Unlocking the Secrets of Consulting

In the captivating movie “Up in the Air,” George Clooney portrays a consultant who travels 322 days a year, jetting across the country to fire people. While this cinematic depiction may seem glamorous, the reality of the consulting industry is far more nuanced. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll delve into the world of consulting, exploring the top firms, the day-to-day responsibilities, the lifestyle and hours, the hierarchy and compensation, as well as the pros and cons to help you determine if a career in consulting is the right fit for you.

The Consulting Landscape

The undisputed tier-one consulting firms, known as the “MBB” (McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group, and Bain), are considered the holy grail of the industry. These prestigious firms focus on high-level strategic projects that shape the future of their clients’ businesses, often involving C-suite executives.

The tier-two firms, such as Booz Allen, Oliver Wyman, and LEK, offer excellent experiences but are typically known for specializing in specific industries. The third tier includes Accenture and the consulting arms of the Big Four accounting firms, which tend to focus more on implementation than strategy.

At the bottom, you’ll find smaller boutique firms that often specialize in a particular industry or field, tackling projects with a narrower scope.

What Consultants Do

As a consultant, you’ll typically work on one project for one client at a time, with your work varying widely depending on the type of project, the size of the client, and the industry. Some common consulting projects include:


  • Entering a new market, product category, or customer segment
  • Developing a plan for supply chain, production, sourcing, or sales
  • Transforming a company’s business model

Performance Improvement

  • Operations improvement
  • Cost reduction
  • Pricing strategy
  • Value chain projects


  • M&A strategy
  • Due diligence
  • Post-merger integration

Consulting projects can range from a few weeks to a year or longer, but on average they last a few months. This allows consultants to gain exposure to a diverse range of industries, clients, and business challenges.

The Consulting Lifestyle and Hours

Consultants typically work from Monday to Thursday at the client site, often traveling by business class and staying in nice hotels. Fridays are usually shorter work days, with many consultants not even going into the office.

However, the hours can be demanding, with consultants working anywhere from 50 to 75 hours per week. Busy days can end as late as midnight or 1 AM, but consultants are generally not required to work weekends, a significant advantage over other high-intensity careers like investment banking.

During downtime between projects, consultants may work on firm initiatives, plan social events, or fill in for other consultants. This “in-between” period can provide a welcome respite from the intense project workload.

Hierarchy and Compensation

The typical consulting hierarchy includes six levels, from Business Analyst to Partner. Promotions typically occur every two to three years, depending on performance.

Compensation in the top-tier MBB firms is highly competitive. Newly hired undergraduates can expect a base salary of around $90,000 at Bain and BCG, or $100,000 at McKinsey, plus a signing bonus and performance-based bonuses. MBA graduates can expect a base salary of $175,000, a signing bonus of $30,000, and performance bonuses ranging from $40,000 to $45,000, resulting in a total compensation package of around $250,000.

Pros and Cons of Consulting


  1. Becoming a savvy business thinker with exposure to top-level management and various industries
  2. Diverse experience and the opportunity to work on a wide range of projects
  3. Excellent perks, including expense accounts, travel and hotel status, team events, and relocation support


  1. Lack of implementation, as consultants often provide recommendations without being involved in their execution
  2. Loneliness and fatigue from extensive travel, especially during normal times
  3. Unpredictability from constantly shifting projects, clients, and locations


Consulting is a dynamic and complex industry that offers a wealth of opportunities for aspiring professionals. By understanding the landscape of top firms, the day-to-day responsibilities, the lifestyle and hours, the hierarchy and compensation, as well as the pros and cons, you’ll be better equipped to determine if a career in consulting is the right path for you.