Case Interview Expectations for PhDs

Question:

I have been keeping up with your daily newsletter. Very helpful indeed, but I couldn't help but notice that it is perhaps mostly aimed at people with a business background of MBAs. I may be wrong.

I mentioned in our earlier exchanges that my background is in [Science Field] (PhD). I have done Science since the age of 16. The contents of your letters are unfamiliar to me.

For example, you spoke of case interview frameworks and handling business case questions, the math is easy, but the structure/frameworks, etc., I am not familiar with.

Now the question is, should I be familiar with them considering my background?

I.e. Are these things that Mckinsey and Bain expect non-business types to learn via the various means available, or are these things that can only be learned by doing an MBA or a BA?

The other question is, are the cases the same for associate posts outside of marketing and IT? Such as Natural gas and Oil, Biotech?

My Reply:

Short answer is yes, you should be familiar with the basics of how a business operates and the frameworks I cover on my website and in my newsletter.

Probably 50% of the email questions and email success stories posted on the site are from people with a PhD background in the sciences.

The expectation is you do need to know pretty much everything I talk about on the site and in my emails. At McKinsey, I used to interview applicants with PhDs in the sciences and the expectation is exactly the same as for applicants with BA or MBA backgrounds.

The only exceptions are if you are unfamiliar with some of the more advanced business jargon and ask for a definition, that's fine.

So if you don't know what a distribution channel is and ask... and I say as an interviewer, "Oh, that's a 'middle man,' like a manufacturer who sells through a retail store that's a third party." That's okay (but it does take up time).

One of the things I recommend for people with PhD backgrounds is to start reading Business Week and the Wall Street Journal -- in particular the Marketplace section (which is more conceptual business news, as opposed to stockprice, financial news). You should be able to read both in their entirety and be able to understand it.

In terms of understanding why this is the case, it is very simple. Associates at the major firms generally bill out at $600k+/year -- meaning this is what the firm charges its clients for your time.  That works out to about $50k/month, or about $2,500 per day.

Clients get pretty irritated at paying that rate when you ask a question, "What exactly is net income?"

As for expectations for Associate positions outside of marketing and IT, let me clarify.

The expectation for the Associate role in a strategy firm in any industry, is probably quite similar. So whether you are interviewing with a strategy firm in one industry or another, it's the same.

However, if you are interviewing with a firm that does more operational consulting -- like supply chain management, or doing IT implementation (e.g., writing code, configuring large IT systems)  -- the expectations for these roles are quite different (and not in my area of expertise).

So the expectations vary by type of firm and the type of work (e.g., functional area), rather than by industry.

If the role is a strategy role in a sciences-type industry like McKinsey bio-tech or McKinsey technology, sometimes these groups will recruit separately for associates. In these cases they are looking for someone capable of qualifying for a regular Associate and someone with a deep sciences background.

So the standard is not sciences instead of business, it's both sciences and (enough) business.

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