June 26, 2008

Myths about consulting; or, why consultants aren't automatically greedy mindless soulless corporate minions

This was going to be a comment, but it got way too long ... so a response post it is.

First, a little clarification, since there seems to be some confusion here. I'm not a consultant. I did actually go straight from college into the stereotype of genteel penury, which is to say graduate school in the humanities. I make $18,000 a year, share a one-bedroom apartment in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the United States, and have a health insurance plan with a prescription-benefit cap that only covers me for about half the year. Most of the people in my program are married and live primarily on their spouses' income; those who aren't, generally receive supplemental money from their families. I'm lucky in that I'll start receiving domestic partner benefits next year ... from a consulting company.

So, yes, despite the fact that I had the luxury of choosing grad school over immediate cash - or rather because of that fact - I'm pretty darn familiar with what actually goes into consulting, and the decision to become a consultant. So I wanted to take this time to dispel a few persistent myths.

Myth #1: People who go into consulting do so mindlessly/by default/because they lack the ambition or imagination to do anything else/because it's what everyone expects of them.

Reality: First of all, consulting companies don't hire people who lack ambition or imagination. It's actually a rather intellectually challenging and creative job, and the people who tend to get hired (out of all those who get interviewed) are precisely those bright, motivated, ambitious people who are likely to leave the company in a few years in order to use the skills they've acquired to do something else (like, um, run a non-profit).

In fact, let me introduce you to the four people from my current university who are joining the major consulting firms next year. "Shane" has coached an inner-city debate team since arriving at college - in her free time, which is to say, when not coordinating efforts to distribute anti-retroviral drugs, clean needles, and condoms, both in our city and in the sub-Saharan African country where the university sent her to study for a semester. "Max" has been volunteering for (and later working for) queer organizations since puberty, organizing more conferences and successful awareness campaigns than can be counted, and (at age 18) producing original legal research that has since been cited by, among other folks, Dean Spade. "Charlotte" spent her summers in a war-torn Eastern European country helping draft their new constitution. And "Stanford" (whom, admittedly, I don't know as well as the others) has been an active member of the ACLU practically since birth.

Let me tell you - none of these people were expected to become consultants. In fact, most if not all of them agonized over the decision and received precisely the same kind of shit from their peers as people are now dishing out here. And at least two of them do intend to make their careers in the non-profit sector; one, I believe, plans to serve the public by working in the government; one, again, I don't know well enough to predict. Each of them chose consulting for different reasons (though there was some overlap), and each of them weighed their options carefully, including the potential they would ultimately have to do good if they accepted one job or another (or if they went straight to school).

It's also not easy to become a consultant. Sure, perhaps it's easy to post your resume on the recruiting website; but by the time you're even halfway through the interview process, anyone who thinks consulting is the easy way out has had to put some serious thought into why they're still hanging in there. And anyone who gets a job offer has been chosen out of a pool of thousands of graduating seniors from the nation's top colleges - for less than 100 jobs a year. Seriously - it's harder to get a consulting job than to get into Harvard.

Myth #2: Consulting drops you straight into the lap of luxury.

Reference Kaya's comment that "the issue we're discussing is ... extreme wealth vs moderation."

Reality: I would love to live in a world where a mid-five-figure salary (for a job where you're working up to 80 hours a week and must live in some of the most expensive neighborhoods/cities in the world*) is "extreme wealth." Now, obviously, it's nothing to sniff at ... but streets paved with gold, it is not.

*hint: if you're working that late and need to commute to cheaper lodgings, you quickly discover that most cities' public transit systems - especially the lines that run to poorer neighborhoods - often stop running before you'll be ready to leave. options? get a car - and spend in gas and workday parking approximately what you're saving on rent - or live close to work, which is to say in the financial district. this is one reason you're getting more money.

Myth #3: The "non-profit world" and the "corporate world" are actually two different worlds.

