Why You Need an MBA to Climb the Management Consulting Ladder

by EmmaWilliams about a year ago in industry

Is MBA almost mandatory?

Why You Need an MBA to Climb the Management Consulting Ladder

If you want to pursue management consulting as your career long-term, you need an MBA. There are other ways to get into consulting, and plenty of options for non-MBAs to spend a few years in the industry, but if you’re hoping for a partner position at a top-tier consultancy, the MBA is almost mandatory. Why? Let’s take a look.

Common Consulting Career Paths

First, let’s understand the common consulting career paths. We’re focusing on top-tier management consulting here: the top three MBBfirms (McKinsey, Bain and Boston Consulting Group). Much of this advice also applies to the next tier of firms (Accenture, Deloitte, Booz Allen Hamilton, PWC Advisory, Oliver Wyman etc.), but in general the further down the rankings you go, the more flexibility there is. The career paths below are far from the only options at a less-prestigious boutique consultancy.

  • Traditional: Intern at consulting firm -> Recruited from elite undergraduate program -> 2-3 years of consulting (analyst-level) -> Sponsored MBA -> Return to consulting firm (associate-level)
  • Industry: Undergraduate degree -> 2-3 years’ experience in industry -> MBA -> Join consulting firm (associate-level)
  • Precocious: Intern at consulting firm -> Recruited from elite undergraduate -> 2-3 years of consulting (analyst-level) -> Direct promotion to associate level (2-3 more years) -> MBA -> Return to consulting firm (with promotion to higher management)

Of these three paths, the first two are far more common. Direct promotions to the “post-MBA” associate role used to be almost unheard of, and though they are becoming more frequent, this doesn’t reflect a decreased interest in the MBA degree—just shifting in the expected timeline. At most firms, a newly-minted non-MBA associate will have a lot of difficulties getting to the next level without an MBA. Essentially, direct-to-associate promotions give a consultant a few more years to pull the trigger on their MBA application without appearing to be “behind schedule” to MBA admissions committees.

The Role of the MBA

As any admissions consultant will tell you, an MBB consulting position is both a major boon in MBA admissions, and the target post-MBA career of many MBA applicants. This symbiotic relationship between the management consulting industry, and the MBA industry makes a lot of sense. Both are essentially in the business of peddling prestige. An MBB consultant is an outsourced brain, bought to help make challenging strategic decisions that the client company is having difficulty with. How does a consultancy prove that their brainpower is better than the other guys’? Well, they can’t just say “we’re smarter...” they have to prove it with some outside certification. Enter an elite MBA—a stamp that says “this person has business smarts.” Until such time as consulting clients are willing to hire a firm with no MBAs over a firm chock full of HBS, GSB, and Wharton grads, MBAs will always have a prominent place at top consulting firms.

MBA Timing

For a graduate of a less than top tier undergraduate institution, it can be difficult to find a direct from college placement at an elite consulting firm. Graduates who don’t secure a spot in ultra-competitive consulting recruitment often end up taking the “Industry” path above. Here MBA timing is determined by the person’s promotion pace in their non-consulting industry. The goal is to demonstrate some MBA-relevant leadership before submitting an application while hitting the MBA age sweet spot (25-29, depending on the type of MBA).

For those who are able to secure a consulting position out of undergrad, the calculus is a bit more complex. Direct to associate promotions are highly dependent on the firm—at some firms, they are very rare, at others they are expected for almost all analysts who stay more than a certain number of years. If the direct to associate promotion is unavailable, the “traditional” path is the only option. But if direct promotions are common, the consultant has to weight a number of factors:

  • Do I need the promotion to get an elite MBA? Consultants with weaker undergraduate records of less obvious work achievements may benefit in MBA admissions if their application showcases a direct to associate promotion. This fact is to some degree responsible for the growing frequency of such promotions—firms worry that their MBA applicants will be at a disadvantage without the better title.
  • Will I have enough time to get to the next level post-MBA? It used to be common for mentors at consulting firms to advise against getting an MBA in the middle of one’s time in the associate role. The problem is that the “up or out” promotion clock doesn’t rewind when you get your MBA—it stops. That means that if you spent a year as an associate before you left, you now only have less time (a year less) to prove yourself worthy of the next promotion. That first post-MBA promotion is often the most challenging one, and you really don’t need a two-year interruption disrupting your network, or making everyone forget your accomplishments. For some, it may be better to either get an MBA before they become an associate, or wait until near the end of their associated term, and secure an agreement to return post-MBA at the manager or partner level.

What if I Really, Really Don’t Want to do an MBA?

There are a few options of consultants who either can’t, or don’t want to do an MBA. This is a much rarer, riskier path than getting the degree, and it was pretty much impossible in past decades. However, now that top firms are making more direct promotions to “post-MBA” roles, a growing number of folks are attempting to skip the degree entirely. To get the partner-level nod, these candidates usually have to prove that they have become “well rounded” in another way—working abroad for a year or two, or doing an externship with a client company.

It’s hard not to think that skipping the degree is a bit unwise. The alternative options take about as much time as an MBA, so the consultant who skips is not significantly ahead of her MBA-holding peers. The bigger problem is when that consultant tries to switch employers—while an elite MBA means something to pretty much every recruiter, an externship at XYZ corp likely doesn’t. For this reason, consultants considering an attempt to skip the MBA should carefully consider whether they are 100 percent committed to their current employer.

The MBA is Mandatory Fun

In our conversations, most management consultants appear to enjoy their industry’s close relationship with the MBA world. As one put it: “My employer required that I spend two years making friends, going to happy hours, and learning a new skill—with their sponsorship. That sounds like a good deal to me.”

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