The Dark Side of Consulting Careers

Every top MBA program places a significant number of graduates in the consulting function.  The high salaries, variety of projects, and fast-paced work environment all encourage MBAs to propel themselves onto this career path.  And while these benefits would be enticing to any professional, every career path has its dark side.  During my three years as a management consultant, these were the aspects I liked the least and have made it very unlikely for me to return.

(Please note that my comments apply primarily to the larger management and strategy consulting firms, made up of the Big Three (McKinsey, Bain, BCG), the current Big Four (PWC, E&Y, KPMG, Deloitte), and the various spinoffs from the original Big Five (Accenture, IBM, Bearing Point, Cap Gemini).  A lot of smaller boutiques have actually built their consulting firms around directly addressing the points below)

Work Life Balance

In nearly all recruiting presentations by consulting firms, there will be a lengthy section about work life balance.  Some of the ones I saw showcased an extremely busy partner, who had an overwhelming work schedule, but managed to spend time with his family and had a great relationship with his kids.  Strange how most other career tracks don’t make such a hard sell…

If the pre-emptive sales pitch wasn’t a giveaway, let me put it very simply: your work life balance will likely suck.  You’ll work longer hours and endure more stressful deadlines than your industry peers.  During my tenure as a consultant, I spent about 70% of my time in city away from home.  I knew the all of the quickest routes through SeaTac airport and some flight attendants knew me by name.  I lost count of the number of inconvenient times I’d receive calls from friends asking me to hang out.  My response if it wasn’t the weekend?  “Sorry, I’m kind of in Florida right now…”

Despite what the sales pitch may tell you, I know from what I’ve personally witnessed that a consulting career can ruin your personal relationships.  For many people this isn’t a dealbreaker, because they’re willing to forfeit their social lives for career advancement.  But as you get older, the sacrifice you make undoubtedly becomes greater.


My most lavish travel experience had me staying at the Ritz Carlton and the W Hotel in the Bay Area.  We played golf during a team outing and had amazing dinners at restaurants I would never get into by myself.  The bill for our team dinners was usually higher than my monthly rent.  On the flip side, I also had a project where I stayed at a Motel 6 for five weeks.  My most lavish dinner was provided by the hotel vending machine.

The likelihood of getting staffed in a great location with great venues is just as good as being staffed in the middle of nowhere.  I consider myself lucky to have wined and dined in New York and San Francisco as many consultants never get to experience the “good-life” of consulting travel.

Another thing to note is that just becoming a consultant doesn’t automatically give you first class service on airlines and hotels.  You have to pay your dues first.  You’ll spend numerous hours dealing with delayed flights, lost luggage, and loud, family travelers before United finally gives you a free cheese plate during your flight.  (The perks aren’t what they used to be)  And after you start counting all those hours spent in airports, cabs, and hotels, you’ll realize that they would’ve been better spent at home.  Suffice it to say, the perks and the miles never make up for the time you surrender.

The Staffing Process

One of the things that surprised me about consulting was how little control you have over which projects you get staffed on.  The staffing process, which had been sold to me as “endless variety,” seemed to be better characterized as “unfair randomness.”  Hoping to get on that sexy, channel marketing strategy project and utilize your marketing degree?  Well, if your partners are only selling Oracle implementations, that’s what you’ll be staffed on.  The consulting world is driven by the demand from clients, not by the expertise of consulting personnel.

Also, while the idea of getting a variety of projects may seem appealing at first, the scenario can quickly wear out its welcome.  It’s extremely stressful to get staffed on a project, in an area where you have no expertise, if you’re already billing hundreds of dollars for each hour of your time.  Yes, ramping up in an entirely different industry and entirely different function is a good skill to learn.  But you shouldn’t be doing it your entire career.

So who gets the cool projects?  Many times, it’ll depend on who you know, not what you know.  When politics come into play with the staffing process, it only makes things worse.  That dream project you’re perfectly qualified for, the one that you know you’ll knock out of the ballpark, can easily slip away simply because the project partner doesn’t know you.  Each staffing decision has the potential to make you feel like you’re going through the recruiting process all over again.

Think Long-Term

Despite everything I’ve mentioned above, I know I benefited from the time I spent in management consulting.  I developed a great problem solving capability and a strong tolerance for ambiguity.  In my opinion, those skills alone make consulting a great career investment.   The problem is that consulting isn’t a great long-term career destination.

The stats show that most consultants don’t last beyond three years, with very few ever being considered for partner.  Eventually the travel, the politics, and the workload all catch up to you.  If you do decide to make the leap into consulting, it’ll look great on your resume and you’ll build skills that you wouldn’t attain elsewhere.  But make sure you develop an exit strategy.  If you focus on building your expertise early on and plan your departure well, you’ll likely springboard yourself onto an even better career path.

33 thoughts on “The Dark Side of Consulting Careers”

  1. Really helpful post. As a university junior, I’m planning for a consulting career after undergrad and this really helped put things into perspective!

  2. I enjoyed reading this post. I’m a newcomer in IT consulting, and it helped me visual what’s coming up in my career. Love to read more!

  3. This article helped me understand many nuances of the industry that I otherwise wouldn’t have understood.
    Great article for a person who is contemplating on whether to jump into consulting as a career option.
    Thank you!

  4. Consulting is not interesting, tedious, and a waste of your education skills. I’ve seen many co-workers need therapy after such positions. Avoid at all costs.