Reality, point 1: most non-profits are, in fact, corporations. Learning how corporations work is thus actually a useful skill for someone who wants to work for a corporation for the rest of their life, whether it be of the for-profit or non-profit variety. Knowing how to skillfully and efficiently manage an organization with limited resources is not a sin; it's an asset.

Reality, point 2: non-profit money is corporate money. If you take a $22,000 administrative-assistant job at the Task Force, your salary is probably coming out of Wells Fargo's pocket. If you want to work for Planned Parenthood, get used to taking money from the dirty capitalist swine at Bank of America, Prudential, Wachovia, and Disney. If the ACLU can afford to give you a paycheck, it has less to do with the revenue from Anthony Romero's book sales and more to do with Ford, Hewlett-Packard, Merck, Verizon, and Progressive Insurance. (And, um, RJ Reynolds and Playboy. Just sayin'.)

Ah, but what about individual donors? Well, there are folks like me who give small amounts regularly to a few non-profits which are important to us; but honestly, we barely cover the cost of the mailings we get asking for our next donation. The rest of the donors are the big-ticket donors, the folks who simultaneously make enough money to give very large sums of it away and care enough about progressive causes to give it away to us. In other words, if you have a non-profit job, you can thank someone who doesn't. Your money isn't any purer or nobler or more infused with the perfume of justice than theirs; it's the same money.

A corollary - if you're benefitting from a loan forgiveness or loan repayment assistance program (other than those administered by the federal government), your ability to go into a non-profit job without worrying about student debt is directly funded by major corporate donors and wealthy alumni (who are by and large employed by major corporations). Fabulous for you - but don't pretend you're morally superior to the people who are giving you that opportunity.

Reality, point 3: many non-profits want things from corporations. Take, for example, all the people who want SRS to be covered by health insurance. Awesome. Now how, exactly, do you propose to convince a health-insurance company to fund SRS without an intimate knowledge of how the insurance industry works? Working in a consulting company for a few years gives you - dare I say it - real-world experience in the critical area of "talking to corporations and getting them to do things." You can only go so far on the strength of your convictions and the knowledge that your proposal comes from the moral high ground; sooner or later you have to give up on the idea that willful ignorance of corporate structures is a virtue, or give up on the hope of ever changing those structures.

Myth #4: Things that cost money are frivolous; or, anyone can live on a non-profit wage if they live "moderately."

Ok. Let's break this down. Here is a listing of 127 typical jobs within non-profit organizations, complete with their average salaries. Let's assume for the sake of argument that you enter as an "Outreach Worker" - certainly not the lowest-paid entry-level job, but you don't even want to try this exercise with the office-assistant or direct-service-provider salaries, trust me. So you're making $29,752 a year, or about $2,479 a month. (Not bad. More than I make.)

Let's also say your living situation is that of a friend of mine, who's starting work at a Manhattan non-profit in September. She's sharing a sublet apartment in Brooklyn for about $800 a month. (By "sharing," by the way, I mean "more people than rooms.") This leaves you with $1679 a month. You will also need a Metrocard to get to work; at $81 a month, you are left with $1598.

According to the State of New York, you should be able to feed yourself on $200 a month (more or less the maximum amount of food stamps they'll give to a single person). The idea that food stamps realistically cover food expenses is bullshit, but ok. You're spending $200 a month on food. Maybe you're small. Now you have $1398.

You also have student loans. Financial experts estimate that a minimum of 10% of gross monthly income should be spent paying off student loans (if you have an average amount of loans and decent enough credit to get an average amount of interest). They recommend that you pay 15% if you can, to prevent the interest from accruing too fast. But let's not even go there. Your gross monthly income is $2479; 10% of that is $248. You now have $1150 a month.

We forgot your taxes, though! Approximately 28% of your gross pay will never even make it to your bank account; 28% of $2479 is $694. $1150-694=456, which is how many dollars you now have a month.

Let's also say you have my insurance and take one of my prescription medications (the less expensive one). When your insurance covers the prescription, it costs $25 a month; when the benefits run out, it costs $120. This month, I don't have benefits any more - so neither do you. You have $336 after paying for your meds (and trust me, Bad Things Happen when you don't take them). But you also have a $10 co-pay for the doctor who prescribes your meds. So make that $326.

