Billy Gerhard is an advanced professional degree consultant in the Philadelphia office of the Boston Consulting Group, a Big 3 management consulting firm. In 2019 he received his Ph.D. in Civil and Environmental Engineering in the Gunsch Lab. His research was on microbial response to water treatment and invasive bacterial species movement. Prior to Duke, Billy received a B.S. in Biology and an M.S.P.H. in Environmental Engineering from UNC-Chapel Hill.
Dane Sequeira is also an advanced professional degree consultant at the Boston Consulting Group. In 2019 he received his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering, studying under Dr. Brian Mann. In the field of nonlinear dynamics, Dane studied ocean energy harvesting buoys. Prior to Duke, he received a B.S. in Environmental Engineering Technology from the University of California, San Diego. He is now located at the Los Angeles office of BCG, performing due diligence with private equity clients and assisting management teams with firm acquisitions.
Co-President Richard Hollenbach and Professional Development Chair Jason Arne of the Advanced Professional Degree Consulting Club (APDCC) at Duke University recently teamed up to host a two-on-two interview with Drs. Billy Gerhard and Dane Sequeira. APD Consulting Club allows graduate students to learn about consulting firms, participate in case competitions, and participate in pro bono consulting projects with local companies.
RH: What got both of you interested in consulting?
BG: I enjoy problem solving. However, as I got further along into my Ph.D., I realized that they were not the types of problems I wanted to be solving for the next forty years in my career. Consulting was a way to apply my problem-solving approach to different problems in all kinds of business. That was really the value in my mind, changing away from just solving niche problems in my field of study.
DS: I really liked the type of work I was doing in my Ph.D., solving complex, ill-defined problems that no one knows the answers to. I like the independence-driven autonomy to how you will use to solve to your problem. But I also found, like Billy, that I did not want to apply my skills to just a small field. I really did not know what the other opportunities were for Ph.D.s in the corporate world. Consulting provided a good opportunity for me to apply my skills in research and development, but simultaneously get exposure to other industries and positions out there in the business world.
JA: When you were interviewing with consulting firms, what made you choose Boston Consulting Group?
DS: It is hard to get a sense of the companies until you go through the recruiting process, meet people, and actually talk about what the work they do. Over time, I was gradually gravitating towards those at BCG. I felt more comfortable talking with the consultants and their work excited me. Overall, it was a better cultural fit for me. Look for those differences during the recruitment process to see where your best fit might be.
RH: How do you interact with your coworkers with different degrees? What do you bring to the table as a Ph.D?
BG: I thought they would expect me to be the data and analytics member of the team, having a Ph.D., but other degree candidates [such as M.B.A. or J.D.] and even undergraduates have these skills, too. Sometimes you bring in knowledge from your Ph.D. field, which is pretty cool, but it does not always happen. I do feel that Ph.D.s are very comfortable with data-heavy cases, since we have been around data for four or five years.
DS: The distinction between the different degrees tends to disappear within the first few months. If there is one way I really feel like I have been able to leverage my doctoral experiences, it has to do with handling very ambiguous problems. As a Ph.D., that is one hundred percent of what we do. We never know the answer, and sometimes we do not even know what the question is. This is very similar to when we are with a client, and they are asking us very ambiguous questions. It is up to us to ask the most appropriate questions to find out what the client needs to know. We also tend to be good at navigating jargon-heavy statements and questions and can get down to the root of the problem.
JA: Now that you have been through the hiring process, how would you describe BCG’s culture?
DS: BCG feels like a comfortable home for a Ph.D. student. If you had to pick something about BCG that is a differentiator from other firms, it’s that they have a very academic approach to problem solving. While all companies are hypothesis driven, it really felt like BCG was the “nerdy” group of all of the Big 3 firms, which I absolutely loved. It felt like a place where intellectual curiosity was encouraged, and that was really important to me. During my first year here I saw this, which gave me comfort and familiarity with what I was doing.
BG: The Big 3 are more similar than they are different. I wanted to get a broad experience across a bunch of industries and I knew that I would get this opportunity at a company like BCG. If I had wanted to work in the healthcare field specifically, I might have looked at another specialty firm. But since I wanted that broad and varied experience, BCG was the best fit for me. Like Dane said, the collegial and collaborative atmosphere at BCG made me feel comfortable, which I felt was important as I challenged myself in many other ways.
