From PhD to consulting, from one medical device to the entire healthcare industry

In the summer of 2019, after completing my PhD in biochemical engineering, I joined McKinsey in Shanghai. If you’re working toward a PhD, master’s, MD or JD you may have the same questions I did when I was in your shoes: is consulting right for me? Can the skills I learned during my PhD studies be applied to consulting? Will there be engagements worth long-term research? Now, I hope I can help answer these questions from my own experience.

Yvonne in graduation gown
Yvonne in graduation gown

1. Is consulting the right choice for me?

What is it like moving from academia to consulting? For me, it was moving from researching a medical device to potentially impacting the entire healthcare industry. During my PhD, my research topic was the cochlear implant. The cochlea is an organ that contributes to audition; the device I studied was designed for the cochlea of people with a hearing impairment. It's quite a niche industry, I devoted myself to research on this pea-sized organ.

In the second half of my PhD studies, I realized that research is only the first step in bringing new technologies to patients. There are clinical trials, FDA approvals and routes to market. Only by achieving all those steps can the real value be delivered to patients.

I began to wonder whether there was a profession that would enable me to work with every part of the healthcare industry and do something meaningful. I participated in campus recruiting events and joined one of McKinsey's webinars. It was the first time I learned about consulting: consultants help solve clients’ most imperative problems and they can apply the skills learned they during their PhD studies. It sounded like a perfect job for me, but I was still a little suspicious. After reaching out to a few McKinsey alumni to understand their experiences, however, I had few doubts. They told me they had exposure to the medical device industry, hospitals, and public health organizations, which really excited me. Since I joined, I have worked on studies in pharmaceuticals, MedTech, life science, hospitals and public utilities. I am getting to know the entire healthcare industry.

2. Can the skills learned during my PhD studies be applied to the consulting profession?

In my first client project related to medical devices, we helped the client develop their five-year strategy in China, and I was responsible for product analysis. If you are a PhD student like I was, you may understand that even with some R&D experience in one device, it’s impossible to be an expert in every medical device. When joining the client engagement, I was overwhelmed by the thousands of products the client had. Under the guidance of our engagement manager, I learned to quickly develop a hypothesis and define analytical focus. Then, I categorized the products to understand key features and strengths in each category by conducting due diligence and expert interviews. This process was much like targeted learning and collation and consulting professors when dealing with vast literature resources during my PhD studies. During recruiting, I often heard problem-solving skills developed through scientific research are the core skills of consulting and I can’t agree more. Soon I became the product expert on the team, including being able to answer all of a McKinsey partner’s questions about the products. It was as exciting as the discussions I used to have with my PhD advisor.

Yvonne with team
Yvonne with team

3. What will be my long-term research topic at McKinsey?

Since joining McKinsey last year, I have worked on many interesting topics, each worth deep exploration. I helped a hospital provide better online and offline medical services to patients. I helped a MedTech company drive production localization. I participated in an internal research team during COVID-19, analyzing the impact of the outbreak on China's pharmaceutical industry and MedTech companies and worked on helping healthcare players take short-term actions and make long-term decisions (click here if you are interested in reading more).

Reflecting on the past eleven months, I joined McKinsey to focus on broad topics within healthcare. The core skills I acquired during my PhD have been useful in my role as a consultant. I have enjoyed exploring and am in the process of refining my own path in the firm and looking for a new topics of specialization. If you are interested in doing something interesting and meaningful, McKinsey is a good choice outside the lab.

To learn more about McKinsey in Greater China (Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Shenzhen & Taipei offices), view our Greater China webinar here.

If you’re a PhD, Postdoc, JD, MD or non-MBA Masters student interested in joining us as a full-time associate, apply here by July 12.

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