At this point, your apartment is still empty. By combing Craig's List, you find a futon for $60, a small table for $20, a microwave for $40, silverware and dishes for two for $20, and basic pots and pans for $20. You don't know anyone with a car, so add on a $15 cab ride each for the futon and table. Total damage: $190. In the real world, you have to pay for these when you buy them. For now, let's spread out the cost over three months, for approx. $63 a month. This means you have $263 for the next few months. You still haven't bought clothes, but we'll assume your college clothes are all workplace-appropriate and still fit you. Also, you're a monk/nun and never indulge in any form of entertainment that costs money. So you should be in the clear - $263 a month straight to savings!

Except, oh shit. You trip on a broken piece of sidewalk and break your wrist. You can't type, so you lose a couple of sick days. And when the hospital bill arrives, it's over $700 - after your insurance. If you're less than three months into your "save $263 a month" plan, you're in debt or default. If you had three months of savings, they're gone.

You want to have kids someday? Sorry, that might not be in the cards. If you're fertile (and in a relationship that will lead to childbearing without additional medical intervention), expect to pay around $30,000 to deliver your baby in a hospital, with no complications, and stay there for three days. If, like most of the people reading this, your child is going to be born via some or all of artificial insemination, surrogacy, or fertility treatments, triple that. If you want to adopt, you should know that the average cost to adopt domestically is $15,000; from Russia, $25,000-$35,000; from China, $22,000.

You want to transition medically? Hormones and surgery cost money, too. Which category are you planning on cutting back on in order to save up the tens of thousands of dollars some transwomen find their transitions costing?

Oh, and by the way? If you were paying for both my prescriptions, it would cost you an extra $350 a month. If you were a type-I diabetic trying a treatment your endocrinologist recommended but your insurance company didn't yet cover (i.e. tons of treatments), it could cost you - to take the example of the continuous glucose sensor - $1000 at the outset, and about $350 a month thereafter. If you've got a mystery condition that's looking more and more like MS, and your doctor recommends interferon, one month's prescription will cost more than my entire prescription-benefit cap (a month at standard dosage is about $1800).

These aren't random examples, by the way; these are consultants I know who took the job, among other reasons, because they are chronically ill and can't afford not to make more than $30,000 a year.

So, tell me ... where was the frivolous spending, here? What little luxuries should our hypothetical person be eliminating? Why is it so hard to believe that an entry-level wage at a non-profit is not actually sufficient for everyone's legitimate needs?

Myth #5: I want you - yes, you - to be a consultant

Reality: I don't give a flying rat's left testicle what job you take or what schooling you pursue out of college. I would, however, love it if you stopped acting as if making money was beneath your level of enlightenment; and I'd be thrilled if you didn't act as though people who choose consulting were selling out not only their own souls but the Entire Progressive Movement as well.


kaya said...

ok so this post raised a lot of good points, i think my main issue with it is in the title itself: "why consultants aren't automatically greedy mindless soulless corporate minions." that's kind of an opinion you're ascribing to anyone who doesn't completely agree with you, but i have to kind of wonder why - the original question on the table was "why do so many ivy leaguers go into consulting," not why did you personally or someone you are close to go into consulting. OBVIOUSLY people make choices for different reasons in life, but to argue that the average person who goes into consulting is an extremely poor minority with a chronic disease who HAS to go into consulting to afford to live is going a bit far, and seems to me to be an attempt to distance the people YOU know who go into consulting from the "average" person who does, who is most likely a middle-class white male who doesn't HAVE to, but who wants to. the question is not "what are the possible reasons someone might need to become a consultant," its "why do so many people do it."

