Interview: Suvasini Ramaswamy about her preparation towards becoming a consultant
Q) Can you introduce yourself to the readers please?
Sure, yes! My name is Suvasini Ramaswamy. I was a post-doc at the Salk and also served as one of the VPs of the APD consulting club in 2017. I did my graduate research in India and joined the Salk Institute for my post-doc in stem cell research. I was there for 7 years before I transitioned into consulting and joined BCG (Boston Consulting Group) a few weeks ago.
Q) When and how did you decide to become a consultant and what attracted you to this career path?
It was a little bit of chance and a lot of hard work. J
I first heard about consulting from a video lecture by a former McKinsey Consultant (Rudy Bellani). He was speaking about consulting and doing the PSTs (Problem Solving Test) and how difficult they were. I was intrigued by the test and sat down to solve the questions. It was a fun way to spend my Sunday morning and I was intrigued by this line of work. Unbeknownst to me, my neighbor in the lab was also interested in consulting and that was another huge coincidence. I was curious to start off with but didn’t have much time or information about the job and the process. But thanks to my colleague, I suddenly had access to a lot of information and a great sounding board. I read more about consulting and joined APDCC to see how the process works and if I like it.
Within a few projects with some local start-ups, I felt a genuine interest and excitement for the work despite the long hours after a full day in the lab. I then decided to look at consulting as a serious option for the next stage of my career and spoke to quite a few consultants. I wanted to find out what the learning curve is like, what the day-to-day looks like, what are the skill sets needed etc. I had a long list of questions. J
It was after these many discussions and conversations that I was truly convinced about consulting as a career and decided to prepare for the leap.
Q) What quality or skill helped you in landing your job?
I don’t think there is a single skill that really equips you for consulting. And I don’t think I know what it was for me. What I can say is that getting a consulting offer and exceling in the field require a broad set of skills – Communication, emotional intelligence, problem solving, critical thinking, ability to learn quickly, ability to work in a fast-paced environment, genuine curiosity and objective reasoning, these are some of the main skills.
As a whole, I feel like consulting requires someone who can adapt quickly and efficiently to anything that comes their way. Life is forever changing and unpredictable and one needs to be good with that.
Q) What did you benefit from pro-bono projects?
As you read above, my pro-bono projects were my first training ground in consulting. They helped me in many ways. There were two key areas of influence: 1) technical skill-set, and 2) in my soft-skills.
- They broadened my horizon outside of the lab to the challenges faced by the industry esp. with the start-ups where most of our work was done.
- The projects gave me a deeper understanding of the health-care and pharma sectors. I learnt a lot about the IND (Investigational New Drug) process, the analyses needed for market entry and the dynamics of payer-provider, physician and patient. These are things that I might have known as an abstract concept from my readings before, but by working on them, I gained a deep and nuanced understanding. That was really helpful!
Soft-skills and other subjective gains:
- After working, leading and advising on multiple projects while juggling lab work, I realized that I actually enjoyed the process.
- I enjoyed thinking about the big picture view and exploring creative solutions for a bigger problem.
- The projects convinced me of my ability and desire to thrive in consulting.
- Through the projects, I also met a lot of interesting people and that helped me develop my communication skills.
- These projects also helped me balance my time commitments, prioritize goals, organize meetings, work in teams, handle conflict etc. – all useful skills to build.
In a more practical sense, they also helped me demonstrate a consistent and strong interest in consulting during my interviews. And of course, they also helped me share experiences from outside the lab as part of the fit interviews.
Q) Can you briefly share your experience at work so far, such as your typical day?
I have been working for a few weeks, and I can tell you that there is no typical day or typical week. It changes depending on the nature of the work and the project.
BCG has a strong culture of training and that has been a huge plus for me. I have attended a series of trainings that have familiarized me with the main concepts and gotten me more accustomed to the right language and format. It is important to understand that it is a huge transition from being in academics to being in consulting. Like any transition, there are difficulties and there are exciting parts. I am enjoying the process. I have learnt a lot in the last few weeks and I am sure this will continue for a very long time.
For the uninitiated, the top consulting firms also conduct boot camps or short immersion programs for selected candidates. This allows potential candidates to work closely with real consultants in real office environments and case situations. In addition to giving an up close and personal view of the consulting life, this also gives an insight into the different firms, their office culture, personal fit etc. To get into these immersion programs, applications begin in spring and it typically involves a 2-3 stage selection process including resume/phone interviews, aptitude tests and case interviews. Some of the most popular ones are “McKinsey Insight”, “Bridge to BCG”, “Connect to ClearView” and “Bain’s Advance into Consulting”.
With respect to the Immersion programs:
Q) Can you comment on programs, boot camps, short immersion programs?
I didn’t really get into the immersion programs so can’t say much about the selection process or the program itself. What I can say is that applying to them gives you an early opportunity to practice cases with someone experienced and get some feedback. Application to some programs like the Bridge to BCG is not based on a formal case interview, but even then the process of talking to a consultant and conveying your story to them is a learning process.
