What does the career path of a management consultant look like?

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What does the career path of a management consultant look like?

Now that we've got our frame of reference on the industry, the types of consulting firms that make up the industry and a sense of the unit economics, let's discuss your career path. Specifically, what does a career as a consultant look like? We'll look at entry points into a consulting career, what the job titles are, what the rough career progression timeline looks like and, of course, the salary bands and compensation that consultants often enjoy.

Entry points into consulting

Let's start with entry points. There are four general entry points into consulting: after graduating undergraduate, after graduating from a graduate program, transitioning from industry and joining as a senior industry hire. The vast majority of all people entering consulting tend to join from one of the first two entry points:

Grad school

Entering consulting after graduate school, specifically MBA programs, is, by and large, the biggest feeder into consulting firms. The bulk of many firms is made up of post MBAs who are between one to three years out from their program. Plenty of JDs and MDs join consulting firms after their programs too but the bulk is freshly minted MBAs. In addition, there are also plenty of engineers and people with other technical degrees (eg data analytics) entering the field.

Undergrad

After undergraduate: This is the second largest feeder into consulting firms, and it's larger for certain firms which tend to hire much more undergrad talent. For example, of the strategy firms, Bain tends to hire many more undergrads than McKinsey or BCG, despite it being a smaller firm. Also, Accenture and Deloitte, tend to hire larger analyst cohorts than any of their strategy peers. Of course, this is due to the firm profiles we discussed when reviewing the different types of consulting firms.

Alternate entries

Just because the above two routes are the statistically likely ways to enter consulting, they aren't the only way! In fact, as the firms continue to expand and grow (as discussed in the prior section) these entry points are becoming more common because firms need 1) more industry experts and 2) more people well versed in implementation work as they push into those fields (particularly McKinsey and BCG who are new to that space).

Experience levelWorking yearsTitleCompensation
Undergraduate0Analyst / Associate$60K - 100K
Graduate2-5Consultant$150K - $200K
Industry (Early)5-10Consultant / Project Leader / Engagement Manager $200K - $450K
Industry (Experienced)10+Principal / Partner$450K+

Consulting career path

If you join a consulting firm, what will your career path look like? The below is a rough approximation of what you can expect. Think of it as a mental model to get a grasp on how many years you might spend at each level, the total compensation you could make and the responsibilities you have. This is intended to be directionally accurate, rather than a perfect view into reality!

A few things that are worth calling out as you review the table:

Titles

The titles are fairly straight forward and have remained relatively constant over the last few decades. One newer trend is that many firms offer "interim" titles to their consultants as they're moving up the ranks. Sometimes these title changes are official and sometimes they're unofficial but, regardless, they are helpful to understand where a person is in their trajectory. This tends to happen at the beginning of the ladder (eg Senior Associate Consultant) more than at the senior end (eg Senior Principal). Another common configuration is noting the years within the level. For example, if you're a first year Consultant some firms might internally refer to that as a C1 and a second year Consultant as a C2. These interim titles can be helpful to see where exactly a consultant is on the responsibility ladder (see discussion below for flexibility between the bands as people are close to the transition).

Timeframe

These are ranges obviously, but unless you're an absolute rockstar or on the other end of the spectrum, it's highly likely you'll fall directly within one of these ranges. We've known some star consultants who've made it all the way from Consultant to Partner in five years, but it's an exception, not the norm! Now if you're on the wrong end of the spectrum, one reality you might face is the "Up or out" policies that many consulting firms abide by. Quite simply, this means that if the firm isn't ready to promote you to the next level at the end of the generally accepted time frame, they'll ask you to leave the firm. While it will sting, it's likely for the best if it's not the right fit. And to help ease the pain, many of the firms, especially the big ones, provide nice outgoing services to help place you in your next role.

Responsibilities at each level

The responsibilities below are broad strokes and will give you a basic sense for what type of activities you'd be primarily responsible for at each level. In each band, we've listed the core activities at the top. These are the activities that you'd expect to start doing as soon as you assume that role. Toward the bottom, we've listed the activities that you will start taking on as you become more senior within that band. So, for example, a really good Associate Consultant toward the end of their tenure at that band might start taking on more responsibilities like leading a whole work steam. As discussed above, this could be reflected in your title too (eg, Senior Associate Consultant).

Partners

Partner's primary role is to bring in new business for the firm and manage the relationship with the existing business. Effectively, this means that the partner's role is split primarily between sales efforts (winning new business) and keeping the existing customers happy, which often translates into engaging with them a few times over the course of a case (eg an initial kick-off, check-in and final conclusion meeting). Partners also will spend some time working directly with the case team, but will primarily rely on a principal to drive all the case work streams and manage the rest of the team.

Principals

Principals are usually "partners in training." This is a great, and tough, position. It’s great because they're close to the top. But it’s tough because they're expected to prove they can be a partner in advance of being named one, which means they need to take on new business development efforts. But they don't get to shirk their primary responsibilities, which are managing the key client contact day-to-day, managing the mid-level managers and keeping the partners abreast of case progress, including analysis findings, milestones and any potential blockers. Many consultants, from jr. analysts to sr. partners, will admit that the toughest role at the firm is the first year in the principal role because you're effectively managing the client, managing the managers and managing the partner (in terms of keeping him/her abreast)!

