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May 2, 2001

The War for Talent: Physicians in Management Consulting

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JAMA. 2001;285(17):2252. doi:10.1001/jama.285.17.2252-JMS0502-5-1

Corporate America has been engaged for years in a battle to recruit and retain creative thinkers and dynamic leaders. The trenches of this "war for talent"1 are now being dug into the worlds of clinical medicine and biomedical research. During the past decade, medical students, house staff, and practicing physicians have departed in increasing numbers to management positions. The search for a position in the corporate world—once a haphazard process—has been replaced in many instances by an organized, efficient recruiting effort targeted specifically at people with MD and PhD degrees.

Perhaps no industry has been as successful at attracting and integrating people with alternative professional degrees (APDs) as management consulting. At McKinsey and Company, more than half of its 6000 consultants hold graduate degrees other than an MBA (A. Mini Harris, verbal communication, February 2001). A company representative summarized the approach to recruiting APD holders: "To hire the world's best talent wherever that talent resides" (A. Giangola, verbal communication, February 2001).

Frogs in a Wheelbarrow

A McKinsey and Company report states: "Today's high performers are like frogs in a wheelbarrow: they can jump out at any time."1 Medical students and physicians are among these "high performers" who are becoming aware that there are career opportunities outside traditional clinical medicine.

Fear of reaching a professional plateau is a reason often cited by physicians who have chosen to enter management consulting.2 They cite the challenge of continually working on new problems and shaping new industries as a source of professional satisfaction. Medical students and resident physicians are also given to understand that there is widespread dissatisfaction among practicing physicians.3

Length and cost of training are also concerning to medical students and residents. Several years of additional postgraduate training, required for many specialties, can be a psychological and financial hurdle for students, who on average incur just under $100 000 of debt during their medical education.4 Add to that a life that will try the limits of a person's physical and emotional endurance and many students are left asking "Why would I do this to myself?" The result is a reevaluation of goals and consideration of alternative careers.

Another reason for entering consulting comes from the genuine desire to have an impact on the processes of curing disease and promoting health. Some people with APDs, including myself, find an excellent outlet for this desire in working for consulting firms, which combines addressing the key strategic issues for industry in generating new knowledge, and in working pro bono for the environmental, educational, and public health organizations in their communities.

Doctors for Companies

Medical students, residents, and people with biomedical PhD degrees have become attractive to industry as potential consultants. At McKinsey, approximately 200 people with APDs will be hired this year from campuses in the United States and Canada. Consulting firms are hiring people with APDs who have expertise in their respective fields, but who may have little or no formal business background or education. The need to rapidly educate a diverse group of individuals, most of whom have science backgrounds, in the basics of management principles is of particular concern to consulting firms. At McKinsey, a high intensity, 3-week "mini MBA" and numerous other structured learning experiences in the first year of employment allow new consultants to integrate quickly into their consulting positions.

Since hiring of people with APDs has become more common, the cultural adjustment that physicians face has become easier but is still not insignificant. The learning experience at consulting firms involves training in communication, organizational, and interpersonal subtleties. Most firms use a team-based model that may resemble but is in fact quite distinct from working groups in hospitals. To be successful, physicians must modify their expectations about their role in a hierarchy, their individual input, and the service being provided to clients.

However, these obstacles are usually overcome. "APDs perform at least as well as MBAs by the end of the first year," said a manager of recruiting at McKinsey (A. Mini Harris, verbal communication, February 2001). The successful consultant's tool kit includes strong analytic and integrative skills, a dedication to teamwork, and an aptitude for leadership—abilities that are also necessary for success in medical school and residency. In fact, the experience at the top consulting firms has been that people with APDs are promoted and make partner at least as fast as their MBA counterparts. As Rajat Gupta, a McKinsey partner said, "We can pick up people who have not studied business and can teach them, if they have the intellectual firepower."5

Disclosure: The author is an MD degree candidate who has accepted a position with McKinsey and Company as an associate.
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