Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Career Paths / Exploring Careers

The Biggest Myths About Consulting—Busted!

I know you’ve heard them before: tales of consultant life that sound just too crazy to be true. The luxury treatment we receive as we’re sent on business trips around the world. The opportunities we’re given to rub elbows with major industry execs. I could go on and on.

But whether you heard these stories from friends or consider HBO's House of Lies a source of truth, I’m here to tell you that there’s a good chance you’ve been mislead. Sure, some myths hold an ounce of truth, but others are just plain fiction.

I’m here to set everybody straight. Here are some of the most common myths I get asked about, and the truth about what it’s really like living the consultant life.

1. My Client, the CEO

Many people believe that management consultants exclusively work with the executive team and are buddy buddy with the CEOs of major organizations—meaning they’ve pretty much struck gold when it comes to industry contacts. While this can be true for select projects, or as you get more senior within the organization, this isn’t generally the reality for most of us.

More often, you will be working with VP or manager-level clients on a day-to-day basis. Of course, this is not something to turn your nose up at! Even though they’re not in the C-suite, these contacts can still be incredible additions to your network. Plus, you can expect your clients today to become the executives of the future, so getting close to them now could really pay off down the road.

2. Rock Star Living

Everyone has a picture of consultants who travel the world, take first-class flights, eat at five-star restaurants, and general live a pretty glamorous lifestyle, all on the firm’s expense. While this is in part true—you rack up a good deal of frequent flyer miles and do get nice steak dinners on occasion—there are some realities to add to this picture.

While you might imagine being whisked off to the W in New York or seeing major metropolises around the globe, you’ll more likely be sitting in a two-star hotel in a small town you’ve never heard of with a Big Mac being the closest thing you’ll get to steak in a 100-mile radius. Add the countless hours of Excel spreadsheet creation while squished into a middle seat on the plane and absurdly early morning flights—and you might not exactly feel like you spent the last week lounging by the pool.

3. Burning the Midnight Oil

There’s a common belief that consultants work crazy hours—and might even get to see the sun rise twice before getting some shut-eye. Again, there is some truth to this: There are definitely projects that require a lot of extra hours in the office, but in my experience, you’ll usually get home before midnight, even on the most intense of projects.

One of the great things about consulting is that you change projects often, so even if you are working late hours, it will likely be short term and not the norm throughout your consulting career. Yes, consulting is a work-hard play-hard environment, but definitely not as bad as the myths allude to.

4. Survival of the Fittest

Another common myth is that consulting firms are cutthroat and uber-competitive. While it is true that most firms adopt an "up or out” policy—meaning you either get promoted or you need to leave the company—and you will be surrounded by people who are just as ambitious and talented as you are, there is more to the story.

The truth is, "up or out" is not designed to get rid of good people; it is primarily a mechanism to ensure people don't stay in the career if they are not a fit. If you produce high-quality work, work well in a team, and love consulting, then you don’t have much to fear. And, because your peers are as ambitious and talented as you are, you will find some really great friends who are eerily similar to you and who provide you with a support network to succeed. While each firm (and even each office location) has a unique culture, and some may have more tendencies to live up to this legend than others, it is more fiction than fact.

5. Tell You the Time

A myth that you may face throughout your career is that consultants "Steal your watch and tell you the time"—meaning that consultants provide advice that some believe clients already know. This myth is the farthest from the truth.

Consultants solve some of the toughest questions for the biggest companies globally, questions that often clients cannot solve. (Why else would they hire us?) These are often questions for which no "watch" exists, so we have to put in countless hours to find the right data, analyze that data, and then turn it into something that can directly help the client. The amount of thinking, passion, and pure work effort can yield some pretty amazing results, and I am constantly amazed at the value my peers provide to their clients.

There are still plenty of myths that will pervade about consulting work, but hopefully this has cleared up some of the confusion—and given you a sense of what it’s really like to work in this field. Have more questions? Ask them in the comments section!

Photo of consultant courtesy of Shutterstock.