The Ins & Outs of Starting A Career in Consulting & Transitioning The Mental Toughness I Developed In Track
If you spoke to Jacob Isaacson in high school, he would have told you that working in drug discovery was his future. Wanting to be Chemical Engineering major in hopes of being “the guy that came up with new ideas for drugs and drug targets,” Jacob saw Tufts and its biological engineering department as his training ground. That endless eagerness eventually changed as Jacob’s time at Tufts and experience in a few internships proved that path wasn’t for him. In this interview, the former track & field athlete discusses the mental toughness that’s required to perform well, how he balanced those expectations with his career development and why he ultimately transitioned his focus to life sciences consulting.
What was your experience like as a student-athlete?
Between track and chemical engineering, I felt like I was pushing the limit of what I could get done each day or each week. I spent 60-70 hours per week on school work and track. That’s a lot, but remember if you’re going into finance or law for example, there’s a good chance you’ll be spending 80+ or even 100+ hours in the office each week. The reason that 60-70 feels so tough despite some people working substantially more is that time management can be really challenging in college.
That said, you were able to maintain a 3.94 GPA. How did you sustain that while majoring in chemical engineering?
There are always odd 1-2 hour gaps between classes, practices, and other hard commitments. So it’s really important to have structure in your schedule. On my busiest weeks, I would sit down and schedule out exactly when I would do each task. I minimized stress by sticking tightly to that schedule so that I knew I would get everything done, and have time to relax or go out on Friday and Saturday nights.
And how do you reflect on your experience running track for Tufts?
I ran the short sprints, which include the 60 & 200m in indoor and the 100 & 200m in outdoor. A typical track season may have only ~5 meets, so I’d run only ~10 races per season each lasting 7-24 seconds. Since track athletes perform for such little time yet train 7 days a week year-round, there’s a lot of self-imposed pressure to succeed in each race so that you feel like your hard work is paying off. There are also the pressures that come from not wanting to let down your coaches and teammates. Between that pressure and the physical & mental pain inherent to the grueling training regimens, track is a really mentally challenging sport. The track athletes who are the most successful stand out for their mental toughness. I definitely wasn’t the best from that perspective, but track forced me to improve a lot.
Transitioning to your career, can you walk us through what it was like working towards drug discovery and realizing that wasn’t what you right for you?
While I was at Tufts I had two internships in drug discovery, and found that the only people who really do the type of early stage ideation I was interested in were senior leaders in the late stages of their careers. So, I started looking for other career paths where I could have a greater impact from a junior level. Consulting is unparalleled in that regard, and given my background, life sciences consulting was a natural fit.
You now work at Simon-Kucher. What was the process like in getting there?
The process was pretty straight forward. Simon-Kucher is one of the few international consultancies that recruits on campus at Tufts, so I applied through JumboJobs (now Handshake) in early September and heard a couple weeks later that I got a first round interview the following week. My first interview was on campus and featured a case study relevant to Simon-Kucher’s work, along with your typical behavioral interview questions. By the end of the week I heard that I had made it through to a final round “superday” at the Simon-Kucher office in Boston the following Friday. The superday had three interviews that were pretty similar to the initial on-campus interview, and I also got to meet some of the more junior consultants for lunch. That was when I really got a feel for what the culture was like and what kinds of people I’d be working with, even if I didn’t fully understand yet the specifics of Simon-Kucher’s work. I was exhausted by the end of the day but relieved when the managing partner called me later that night to offer me the job.
About a month later (mid-November) Simon-Kucher had a happy hour in Boston for the candidates who had received offers to meet the rest of the team. I was really impressed with how smart and sociable all the people were at the event, and decided to accept my offer as a result in early December.
Connecting this back to track, I’m sure there is a lot of mental toughness required to produce good work and satisfy your clients. Can you talk about what work looks like for you and any challenges that come with that?
The consulting business is all about communicating your insights in a way that not only your client but also his or her broader organization can understand. That can be really challenging, and clients often make impromptu asks or request changes that lead to deeper probing, more analysis, and longer nights. Keeping pace definitely requires some stamina and a degree of mental toughness since clients are always examining and scrutinizing your work.
In terms of what working with clients looks like, I typically start by working out with the client exactly what their business questions are. They may not actually be very well defined, so it can take some time to get a sufficient level of depth and fully understand the logical relationships between them. The key piece from there is making sure all of your research, analysis, and ultimate presentation back to the client revolve around those original questions. Without this focus, it’s easy to lose sight of fundamentally how you are providing value to the client.
What are the most rewarding moments?
Undoubtedly, the most rewarding part of consulting is making an impact for your client. It feels good to know that your thinking made a difference for someone’s business. When you’re presenting to a client and they start asking all of the same questions you asked yourself as you were doing the analysis, it’s really satisfying because you know that you’re shaping their thinking about their business.
Can you discuss how your teams or structured and the importance of teamwork at Simon-Kucher?
At Simon-Kucher, teams tend to be really small with typically a partner, project manager, and 2-3 consultants. As a result, you’re expected to contribute your own independent thinking and opinions from day one. That is really exciting and challenging, and exactly what I was looking for in a career (i.e., impact from a junior level).
As a student-athlete, you put in a lot of time to balance your commitments. How do you find balance now and how importance is it to take mental breaks from high performance environments like consulting?
Your work should be something you’re passionate about, but it can’t be all-consuming. People who devote all of their mental energy to their careers typically burnout quickly, let their personal relationships slowly deteriorate, and become less interesting and well rounded. As a result, it’s crucial to take time to mentally transition out of work mode and into personal mode so you’re not always on the job. I try to shift gears mentally during my commute, but if I’m particularly stressed I’ll also meditate. As far as your personal life goes, staying in touch with friends is more difficult once you aren’t on campus with them anymore. You need to make an effort to plan time together. Post grad life also gives you the great opportunity to meet new people and make new friends, particularly in a young city like Boston. I’d recommend joining a recreation league, as well as devoting some time to developing more personal relationships with some of your coworkers.
What advice would you give a current Tufts Students interested in consulting?
Unlike a lot of other fields, consulting is a pretty easy option to test out while you’re still in college. I’d recommend joining one of the consulting groups on campus and getting your hands dirty working for a client. Keep in mind that since they aren’t paying you and think of you as “just a student” (even though in 6 months you might be employed full time to do the same thing) their expectations will be lower for you than they would be otherwise. I bring that up because - if you refer to my response about challenges in consulting - you will find that clients can be very demanding in the real world. So, make sure the consulting work that you do in college is something that you enjoy. I’d also keep in mind that consulting is a huge umbrella term that encompasses a lot of different types of work. If you don’t like your first project in a consulting club, try another project that’s really different. If you find a certain type of work - whether that be a particular subject area (e.g., marketing, M&A, pricing) or approach (e.g., primary research, interviewing people at the client organization, etc.) - that you like, look for firms that fit with those interests.
If you could go back in time and talk to junior year you, what advice would you give yourself?
Stay open minded. No matter how much time you spend researching career paths and talking to alumni, you will never be able to plot out a perfect course for your career. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to learn as much as you can, but don’t try to narrow in on a specific path too quickly. Focus on finding a job that is in sync with your values and your interests, accepting that at this stage in your life you couldn’t possibly know exactly what you want. As time goes on your target will become clearer and clearer, and you will better recognize which of your (effectively) infinite options are on the mark.