re: your point about non-profits being corporations, thats exactly right. which is why your portrayal of a non-profit job as one where you won't get full health benefits is sort of ludicrous. i may not get paid more than your example in this post, but i definitely have full health care and dental coverage, things like metro cards are cheaper for me since it's taken out of my paycheck before taxes, and i was somehow "magically" able to find an apartment for around $800 a month that does NOT have more people than rooms. and yes, i probably can't afford to deliver a baby out-of-pocket right now, but shockingly enough, the myth of the non-profit (that you're going to have an entry-level salary for the rest of your life) is also not true.

finally (i know, this got long) the whole "moral superiority" idea is something you and others continue to read into this conversation and its not happening. i wasn't even trying to talk about non-profit vs corporate. the whole point in quoting rowling's speech was to point out that a vast majority of ivy league grads don't end up doing what they WANT to be doing, whether thats non-profit work, grad school, the fashion industry, health care...i have plenty of friends who are not bankers or consultants and do not work at nonprofits either. and they have great health care and perfectly reasonable salaries. the question is not really "what are possible reasons you might need a reasonable salary out of college," its "why do people think the only way to get that is through a few select jobs? and i still haven't totally seen an answer to that question.

icarus said...

i really do see a continuation of the "abject poverty v. consulting" false choice (yeah, LSAT!) setup in this post.

about health benefits: i work at a nonprofit right now. it's the best health care me or anyone in my family has ever had. i'm not sure why you seem to assume that healthcare at nonprofits is bad - it's usually fairly high quality, in part because nonprofits realize they can't pay as much as, say, consulting, so they tend to have stuff like good healthcafe, good partner benefits, family and medical leave policies, etc. i have had a BATTERY of medical tests this year (everything from a CAT scan to an endoscopy to an emergency room visit), not to mention a fuckload of prescriptions to fill, and have found the co-pays very manageable given my salary, which is less than $30,000 a year. i was even able to get glasses for the first time and cavities filled.

i understand that someone close to you (or maybe several people) are going into consulting, and so maybe you see this discussion as an attack on them. but i really didn't see it that way at all. i saw it as a continuation of the conversations around the question raised in both the Times and American Scholar articles, which was about why such a large amount of students from elite colleges choose this career and if and how the atmosphere, culture or pressures and expectations of an elite college contribute to those choices.

emily2 said...

all i know is that my student loan payments (BEFORE the principal has even kicked in) is more than my rent. and these payments are going to be around for the next 30 years. i would love the chance to spend a couple of years in a large law firm to get rid of my private loans (attempting to do so now - sending out resumes!), but yeah, it's a lot less horrible to work in such a crazy environment when you're 22 than when you're 32.

listen, i'm in my 30s, still living in a... um... "shared apartment situation" in a different state from where i work (yay one hour commute from jersey!), currently six figures in debt, which resulted from a combination of a recession and some bad choices i made in my 20s.

the home, the family... all of that just seems increasingly unattainable. if same sex marriage passes in my state - forget the wedding. i can't afford it. and retirement? currently in denial. don't even go there. no retirement account to speak of.

forget the culture of elite colleges that contributes to people's choices to do into certain professions. i think it's awesome that people from these elite colleges have the chance to get their foot into these jobs so that they can pay off their debts faster and sorry... i'm going to say it... achieve the american dream. people just don't know how lucky they are until the option is gone.

don't make things any more complicated than they are. please. :(

maudite entendante said...

"why consultants aren't automatically greedy mindless soulless corporate minions." that's kind of an opinion you're ascribing to anyone who doesn't completely agree with you, but i have to kind of wonder why - the original question on the table was "why do so many ivy leaguers go into consulting,"

And the answer was: because it's "the easy way out," because they have a "poverty of ambition," because they feel "exempt from thinking about issues of social responsibility," because they've lost their grip on reality, because they've been trained to be so elitist and un-self-aware that "feel like there is only one way to live, and that way is to put your financial security above all else, or more to the point, to live your life in a way that absolutely ensures you'll never feel the slightest amount of economic hardship, never have to live in a 'bad' neighborhood, and never have to do any of that other shit that, as the product of an elite institution, you now feel is beneath you."

