Consulting career path: 6 steps to the top

Consulting is not your typical 9-to-5 job. It offers a unique career path, along with challenges and opportunities you won't find in a normal corporate firm.

Understanding the consulting industry, and career progression, can be really difficult. In this article we'll cover the following:

  1. Entry points into consulting
  2. The 6 steps on the consulting career path
  3. Understanding job titles across firms
  4. Role snapshots
  5. Exit opportunities
  6. Free resources to help you get into consulting
1. Entry points into consulting

By far, the biggest pathways into consulting are through targeted undergrad and MBA programmes. However, consulting firms also hire experienced professionals, and graduates with advanced degrees (e.g. PHD, MD, JD)

The below table gives an overview of each entry point, including examples of role titles, target schools, and more.

As a note: don't be intimidated by the Ivy League target schools. Top consulting firms definitely do recruit from schools like Harvard, and Yale, but they also pull from reputable public schools like the University of Michigan and the University of California Berkeley. 

One of the first things you'll notice on the entry points, is the impressive base salaries in consulting. The salary figures below do not include additional rewards like signing bonuses, performance bonuses, or company shares, which can make the real-world rewards even richer. 

Entry Points into Consulting

If your background puts you near one of these entry points, then you already have a great start! Skip to the section below, to learn more about what a career in consulting could look like for you.

On the other hand, if this looks like a long-shot for you, then we have good news and bad news. The bad news is that top consulting firms are extremely selective. The good news is, that thoughtful preparation and a great application can help you get your foot in the door. 

No matter how you find your way in, here's an overview of the steps you would encounter in a consulting career:

2. The 6 steps on the consulting career path

Consulting firms typically have 6 roles from entry-level to partner. Moving from one position to the next typically takes 1 to 3 years. So becoming a partner can take 10+ years, depending on your starting level and speed to promotions.

As you move up the ladder your role will change. Entry-level consultants are typically focused on delivering analysis and presentations. Mid-level managers make sure projects are delivered smoothly. And partners and principles focus on selling projects and building client relationships.

Consulting career path

3. Understanding job titles across firms

When considering a job in consulting, you may come across a variety of role titles. You might see "Analyst", "Associate", "Consultant", etc. This can be extremely confusing, and without further context, those titles could mean almost anything. 

Making matters worse, is the fact that many consulting companies have different names for the same type of role. For example, the entry level position in consulting is called Business Analyst by McKinsey, Associate by BCG, and Consultant by Oliver Wyman. 

In order to simplify this (and hopefully save you a few headaches), we've put together a generalised set of role titles. Below you'll find two tables, which map our generalised titles, to the titles used at specific firms. Using these mappings, you should be able to develop a clearer understanding of the roles listed at top consulting firms.

Levels at MBB+

MBB Consulting role titles

Levels at Big 4+

Big 4 Role Titles

4. Role snapshots

Now that we've established the progression and naming convention for consulting roles, let's further explore each individual level of a consulting career. We will proceed in order of seniority, starting from the entry-level Business Analyst role.

Note: curious how we got our numbers? For salaries, we've analysed data sourced from Glassdoor.com. For more information on consulting salaries, and our methodology, check out this blog post. For the years at level data-point, we've drawn from our first-hand knowledge, and also the data presented by Rocketblocks.com.

Business analyst snapshot

In a typical case-based consulting project, a Business Analyst will be tasked with information gathering, analysis, and creation of PowerPoint slides. This work is all directly related to the final deliverable of the project, which illustrates how quickly you are given responsibility and high-impact work in consulting. At this level, you are typically less involved in client relationship management and internal strategy.

Base salary: $65,000 - $80,000

Years at level: 2 - 3 years before promotion

Pros: 

  • Quick ownership and impact
  • Learn quickly from experienced experts
  • Protected from political conflicts

Cons:

  • Little control over your schedule
  • Little decision making power
  • Less specialisation
Junior consultant snapshot

A junior consultant will typically own a functional area. This could be a single work-stream, or a set of implementation requirements. In this role, there is a higher level of ownership compared with a Business Analyst. However, a Junior Consultant still has limited oversight/leadership responsibility.

