Management consulting is what most of us think of when we hear the term. There are two general tracks: becoming a consultant within a corporation or independently marketing and selling your personal expertise.

“Consultant” usually applies to somebody who analyzes and improves a client’s management techniques or business plan. The terms “business consultant,” “strategy consultant,” or “management consultant” have some differences, but the career paths and skills required are similar.

In the corporate world the day-to-day usually takes the form of a large consulting firm sending a team of junior and mid-level consultants to investigate a client’s operations. A client company can also hire an outside expert to provide training or a strategy review. Most entry-level consultants start out as generalists with large firms, where they can take advantage of training programs, networking opportunities, and benefit from the experience of older mentors.

Generalist or Specialist?

It is worth considering whether you want to be a generalist or a specialist, but don’t worry too much if you don’t know right now. After a year or two in the industry, you’ll have a much better idea.

If you have a knack for organization and analytic problem-solving, you may enjoy being a generalist, flitting from industry to industry, helping clients solve internal organizational problems and developing better business strategies.

Another way to look at this is as specializing in management. Your firm may assign you to interview employees at the client company and contribute to a report recommending
specific organizational improvements. Generalists have to be able to grasp the essence of a company’s structure and communicate improvements clearly.

The downside—and upside—is that generalists are always on the outside. You’ll need the confidence to continually master new areas, and offer your perspective without appearing arrogant or inexpert.

The role involves starting from the ground up each time you get a new assignment. A company looking to recruit generalists isn’t looking for a specific degree or academic background so much as the proven ability to analyze problems and generate creative solutions. A quantitative background is not a requirement, though much of the work consultants does have to be translated into quantitative business plans.

If you do prefer to delve deeply into a particular field, it is possible to become an industry specialist. Clients would rely on your experience and expertise in the field, perhaps as they expand into new territory, or to review stagnant strategies in weak areas.

After all, being a consultant doesn’t mean you have to be in management. Information technology consultants are always in demand, for everything from helping to design websites to improving a company’s internal network. Health care is also a rapidly growing market for consultants, as companies increasingly outsource specialists. Specialists can work within a corporate framework or independently.

But specialists are usually not recent graduates. You have to establish your credentials either through industry experience, graduate school, or by starting out as a generalist and spending a few years working in a particular field. Major consulting firms usually provide training and career support that can help you shape the direction of your career path. See below for more on working for a large consulting firm.

Corporate Consulting

By far the most popular positions for recent graduates in the consulting industry, “analysts” or “associates” are catchall terms for a catchall job. As an entry-level consultant at a large firm, a recent graduate can count on a lot of variety, training, and hours. Analysts may work with a different client every few weeks or months. Primary tasks involve assisting in researching the client and recommending strategies to senior team members within the consulting firm. The team may ask junior members to give presentations to clients, so a wide variety of skills is called for.

The goal is always to contribute to more efficient management techniques within the client company – a management consultant is not a temp or a contractor hired to fill in gaps. They are hired to generate ideas and solutions that make their client’s work more efficiently after the consultant has left. Ideally, a consultant works themselves out of a job at a specific client, moving on to new ones.

A typical way to break in might be to do a summer internship while still a student, then to apply for a post-graduate position. Large universities might have an on-campus recruiting program, but students at smaller institutions can actually benefit if they don’t have that sort of program. They will stand out from the crowd more if they call and write recruiters on their own initiative.

Once on board, a beginning consultant will alternate in-house training sessions – which can take anywhere from a day to a week or two – with job assignments usually lasting a few months. After two or three years, most consultants look for the next step up, either to the next level within their firm or by going to graduate school in business.

People who already have an MBA or several years’ business experience can often apply directly for a mid-level consultant position. Beyond that, people tend to specialize, either as team managers, or as subject area specialists.

Independent Consulting

Entrepreneurial spirits – or just those fed up with the corporate ladder – often gravitate towards independent consulting. It is not a common entry-level path, but it could be an alternative to staying on the corporate track.

Independent consulting can take the form of public speaking or corporate training, where a consultant shares experience much like a teacher would. It can also be more parallel to the sort of consulting done by employees of consulting firms. An independent consultant, however, is paid by the hour or project, and has to subcontract or provide their own marketing and administrative needs – not to mention their own health care and retirement benefits. This makes it most suitable as a mid-level or senior role, filled by people who have already mastered the management or specialist skills they plan to market, and can focus on the business of marketing their skills.

No matter which of these paths a consultant pursues, they can count on constant variety, the potential for a lot of travel, and working alongside bright, hard-working colleagues. The best part of the job may be that while you have to have strong analytic and interpersonal skills going in, the lessons learned as a young consultant are widely applicable within almost any business setting.