If they actually offer a *real* reason based on their *real* decision-making process, those reasons are dismissed as "ready-made rationalizations."

an attempt to distance the people YOU know who go into consulting from the "average" person who does, who is most likely a middle-class white male who doesn't HAVE to, but who wants to.



Oh, right - because you're guessing here. Because you're too ideologically pure to actually know any consultants, or to know anything about consulting; you're just content to sit back and mouth the party line. Meanwhile, when I profile *every* *single* *person* who was hired from my school into a top consulting firm this year, I'm just cherry-picking the examples in order to delude myself about the true nature of my friends. It can't be because I actually know more about consultants and consulting than you do.

which is why your portrayal of a non-profit job as one where you won't get full health benefits is sort of ludicrous.

Actually, I said no such thing. I assumed a pretty basic health insurance plan identical to the one university employees here (other than faculty) get. Even pretty standard health insurance doesn't cover everything: there are deductibles, co-pays, caps, penalties, and out-of-plan providers and services. If your health insurance so far has proved adequate for your needs, that's a privilege. Enjoy it while it lasts - but don't you dare make assumptions about who else does and does not share your privilege.

the whole "moral superiority" idea is something you and others continue to read into this conversation and its not happening.


Because tossing around words like "elitism," "entitlement," "failure," "shit that you think is beneath you," "rationalizations," "classist," "extreme comfort expectations," "extreme wealth vs. moderation," "in denial," "wasting your education," "go[ing] through the motions" and so forth ... all of those are totally value-neutral.

Give me a break.

the question is not really "what are possible reasons you might need a reasonable salary out of college," its "why do people think the only way to get that is through a few select jobs? and i still haven't totally seen an answer to that question.

That's because it's not the damn question. The question is, "why do some self-righteous progressives think that consulting/i-banking isn't a valid choice of job post-graduation?" Why does it even seem like a problem to be analyzed? After all, no one is deluded enough to think there aren't jobs other than consulting/i-banking out there. But you can bet people make budgets based on the job offers that come in - if they get multiple job offers - and have a really hard time saying yes to jobs that don't cut it in the budget department.

Also, every time you hide behind that question, you ignore the fact that you yourself are the one who's arguing that people don't have good reasons for going into these lines of work (except for a few exceptions who must be immediately discounted because they don't agree with your reality and therefore must not actually count). Thus, a refutation based on good reasons people go into these lines of work is a pretty sound one.

Your assumption - without, apparently, knowing any consultants personally - that they've spent their lives going through the motions, only getting good grades because they haven't challenged themselves, and taking jobs in these fields as a continuation of this lifetime habit of entitled mediocrity underlies every single thing you have said in this conversation, despite your feints toward making it an issue of personal choice. Personal choice, apparently, is only valid as long as you approve of the outcome of the choice and all the reasons you assume go behind it. Everyone else's personal choice is the product of elitist brainwashing and clearly they must be shamed for it.

Spare me that kind of progressivism.

kaya said...

yeah you're right. i went to harvard but i have no friends who are consultants or i-bankers. that makes sense. i live in a magical land made up entirely of self-righteous liberals who get paid less than $20,000 a year and have no health insurance but sleep well at night knowing they're better than everyone else.

and you can dismiss any conversation that invovles discussions of elitism, privilege, adn calss as one of self-righteousness and moral superiority, but i don't see how that helps anyone's case.

and i'm sorry, but seeing as how i wrote the original post that makes you so mad, i'm not sure you're in a position to tell me what the 'damn question' is. i was trying to answer a question: "why do so many ivy league graduates go to wall street." the fact that you don't like my answer doesn't mean i'm "hiding" behind something thats not the real question, it means you'd rather change the subject because you feel personally attacked.

i'd go on, but i don't really see the point in playing a useless game of personal attacks where each of us tries to accuse the other of some personal situation we know is probably not true, just to delegitimize whatever point is on the table. it goes nowhere, and its really irritating. so i think we can just go ahead and agree to disagree. i believe that part of the reason so many ivy league grads end up on wall street is because of a culture of expectations that is not really beneficial in terms of the diversity of thought and action post-graduation. you disagree, and in addition you are personally insulted by my opinion and believe that i am classist. about sums it up?

emily2 said...

i just want to add that there is nothing wrong with taking the "easy way out." life is complicated enough as it is.