RH: What is one thing that you did while at Duke that has benefited you in your transition to consulting work?
BG: When I got my BCG offer, I asked a friend at BCG what I should do in my last year and he recommended auditing a Duke Accounting 101 course. Just being around a bunch of business terms will greatly help the transition from engineering or another field to business. My research got busy and I had to drop it, but even just three weeks of the course paid off in improving my knowledge of business terms.
DS: One thing that was really helpful during my time between graduating and starting my position was subscribing to business newsletters and articles. They helped me get used to the jargon that was being thrown around. Not knowing the industry jargon can slow you down; BCG expects this, but this kind of reading allows you to listen to conversations early on and helps you understand topics very quickly. This was the right amount of time to spend preparing for consulting, for it still allowed me to relax towards the end of the Ph.D. journey before starting a full-time role.
JA: Obviously 2020 is very different than years past, but can you describe what a typical day looks like at BCG?
BG: Fingers crossed that the people reading this will start at a consulting firm when things are back to normal. Travel is typically Monday through Thursday, and you tend to work pretty hard during those days on the road. I did not mind it, as you were on the road anyway, away from normal home life. Thursday night I would be home for dinner, and then Friday I would go into the office and catch up on things from the week while preparing for next week. I can count on two fingers how many times I have worked on weekends, outside of my personal time on Sunday planning for the week. Obviously shifting to virtual work removed the travel and a lot of the in-person interactions, but the work itself did not change much.
DS: I want to point out that Billy and I have some differences in our experiences. Billy has been on three longer-term projects since he started. On the other hand, I have worked on seven different projects with seven different clients. So, I really have seven different day-to-days. One might be drastically different than the next one. Structurally, they all still require travel Monday through Thursday and the office on Friday. However the work style and type of tasks will change each time.
RH: How do you prevent burnout?
BG: My first piece of advice is to not be afraid to take some time between Duke and consulting. Take a break and enjoy the time. My second piece of advice is that having open communication with your managers helps as well, so you can go to them if you need some time or want to rearrange your tasks a bit.
DS: It is very tiring to put in an eighteen-hour workday, which I have done in the past. What makes it especially tiring is planning your day on the fly all the time. Getting good at planning your day and your tasks can help you stay focused. Short-term projects will have a lot less predictability, while long-term projects are more predictable. Talking with your coworkers so you know what your current manager’s work ethic is like will help you make appropriate plans. You will often take on the work-life balance of your project manager, so knowing it ahead of time will help. Ultimately you are in charge of your work-life balance.
JA: How much do you get to decide the projects you are assigned to work on?
DS: BCG has a “choose your own adventure” kind of feel when it comes to staffing. You learn how to navigate it better as you work on different projects. If you are willing to put yourself out there and network, you will get free rein on the projects you work on.
RH: What is your best piece of advice for the recruiting and hiring process?
BG: Comfort and authenticity are huge during the interviewing process. Do not focus on being perfect. Do what is comfortable and authentic to you. It is not a matter of if you make a mistake, it is when. But being able to make a mistake, step back, and roll with it is important during the interview process.
DS: The biggest thing that was helpful for me was comfort and humility. This is probably different from what most people would tell you. In both my first and final round, I made mathematical errors. But when they were pointed out, I laughed, acknowledged them, and adapted to fix my process. Both interviewers listed this as a strength for me. Having some humility, taking a mistake you made and moving on from it is essential to the job itself. Use a mistake to show off a strength instead.
Ph.D. student in Mechanical Engineering
Richard Hollenbach is a third year Ph.D. student in the Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science Department. He is studying unsteady aerodynamics and vibrations in jet engines and turbines in the Aeroelasticity Laboratory under the direction of Dr. Robert Kielb. He combines wind tunnel testing, computational fluid dynamic simulations, and mathematical models to design tools for engine companies. Richard currently serves as Co-President of the Duke Advanced Degree Consulting Club.
Ph.D. candidate in Biochemistry
Jason Arne is a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in biochemistry. His research elucidates how the subcellular localization of protein synthesis effects proteostasis, the proper balance of the cell’s proteins. Going forward in his career he hopes to leverage the problem-solving and interpersonal skills that he has honed in graduate school to tackle many more problems from all walks of life.
Professional Development Tag
- Careers Beyond Academia
- Collaboration and Teamwork
- Professional Adaptability