Another benefit of some of these applications can be that sometimes, even though you may not be selected for the program, some candidates are often directly invited to a first round interview without re-application. This is what happened to me in BCG. Lastly, to summarize while doing the immersion programs can help, not doing them is certainly not going to hold you back. And getting into an immersion program or not getting into is really no indicator of a full-time interview process.
Q) What would you recommend people to focus on if they want to get into the immersion programs?
I think the focus is going to be the resume (relevant experience), case practice and fit interviews for both full time and immersion programs.
With respect to the full-time applications:
Q) What was your recruiting/interview process like?
At a high level, the entire recruiting process is fairly similar between different firms – two rounds of case interviews after a resume cut-off. But then, at a more nuanced level, there are inherent differences in the kinds of cases that different firms use and the kind of traits/responses that different firms are noting or looking for.
In general, most firms have at least two rounds of interviews. Most people are either not called for interviews or removed from the pool after the first round. After the second round, one has a good chance of getting the final offer. In the resume, they are looking for academic and non-academic performance, leadership, entrepreneurship, attention to detail, communication and other relevant details. It is generally advised that for advanced degree candidates, the bulk of your resume should be your non-academic accomplishments (1/3rd to 1/4th of the resume be dedicated to academic and the rest be devoted to your business and consulting experience).
First round interviews can be in person (if your office of choice is local), else they are by phone. It is important to remember that a phone interview is different from an in-person interview. The silences feel longer and more awkward. You are not talking to a person and responding to them. You are not able to show them your case structure or your thought process. Logistically, there may be challenges of headsets, poor connectivity, juggling things, noise etc. One must be aware of these and be prepared to mitigate such events. Second or final round interviews are usually in person in the office of your choice.
Q) Would networking help with getting a phone interview?
Networking can help but networking alone will not help. It’s always good to know people in a firm and to know the work the firm does; but it is more important to have a strong resume and a strong performance. My networking was limited to informational interviews since I wanted to be sure this is a transition I want to and can make. I spoke to multiple consultants from generalist and boutique firms to understand the similarities and differences. I also wanted to understand the potential downsides of being a consultant. I did not really use these experiences for referrals or even mock/practice interviews.
Q) Can you briefly describe how you practiced for case interview questions?
Different people have different approaches to preparing for case interviews and it works for them. I think the key is to identify what works for you.
I have known some people who simply read through cases and on the other hand, there were some people who practiced every case in an interview set up. I think the general principle should be to practice and practice deliberately. By that I mean that you work with constant observation of how you performed and you work on that feedback. Too much practice can also make you mechanical and rote which is also not a good thing.
What I would recommend is that if you don’t find a good case partner, read a lot of cases deliberately and practice them on your own. Once you are familiar with the language and are able to come up with your own structure, then start practicing with other people (preferably people better than you who can give you feedback). Lastly, if you have any friends in consulting or if you get assigned a buddy, talk to them and do some mock interviews. That will be the most critical feedback. From my perspective, I did all of these approaches at one time or another. From simply reading through to actively practicing in a formal set up. And they all helped me in different ways.
Q) Can you briefly describe how did you prepare for fit interview questions?
I would say that it feels rather ridiculous to practice for fit interviews when one starts. In fact, it felt rather ridiculous till the end to me. At the same time, preparing for it is very critical. How to prepare for it differs between people again.
In my case, I pulled out a list of common fit questions and crafted my best response to them. This helped me get a sense of what I really wanted to talk about and how I wanted to structure the answer. I had a 10 sec version, a 30 sec version and a 2 mins version. Some people could stick to this draft by rote but I couldn’t do that. So, during an interview, my language and construction always changed but I tried to hit the salient points. In my opinion, the fact that I didn’t memorize the answers also helped me stay spontaneous and react according to the interviewer – which was good.
Q) Would you have done anything differently during preparation?
I would say that one must take time and only apply when ready. And the readiness is also a rather subjective judgment but talk to some experienced folks if you have doubts about your “state of readiness”. With some of the bigger firms the stakes are pretty clear because if you don’t get the final offer after the second round, you can’t interview for another 1.5-2 years. This is not so apparent in case of the smaller firms and one can be tempted to just apply even when not ready. That doesn’t help because it affects your confidence and can affect the firm’s judgment of you. I say this with experience. In my case, I decided to apply for consulting Jan 2016 and sent out some early applications by March 2016. At this time, I had not practiced case interviews or even had a resume ready. As one can expect, I wasn’t really successful in my 2016 applications. I then applied again the following year to much better results.
Q) For the life science consultant, what percent is related to life science?
This depends on your firm, the project and your interest. If you are interested in crystal structure of proteins and their molecular interactions, I don’t know of any consulting firms that do that kind of work. But in the life science space, you can have boutique firms like ClearView that do more life science focused work. The bigger generalist firms also do life science work but it is at a different level and with a different focus. While you may focus on the market entry strategy of a single drug in a boutique firm; in a bigger firm, you may look at the entire portfolio of a large pharma company. You may be involved in strategic transformations, restructuring, portfolio prioritization etc. Also, the work in life sciences can span from biotech, med-tech and pharma to payers and providers.
Thanks a lot to Suvasini for taking the time to answer all our questions and for all her support for the club.