Anonymous said...

People should be allowed to choose their own... things they do with their time?

icarus said...

People should be allowed to choose their own... things they do with their time?

haha, i wondered when that was coming. ;-)

Anonymous said...

I haven't read the comments yet (I've been offline all week) but I am basically confused by the tone of this post and what feels to me like defensiveness.

There are two things that confuse me:

1. Your main point seems to be that a lot of things in life cost money. Am I missing something?

2. You seem to be setting up a hypothetical based on student insurance and non-profit worker's salary.

Being a student, you don't have a job, and thus you aren't making money. In my experience and the experiences of my friends, one of the things non-profits do very well is to provide excellent health insurance with low deductibles and high caps.

Now, being a student, that's totally different. I see it as is an opportunity to take time to improve my own thinking and reasoning skills, but I recognize that I'm not providing value for anyone else in the form of work, which is why I'm not making substantial money.

That said, I, too, rely on domestic partner health insurance because student insurance sucks. I don't think that it should have to be that way but I am glad that you are gaining easier access. Yet another reason we need universal health care.

The last thing I am confused about is that it feels like you are grouping "consulting" as a category of "anything that pays more than $30,000 per year. People in non-profits get raises from year to year, or are not always entry-level. In addition, plenty of people do jobs they are passionate about that are not necessarily non-profit work whether it's doing research, writing, doing art, or whatever. Other people have jobs that have lighter hours than something like consulting but still pay enough, and pursue their passions with their non-work time.

I am confused by your post because it seems like you are saying there are different paths for different people, which seems clear. Am I missing something?


Anonymous said...


One thing I have felt is the factory of pushing students into consulting. In my areas of study as an undergrad, there was immense pressure to go into consulting. Everyone was doing it, and trying to bring you along to recruiting events. It was a way to buy time to decide what to do next. A way to not decide. It was so easy to sign up and get involved, and in fact people were hired to practically schedule your interviews for you.

It did feel to me like a cookie-cutter high-pressure approach, and all of my friends in those particular departments where I studied were doing it.

I am glad your four friends (or did you say they were the only 4 people at your school?) have thought it out and are doing what they choose. I hope they didn't feel pressured like I did.


icarus said...

Also, about student loans:

The explanation that the burden of student loans forces students to choose careers like ibanking is actually more persuasive for students graduating from non-Ivy League schools that do not have the kind of strong financial aid initiatives that say, Harvard, does.

I graduated from Harvard debt-free. So did most of the low-income students I know. In addition, Harvard helped to pay for me to buy a new computer and other necessities. The only major cost they don't help to cover is textbooks, which was a struggle, but hopefully, with student and faculty pressure, they will move in that direction.

And the financial aid initiatives are getting better and better. For instance, when I was a freshman, the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative didn't exist. By the time I graduated, Harvard had eliminated tuition contributions for all families with incomes under $60,000.

This year, they announced financial aid enhancements to ensure greater affordability for middle- and upper-middle income families with incomes up to $180,000! $180,000 is, in my opinion, nowhere near low-income - or even middle class, at least compared to the majority of our country.

So, basically, I feel like, at schools with this kind of financial aid support, more and more students are graduating debt-free, student loans are becoming less of a burden, but (so far), we have not seen a significant reduction in students going into consulting and such.

I think that this may point to a lot of factors behind why people make decisions, as well as to institutional, if not pressure, then at least extreme ease of access to some types of jobs, and lack of support and advice for others. But that's just my take on it, and I know that other people have other experiences with financial aid, and everyone should be able to choose their own...stuff they do with their time, etc, etc. ;-)

Anonymous said...

I have notice that most of my friends who have gone into consulting/finance are middle/upper class. It seems to me either a genuine interest in finance or a refusal to dip below their standard of living growing up.