From PhD to Consultant: An African-American Perspective

Gavin Huntley-Fenner
Gavin Huntley-Fenner

Gavin Huntley-Fenner received his PhD in Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, and his undergraduate degree in Cognitive Sciences at Vassar. After teaching at UC Irvine for five years, he decided life in academia wasn’t for him, and transitioned to a career in consulting. Gavin spent five years at McKinsey & Co., then left to join Exponent, a science and engineering firm. After five years, he left and founded his own firm, Huntley-Fenner Advisors, which he has managed for ten years. Gavin talked to us about his experiences in consulting from a PhD perspective, as well as his perspective as an African-American consultant.

Consulting Career Academy (CCA): What interested you in a career in consulting?
I was looking for a greater variety of work: more problems, varying timescales of resolution. I wanted client services interactions, and I also wanted to have more team-oriented experiences than I could find in academia.

CCA: What are some of the skills you gained through being a consultant?
I’ve played lots of “consulting” roles in my life, and I think of myself as having acquired a problem solving and communication toolbox. The collection of skills I have is unique, and I try to find clients for whom that is an attractive value proposition.

CCA: How do you compare a strategy firm like McKinsey to an applied sciences firm like Exponent?
While both hire PhD candidates and look for world-class talent, McKinsey is looking for “Overachievers”, generalists who are looking to solve important strategic problems across a variety of industries. Exponent is looking for “Experts”, discipline specialists with definitive interests. They work on a narrower scope of problems, but issues with high risk and high value.

CCA: When you interview candidates for Associate roles, what are the key characteristics you look for?
I have to be able to envision a trajectory in which they become a thought leader and a productive and complementary teammate and eventually a revenue generator – communication skills, intellectual curiosity, attentiveness, genuine interest in people, and solid scientific knowledge and skills.

CCA: What’s the number one mistake candidates make in their interviews?
Probably not preparing adequate questions for me. The types of questions they ask can be revealing, plus it is their chance to gather intelligence for the next interview or for understanding the firm better.

CCA: What makes consulting a good choice for PhD candidates? Conversely, are there any weaknesses that PhD candidates need to consider about their background if they are interested in consulting?
PhD’s bring a level of attention to detail and intellectual rigor to their work that is rare in the business world. There are clients who value this, but not all do. Not all PhD’s make good consultants. You have to be intellectually promiscuous, which is discouraged in academic programs. You also have to be as interested in your clients and their problems as you are about the work you were ostensibly hired to do.

CCA: What is your advice for PhD students on how to prepare for consulting recruiting?
Learn how to run a company and practice thinking about what types of problem solving adds value versus which are “interesting” but not necessarily going to move the needle. Remember that your clients may value knowing what to avoid worrying about as much as they may value a specific solution to the problem in front of them. For cases, remember to ask questions before you dive into a solution.

CCA: What has your experience been as an African-American man in consulting? Are things changing?
Very broad question. I should say that I’ve been astoundingly successful running my own firm… . That being said, race is a negative factor in a lot of my interactions. In academia, my race was a liability. In consulting, I’ve probably lost more projects than I have gained due to race. I am supposed to be a “gray beard” scientist. So, people are often surprised when I walk in the room. Some of my clients see my race as a “risk” but my credentials carry a lot of weight.

In larger corporate consulting settings, I was never an insider or invited to opportunities like some of my colleagues. Now that I run my own firm, I don’t have that dimension to worry about. Fewer of my clients are African-American but I have special relationship with those who are and that is a source of pride and pleasure.

I often struggle try to find a point of personal connection with clients. Most Caucasian men try to use sports as a point of contact with African-American men. Sports and golf are out of the question for me so travel, food and wine sometimes help. Many of my clients are “nerds” of one sort or another so I connect with them on that level whenever possible. I think a lot about what their clients might want and what it would take for my clients to look good in front of their superiors or other clients/stakeholders.

CCA: What advice would you give a candidate who is researching firms in terms of things to look for that would signal an inclusive environment?
I would talk to employees of color (including the admins and support staff) at the target firms. Try to get a sense of turnover. Find out where people go and why they leave. Be sure to understand who is successful and what personal characteristics they have that make them so.