How To Become a Consultant - Education & Qualifications
Business consultants provide expert advice and strategy in specialized areas of business. If that sounds like a broad definition, that’s because consulting is an enormous industry. U.S. companies spent over $58 billion on management consulting in 2016. Meanwhile, the global consulting market, as a whole, is forecast to hit nearly $300 billion by 2020. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics supports this continued upward trend, projecting the number of jobs for business and management consultants to grow 14 percent between 2016 and 2026, a rate twice the national average for all occupations.
While they may focus on a particular niche (e.g., healthcare, cybersecurity, marketing, finance, management), consultants work for a wide range of clients, often a project basis. Think of them as the most professional of freelancers. Consultants use their specialized expertise and objective viewpoint to solve a client’s specific business needs. And while a large share of the consulting market belongs to a small number of large consultancy firms, there’s been an emerging trend of boutique consultancies and individual start-up consultancies landing bigger and bigger projects.
Although the job description may sound vague, not everyone can be a consultant. It requires a thorough understanding of both specialized and fundamental business concepts, such that those can be applied across a broad range of individual contexts. It requires becoming an expert that others seek out for advice. The field may be enormous, but so are the opportunities. Let us help you get there with our step-by-step guide below.
Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming a Consultant
Step One: Attain a Bachelor’s Degree (Four Years)
After graduating from high school, aspiring consultants will need to attain a bachelor’s degree. Admissions requirements for four-year universities will vary from school to school, but usually include some combination of the following: a competitive high school GPA (3.0 or greater); letters of recommendation; SAT or ACT scores; and a personal statement.
Aspiring consultants can choose to major in a variety of subjects. Business consultants often work in specialized niches such as healthcare, marketing, cybersecurity, and more. If you’re certain of the area you’d like to eventually specialize in, then you can easily pick a major that feeds into it. But if you’re less certain of which area you’d like to specialize in, then a major that is generally applicable to a wide range of industries (e.g., finance, management, marketing) is likely to be the better option, providing a breadth of skills as well as exposure to various specializations through electives.
Arizona State University offers a bachelor of arts (BA) in business administration that can be completed entirely online. Courses include topics such as business operations and planning; organization and management leadership; macroeconomic and microeconomic principles; business communication; and problem solving and actionable analysis. The program consists of 120 credits and costs $639 per credit when taken full-time as a non-resident.
New York University offers a bachelor of science (BS) in business as an on-campus option for aspiring consultants. In addition to a core business curriculum, students take 44 elective credits that will build their breadth of knowledge in an interdisciplinary manner. For further specialization, students may choose to add up to two concentrations from the 13 which are available. The program costs $53,310 per academic year when taken full-time.
Step Two: Gain Initial Work Experience (Optional, Timeline Varies)
Finding work as a consultant is possible right out of college. While one may lack the expertise and real-world experience necessary to lead teams and projects, the cadence and rhythm of an established consultancy firm should suit a recent graduate quite well—it requires research and teamwork to tackle diverse projects with short turnaround times. And recent grads should treat their early work in an academic manner as well: getting to know one’s peers and mentors, taking diligent notes, and studying after hours.
But it isn’t necessary to take a job in consultancy straight out of college. Whether working in marketing, public affairs, analysis, human resources, healthcare, or finance, one can begin to develop both the soft skills of business and a wider network of resources. Work experience straight out of college isn’t a requirement, but it can be critical in building one’s resume and finding out which areas of business consulting one would like to specialize in.
Step Three: Attain a Master’s Degree (One to Two Years)
While they aren’t a requirement in order to work as a consultant, master’s degrees aren’t as optional as they once were. More and more consultants are getting their master of business administration (MBA) as a way to separate themselves from the pack and build expertise in a niche area of business. Admissions requirements for MBA programs vary from school to school, but often include some combination of the following: a competitive undergraduate GPA (3.0 or greater), letters of recommendation, work experience, GMAT or GRE scores, and a personal statement.
The University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business offers an on-campus MBA that’s practically a funnel to working at elite consulting firms. Over a third of its 2017 graduating class went on to work in the consulting field, including for industry heavyweights like Deloitte and Bain. In addition to the rigorous core curriculum, students may choose to add a concentration in strategy consulting, supply chain management, marketing, management science, entrepreneurship, corporate finance, or asset management. Tuition is $67,500 per academic year for Virginia residents and $70,500 per academic year for non-residents.
The University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School has an online MBA that is often ranked as one of the very best in the nation. On top of the core curriculum’s business fundamentals, students may choose to add a specialization in consulting. Electives for the consulting specialization include information for decision making; managing innovation; advanced consulting skills and frameworks; project management; and negotiations. Tuition is approximately $125,500 per academic year, and the 62-credit program typically takes 18 months to complete.
Step Four: Develop Your Platform (Optional, Timeline Varies)
There are innumerable consultancies to join. But if you want to start your own—an increasingly common trend—then you’ll need to develop a platform. Independent business consultants serve other businesses, but first and foremost they run their own. Developing a platform helps a startup consultancy firm market its product, which is knowledge and expertise, to the wider industry. This process usually consists of the following steps:
- Designing a website
- Fostering a list of leads
- Establishing rates for services
- Deploying a marketing strategy
- Performing outreach at industry events
- Hiring a team of experts and specialists
- Creating content related to specialized areas
- Maintaining a network of clients and partners
In an ironic twist, someone establishing their own consulting firm may need to retain the services of a more established consulting firm to help. But the skills required to develop and maintain a successful independent consultancy are often proof that one has what it takes to understand projects they’ll inevitably be hired for. And each project that a new consultancy completes ideally will pave the way for referrals and future projects.
Step Five: Join a Professional Society and Achieve Professional Certification (Optional, Timeline Varies)
Whether you join an established consultancy or start your own, continually building and maintaining your skill set is critical. To this end, many consultants choose to join a professional society, such as the the Institute of Management Consultants (IMC) or the Institute of Certified Business Consultants (ICBC).
In addition to maintaining a mailing list and directory of consultants and employment opportunities, the IMC hosts frequent conferences, webinars, and academic programs. Meanwhile, the ICBC offers online courses in specialized areas such as strategic planning, supply chain management, public relations, and international finance. Both the IMC and the ICBC also provide the opportunity for consultants to pursue professional certification. Professional certification is the ideal method for consultants to rise above the noise of a crowded field of professionals and establish themselves as meeting their profession’s standards of excellence.
The IMC offers the certified management consultant (CMC) designation. Applicants will need to show at least three years of relevant consulting experience in the last five years. Further eligibility criteria include a four-year degree; five satisfactory client evaluations from officers or executives of client organizations; written summaries of engagements; and both an oral and written examination in which the applicant must prove themselves as competent and up-to-date in their area of specialty. The application fee is $350 for IMC members and $550 for non-members. CMC-holders must renew their certification every three years and pay an annual maintenance fee of $395 for IMC members or $550 for non-members.
The ICBC offers professional credentialing as a certified business consultant (CertBC). Applicants will need at least three years of relevant work experience and the successful completion of a specialized online course in business administration. The total fee for the certification process is $480, which consists of a one-time payment of $410 for the exam and annual dues of $70 for membership in the ICBC.
Helpful Resources for Consultants
The consulting field is vast, with numerous specializations and the ongoing evolution of best practices. To catch up on where the conversation is at now and to learn where it’s headed next, check out some of the resources below.