Generalist Vs Specialist Firm Interviews

Frameworks. Experiential Questions. Case Studies. Presentations. Questions. Resumes.

There is a lot to think about when preparing for consulting interviews.

This post will focus on the main similarities and differences between the interview process for two types consulting positions.

As an advanced degree student, I will share my experiences applying for jobs with an engineering Ph.D. I also applied during the Covid-19 Pandemic so I cannot comment on in person interviews, just virtual.

Key Firm Differences

The “big three” firms, (McKinsey, BCG, and Bain) are often considered generalist firms as they consult in all fields. Their clients may range from multi-purpose packaging and consumer goods to niche products such as optical lenses and wine. While these firms all hire Ph.D.’s as a part of their Advanced Professional Degree Hires, there are no bounds on the field of studies. While STEM majors traditionally do well due to their strong mathematical background, humanities and social science doctoral students can also be hired.

Specialist firms on the other hand consult in a specific field, which determines both their clients and their new hires. L.E.K. and ZS are both healthcare firms, while Exponent is a scientific and engineering firm. To be a candidate for these types of companies, you might need to be in a specific degree program such as pharmacy and biology, or engineering and chemistry. Clients of these companies will bring in problems closely associated with this niche field, and might require greater expertise compared to the generalist firms.

Regardless of which type of firm you are targeting, the process for getting to the interview stage is mostly the same, starting with submitting your resume and transcripts. Most firms will also have you pick one to three office location preferences, as well as available dates for interviewing. Many of these processes also include early round interviews. For example, BCG requires one-way video interviews. Exponent conducts technical phone screenings in your field of interest. Others move right into the main interview.

Generalist Firm Interviews

Typically, a generalist interview consists of two types of questions – experiential and business case study.

The former involves answering questions in the form of short stories pertaining to your teamwork skills, entrepreneurial drive, inclusive leadership abilities, and more. There might be a single question per interview that lasts twenty minutes, or a collection of five to six short questions in a row. It is best to have rehearsed answers to these questions, many of which are provided ahead of time by the firm (for example McKinsey posts these on their website).

Experiential questions tend to focus on skills, decision making, and ability to execute in team settings, rather than on specific technical skills, experiences, or accomplishments. You might share a story about a team project you completed, an organization in which you served in a leadership position, or describe an internship you completed in which you moved the needle. While you might share stories about something specific to your research, such as being a leader in the laboratory or completing an interesting project, there will likely be no specific questions about a particular skills, technique, machine, or process that you will be expected to have used.

The latter portion of the interview is a business case interview. As a candidate, you will be read a prompt and expected to ask clarifying question, complete an analysis, and recommend a course of action. There is a plethora of resources on this type of interview, which could be as short as fifteen minutes or last nearly an hour. The fictional clients might range from a small vineyard to a large-scale corporation.

The business case interview tests your comprehension, business acumen, analytical thinking, mental math, and ability to synthesize all within a short period of time. There will likely be a business case question following the experiential question each time you interview, and you will see one in each round of the process. Each firm has their own specific type of business case questions, so it would be beneficial to research the company and talk to prior applicants about this part of the interview.

Specialist Firm Interviews

One distinguishing feature of specialist interviews is the presence of phone screenings. For example, Exponent Scientific and Engineering Consulting conducts thirty-minute conversations that check specific technical experiences and skills. These might include three to four questions about sub fields of interest, potential client examples, and theoretical questions. The phone screening for a Thermal Sciences Associate position for this firm included questions about the Biot Number, flow around an airfoil, and a hypothetical experiment about a bubble rising in water.

After the screening, the formal interview will occur. This may look like a generalist firm interview except for two key differences.

Firstly, although the interview will still contain experiential questions, the business case will be replaced with client-based case studies, which will be related to the field of interest. For example, if applying to a Thermal Science Associate position, the questions might come from real projects involving a damaged oil pipeline, a hydraulic lift, or unwanted rising bubbles. If you are applying with an engineering firm, it is recommended that you study Fundamentals of Engineering exam questions. While there are no real frameworks that you have to memorize, your technical knowledge will need to be sharp.

The second main difference when applying to specialist firm positions is that some firms require candidates to give a presentation. These might range from thirty minutes to an hour in length and will likely be based upon the candidate’s doctoral research project. The firm might request the presentation to be industry focused, which could make this task quite easy or extremely difficult for the candidate, depending on their research field and project application. Many interviewees will already have these slides made if their schools require preliminary examinations and conference presentations.

-Written by Ricky Hollenbach

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