Project Leaders / Case Team Leaders / Engagement Managers

Managers spend the bulk of their time problem structuring, managing the analysts’ individual work streams and synthesizing them into a cohesive analysis. This means a majority of their time will be spent ensuring that analysts are on track, aren't blocked on any given analysis and are getting the necessary support or training from him/herself. In addition to managing the analysts, they're concurrently synthesizing the output of the work streams and sharing progress updates with the senior team leaders. Lastly, managers will also spend some time directly interacting with the client(s), depending on factors such as the level 1) the principal's involvement 2) scope of case 3) whether the team is on location or not.

Analysts / Associates / Consultants

Individual contributors, like analysts and associates, do the bulk of the actual analysis and own individual work streams! Unlike any of the prior roles discussed, individual contributors won't have to officially manage any other entity in the case team, which frees them up to focus 100% on their work stream. Depending on the case and work stream, this might mean conducting research interviews, building an operational model in excel, data collection and analysis, building powerpoint slides on key insights. Once given an assignment, analysts and associates are expected to work independently with minimal oversight to get the job done.

Compensation

TitleTenure (yrs)Compensation ($)Responsibilities
Analyst / Associate 2 - 3 $60K - $100K
  • Analysis
  • Slide building
Consultant 1 - 3 $150K - $200K
  • Analysis
  • Slide building
  • Leading work streams
Project Leader 1 - 3 $200K - $300K
  • Team management
  • Client management
  • Owning multiple work streams
Principal / Manager 2 - 3 $250K - $350K
  • Client management
  • Lead whole case team
  • Bring in new business
Partner n/a $450K+
  • Bring in new business
  • Lead multiple case teams
  • Help lead office
  • Help lead company

The factors that drive compensation ranges

What drives compensation variations? They vary along a few key axes and we've listed the key factors in descending order of importance. You'll see that by far the biggest driver of salary differentiation will be the type of firm you choose to join. While salary variation tends to be a bigger issue in industry, consulting firms have done a very good job of standardizing the wages they pay to their talent especially around the common entry point levels (eg analyst, consultant). Again, in a world where labor cost is the key profitability driver (as discussed above), it makes sense to standardize this.

Consulting firm type

The type of consulting firm, or if you're looking at a firm that spans multiple classes (eg Accenture), the specific practice you're within will affect salary the most. Historically, the strategy firms have paid the highest salaries while the implementation firms have paid the lowest, on average. This is largely driven by the structural differences, size of the consulting workforce, mix of case work and price premiums charged (full analysis table here) we discussed in the prior section on Firm Types. It's also worth pointing out that the large Implementation firms like Accenture and Deloitte tend to have much wider variance in salaries across roles, than say, a firm like Bain or LEK. However, as the strategy firms increasingly begin to do implementation work as well, expect that variance to increase there too (eg at McKinsey and BCG).

Office location (city and country)

Some firms adjust compensation based off the cost of living in city the offer is attached to. For example, Bain, McKinsey, Accenture and others have historically practiced this. So, if say you got a job offer in the Dallas office of Bain vs. the San Francisco office of Bain, you could expect to earn slighly different compensation, due to the different cost of living in those cities.

The specific consulting firm

There are slight differences between the companies. For example, salaries for a freshly minted MBA might be slightly different from McKinsey to Bain to BCG to Deloitte. While the ranges are tightly clustered, historically BCG has paid around $10K per year more than counterparts like Bain and BCG.

Bonuses and other incentives

Variation in the type of performance and signing bonuses will also drive differences, particularly in the entry points. In addition, some firms, like Deloitte, have started offering to pay the 2nd year of graduate tuition for candidates that successfully intern with them and receive a full time offer. For the firm, this makes strategic sense, especially since it prevents high quality candidates from using an internship at one firm to land a role at a similar firm (eg intern at Deloitte and then interview with McKinsey for a full time role).

Partner compensation

There are two truths about partner compensation. First, some aspect of partner compensation will be varied by the amount of business and cases the partner brings in. Some firms like Deloitte have a model where partners receive some direct commission (with tiering and cutoffs) off the cases they've brought in. Other firms, like McKinsey, vary partner compensation based off their work but the relationship is not as simple a direct commission. The second truth is that once you've made it to partner, you won't be reading this guide! So suffice it to say, partner compensation will be quite healthy, likely over $450K in almost any firm, and it will be aligned with your ability to bring in new business - which only makes sense! For a deep dive on partner compensation, check out this detailed analysis we assembled.

Gearing up

Now that you've got a strong sense of what the career trajectory, and related remuneration, could look like, we're going to dive into the details of how you can get your foot in the door. We'll start by discussing the vaunted case interview, what firms are evaluating you for as you're going through a case and how to succeed in it.

Go to next section: case interview fundamentals