Base salary: $85,000 - $95,000

Years at level: 1 - 3 years before promotion

Pros: 

  • Ownership of a functional area
  • Greater opportunity for specialisation
  • Ability to clearly demonstrate personal impact

Cons:

  • Limited leadership responsibility
  • More prone to long-hours vs. Business Analysts
Senior consultant snapshot

This level is characterised by an increased leadership role, and/or increased specialisation. A Senior Consultant may lead a team of Business Analysts, Junior Consultants, and even other Senior Consultants. In addition, a consultant at this level would be more involved in internal discussions with the consulting team's leadership. They may be asked for input from their team, or from their area of expertise.

Base salary: $110,000 - $145,000

Years at level: 1 - 3 years before promotion

Pros: 

  • Significant leadership opportunities
  • More control over your work/schedule
  • Potentially huge resume-boosting opportunities
  • Some influence on project strategy and decisions

Cons:

  • Face pressure from consulting and client managers
  • More exposed to behind-the-scenes politics
  • Challenge of balancing leadership/delegation with task-execution
Manager snapshot

A manager will typically have 5-10 years of experience in consulting, or in a specific industry. At this level, you will be expected to have broad-knowledge of the process and strategy for effectively completing a project. You will lead multiple teams, and will report to senior client and internal leaders. This level combines elements of project management, team leadership, client relationship management, and strategy. Managers may also be involved in assembling their teams, and interviewing prospective employees for the firm.

Base salary: $135,000 - $175,000

Years at level: 2 - 3 years before promotion

Pros: 

  • Lead talented consultants (and maybe choose your team)
  • Significant control over your work/schedule
  • May control a budget, including discretionary spending for team events
  • Significant influence on project strategy and decisions

Cons:

  • Often responsible for explaining issues to the client
  • Increased demands to balance internal work (e.g. interviewing, events, etc.)
  • Responsible for resolving interpersonal/team issues
Principal snapshot

At the Principle level, you serve a dual purpose. First and foremost, you are responsible for the delivery of an entire project. You will likely have multiple Managers reporting to you, each of whom lead multiple teams. Second, you will be expected to begin selling new work for the consulting firm, by building relationships with your current client and through new connections. 

Base salary: $185,000 - $230,000

Years at level: 2 - 3 years before promotion

Pros: 

  • Own entire project, including strategy and final decisions
  • Control project budget, invoicing, and spending on internal/external events
  • Experience with the full project life-cycle (from sale, to delivery, to payment)
  • Significant control over work and schedule

Cons:

  • High pressure position between consulting leadership and client leadership
  • Difficult to balance project execution, with selling new work
  • Ultimate responsibility for major project failures
  • May be partially dedicated to multiple projects at once
Partner snapshot

As a partner, you take a step out of the day-to-day execution of projects, and into high-level strategy. At this level, your primary focus is selling new work and retaining existing clients. This is done through relationships, and an ability to clearly demonstrate the impact of your firm's work. It's also critical to have a network of high-performers and specialists within the consulting firm, who you can recruit to staff your projects. Broadly speaking, a partner manages a portfolio of projects, and is the decision maker for new contracts and initiatives.

Base salary: $500,000 - $5,000,000

Years at level: IndefiniteAfter partner, the remaining promotion opportunities are executive positions, like CFO, COO, etc.

Pros: 

  • Exceptional compensation
  • Influence on internal firm strategy
  • Ownership of a portfolio of multiple projects
  • Near total control of your work/schedule

Cons:

  • Work and progress are more ambiguous
  • Heavy focus on sales and promotion
  • Less hands-on project work
5. Exit opportunities

One of the most attractive things that come along with a job in consulting, is the impact it has on your resume and future opportunities. A few years in the consulting industry, can give you a long-term reputation as a high-performer. 

In addition, top consulting firms can serve as a spring-board that launches you down the path to your dream job or lifestyle. Whether you want to be a CEO, a politician, or have something unique in-mind, there's probably a consulting alumni who's made it where you want to go. Here's a few examples, for inspiration:

Consulting exit opportunities

6. Want in?

If the consulting career path sounds like your kind of environment, then you're in the right place. The interview and application process for consulting jobs is extremely rigorous, but fear not! We've helped over 30,000 candidates navigate the application and interview process for firms like McKinsey, BCG, Bain, Oliver Wyman, etc.