  

Although it might sound as if graduate consultants have to start on the bottom rung with  ‘boring’ tasks, the level of research and analysis required is second to none. For the right person, it is truly engaging and immersive. If you are the kind of person who thrives off figuring out different parts of a puzzle, this could definitely be the career for you.    

What kind of companies engages consultants?

One of the most enticing aspects of consulting is that it provides the opportunity to work with clients in nearly every sector - IT, design, engineering, banking, law - you name it. Again, no wonder people scratch their head, but the upside is that there is so much variety within the profession.

Have a knack for problem-solving, but simply adore fashion? Great. Work towards a career as a fashion consultant.  

Passionate about completing your engineering degree, but recognise it’s not quite ticking all the boxes for you? What about consulting on renewable energy projects?  

As you gain experience, the possibilities for mapping out your own career are endless.   

In-house or external

While companies may be aware of their shortfalls and even have ideas on how to address these, many businesses are simply too busy (or don’t have enough resources) to tackle problems on their own. And so the profession of consulting was born.

While some companies have their own consultants in-house, most utilise a fresh set of eyes and appreciate the impartiality of an outsider to thoroughly analyse practice. The age-old idea that one can be too close to a situation to see it for what it is rings true. Think of the famous Where’s Wally book. Did you obtain the greatest results when you held it up against your face? Or when you stepped back for greater perspective? (Rest in peace, Where’s Wally.)

Working for a firm

Consulting firms are structured in a myriad of ways. Some firms, including management consulting firms, are seen as generalist services, providing business advice on the management and strategic plans of companies across a wide variety of disciplines. In this instance, one firm might sell their services to the likes of Bonds, KFC, ANZ and BHP.

Other firms sell their consulting services within a more specific area. For example, Accenture operates exclusively as technology specialists while Partners in Performance (PIP) tends to specialise in consulting services with an operational focus. These distinctions provide you with the opportunity to seek employment that best aligns with your career goals. Think about what makes you tick. What entices you?

Ok, bottom line: How are the perks?

If it’s the lavish lifestyle associated with consulting that entices you – well we can hardly blame you. Classy hotels? Oh, if you insist. Business-class flights? It would be rude not to. High salary? Who would complain about that?  

But unfortunately, this is not always the case. Be warned that consulting is a high-pressure occupation with long hours. It is a rigorously competitive industry that demands impeccable analysis, insight and strategic thinking. However, it also offers the chance to work alongside immensely intelligent and creative colleagues on a diverse range of projects for a number of different clients. And it can, of course, bring you enormous lifestyle rewards. With an impressive salary even for graduates, is it any wonder consulting is a popular career choice for uni leavers?