No matter what stage you're at in your career, you'll need to do your homework before working as a consultant, writes Caroline Tolond

No matter what stage you’re at in your career, you’ll need to do your homework before working as a consultant, writes Caroline Tolond

Q  I’d like to work as a consultant in the next few years. Can you tell me more about what options are available and  how I could get into this area? 



Caroline Tolond is the RSC’s careers adviser

It’s possible to take on a consultancy role at many different career points, from joining a consulting firm after graduation, to making a transition mid-career or by drawing on experience in the latter part of a career. Depending on where in your career you are you’ll need to consider different options. 

Graduate jobs 

Graduate recruitment schemes have hit the headlines recently with the economic downturn reducing the number of opportunities in 2009. However, the majority of schemes will continue to take people on, having experienced difficulties when they previously froze them.  

Competition will be heightened this year, so if you want to start your career in this area then be flexible. Consider back office roles, fixed-term contract positions or work shadowing to get a foot in the door. This will provide valuable experience for your CV should you at some stage want to move into a client-facing role. Try not to focus solely on companies with prominent recruitment schemes. Keep your eyes open for vacancies in smaller consultancies who often advertise through university careers services and via word of mouth.  

Mid-career transitions 

At this point, moving to a consulting role will depend on what you can bring to the business - commercial experience, project management and leadership are all valuable. During the recruitment process you should be able to talk about the scale of projects you’ve worked on (budget size and number of staff), as well as being able to demonstrate commercial awareness, but you’ll need to tailor your pitch to the job requirements.  

If consultancy sounds interesting but you can’t develop the experience needed in your current role then further qualifications, such as an MBA or a black belt in Six Sigma, may help you take your next step. 

Becoming an independent consultant  

If you are planning to work as a consultant towards the latter part of your career then wait for the right time to move on. Factors such as pensions or the possibility of a redundancy payment tend to become increasingly important the closer you are to retirement and can influence the income you need to generate from being self-employed. If you are considering voluntarily leaving a permanent position with your employer then you might find it helpful to speak to an independent financial adviser before making the leap.  

There are also a number of elements that you’ll need to consider before launching your career as a consultant, including giving some thought as to what you will be selling, such as your experience or skills. Do some market research. Is there anyone else offering the same knowledge and skills as you would to the same client base? If you have time to prepare for this career move, you should consider networking more proactively to build up contacts and develop relationships with potential clients.  

If you are using a consultancy role to move gradually from a full-time position into retirement (a transition known as phased retirement) then it might be helpful to identify how many days you want to work. This might be three days a week or could be a number of full-time blocks during the year, up to a fixed number of days to allow time for other activities.  

There are many sources of help available if you are considering becoming an independent consultant, from the RSC’s small business activities and consultancy group, to Business Link, which has business advisers that can offer one-to-one advice, and the British Library’s Business and intellectual property centre. These avenues of support offer different levels of advice on a wide range of aspects of self employment and small businesses. Investigate what is available and what is right for you.  

Once you start working as a consultant then you’ll need to maintain and expand your network. Professional development is also important as your skills and knowledge can date and could limit how productive your business is in the long term.