  5. Awesome, Awesome, Awesome!! Review of Consulting, all the more reasons why I plan to leave it. Airmiles, Hotel Points, Rental Car Points, Lavish Meals, and all the so called perks of consulting can be earned elsewhere! The only part left out was the “physical affects” of consulting, poor diet and exercise. The random projects and favortism are beyond irritating and you never meet your career potential. People forget that the average span is 3years and the higher salary you recieve is used to influence your stay with the company. Life is waaaay better outside of consult, make your own moves professionally. Work for a variety of stable companies and you will get the same consulting experience, but even better, you will have your “personal life” and time for yourself.

  6. Wow, you stirred up some memories for me with this article. I consulted for 4.5 years, traveling 4 days out of 5 and loving every minute of it. Yes, it was stressful being billed for, and expected to be an expert in, a skill set you didn’t have but it sure made me into a quick study and as you note, you learn to problem solve on your feet. And every time I got caught in a traffic jam or was delayed at an airport I just said to myself “it beats sitting in a cube.” I still miss it.

  7. Hi Mark –

    I’m nearing the end of my undergraduate studies and am researching relentlessly on the life of management consulting and the path to get there (from a non-target school).

    I really appreciate articles like this, but if at all possible, could we talk through email? I would be very appreciative if I could just have 5 minutes of your time.


  8. Thank you very much for this review. It’s nice to have a bit of perspective on a career surrounded by so much hype.


  9. Thank you !! I currently work as a operational risk consultant with a Big 4.
    What he wrote about work life balance and travelling is cent percent accurate.

  10. Great post! Keep posting in such area. I loved to read that. These written thoughts are mine which are stiring me a lot as IT consultant.

  11. I was part of management consulting 2 years back and i faced exactly the same issues. Consulting is great career but one has to pay a price for it. Few challenges are travel, work life balance, inappropriate staffing and billability issues. Generally projects are short, around 3-6months. So you always have un-certainity about your next assignment and work location. For sure, it is not a long term option. When you are in consulting, one has to know clearly ‘what next?’.

  12. Christine is a consulting shill. Consulting is NOT a good career path. People keep getting into it for money and the delusional idea that becoming a partner will mean success.

  13. Hi Mark, A well written article on consulting about its pros and cons. However I would need your suggestion with respect to my career aspirations. I have 8 years of experience in Supply Chain involving Logistics, Procurement and Planning, so you could see i was never a part of consulting domain per se.
    I wish to be a part of consulting now and would like to seek your advice, how good will it be to shift my focus from operations background to consulting. What benefits I have and the challenges I need to face.
    Would be really nice, if you can revert on my query.
    Regards, Chetan

  14. Well great overview of consulting. I’m with Accenture mc for 2.5yrs and currently considering joining a client who happens to have an office in my hometown. Yes consulting has many flaws that made me almost quit it several times:
    – you cannot have a healthy diet on the road. I was on the road 4-5 days a week
    – regular excercising? forget about it
    – having social life during the week? not doable, unless you consider team’s dinner to be your social life. Sometimes even Friday’s evenings are ruined
    – say hello to waking up at some sick hour just to catch a flight to client’s city
    – b/s projects that you have to do, as nobody gives a s.. if you like it or not. Charge or die
    – ‘deliverables’ – what are we actually producing? b/s slides! you ponder ‘am I not too old for that?’
    – ‘we need it for Monday morning’ – since on Monday morning you’re travelling you’ll do that during the weekend

    But when it comes to leaving, boy it’s not easy:
    – this job looks interesting in comparison with the roles of your peers, who do same old thing every single day
    – ‘I’m in consulting’ sounds cool, people are jealous of your travel, regardless how much overrated it is
    – you learn different stuff on these b/s project that you hate
    – I have this romantic dream that somewhere behind the corner lurks ideal project that I will skip

    My advice: get into consulting in your early 20s (23-25), leave around 30 and enjoy your new desk job that’s not available to your peers. I got there when I was 29 and that’s kinda late.
    Now as a Senior Consultant I don’t think that promotion to Manager adds anything to my skillset, since Manager still needs to travel like crazy and produce pretty much same s.. while pay differential is not that substantial.

  15. Great article! I worked a management consultant in the first 3 years of my career (2005-08, Brazil). Very stressful job, but I developed skills that was (and still is) very useful. Although the fast learning process, now is “very unlikely for me to return”.

  16. Dear Mark: I enjoy your article on the “dark side” of consulting. The word “consultant” needs to be defined. I set up my independent consulting practice in 1983 after I had worked for a Fortune 500 firm for two years. This is the 33rd year of my own consulting practice. When one works for a large consulting firm, one is a full-time employee but called a “consultant” by his or her firm. There is a psychological difference between an employee and a self-employed consultant. The former may, as you said, last for an average of three years. The latter, like me. will want to stay in business for as long as we can. Thank you. James Chan, Ph.D.

  17. Great read – 5 years after your post, the points still hold validity! I’ve worked 4 years in consulting for a smaller firm and your post brings back the same experiences. Don’t forget the physical effects of flying in high altitudes and the change in time zones that throw your biological clock off. Just remember… the better the perks, the higher the costs!

  18. I think these are some great tips. I would like to know how to be able to have a work balance. I appreciate all the help that you have given me in the staffing process.

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