Dr. Wendy Dobson-Belaire

Dr. Wendy Dobson-Belaire

Can you describe your current job?

I’m a management consultant at IMS Brogan, the Canadian division of IMS Health. We work primarily with pharmaceutical companies, governments, and payer and trade organizations interested in pharmaceutical market trends and activity. Because of IMS Health’s roots, our clients come to us looking for support in the marketing, market access and sales areas of their business. Every project has a different client and although I may get follow-up work with the same client, it would be considered an entirely different project.


How did your experiences as a graduate student in MoGen influence your career trajectory?

I love science. You can leave science, pursue management consulting and be in an entirely different industry if you want. But for me, I love science but wanted to be more involved in the commercialization aspects of science. The scientific problem solving skills I obtained in grad school definitely influenced my capabilities in the management consulting industry. And my love of science led me to consulting at a boutique firm that specializes in pharma.


How did you start your career in management consulting?

I first learned about management consulting at an LSCDS (Life Sciences Career Development Society at the University of Toronto) networking event. I was exploring a number of career options at the time and ultimately, I found management consulting to be a good fit. It is a great use of the skills I obtained in grad school, specifically the analytical thinking, project management, and team work skills. One of the things that attracted me to management consulting was the fact that the timelines are much shorter, which is very different from research. Although research is very results-oriented, in management consulting, the timeline expectation for result production is much shorter, which I found appealing.


How did having a PhD help you in your career? 

The PhD is very valued outside of academia. From an analytical perspective, it provides a lot of credence to the work that you do. In this industry and other industries that value science, they really appreciate people with advanced credentials like a PhD. The abilities to work through a problem, manage a research project, see it through, and defend it are all strong project management skills that are highly valued in management consulting and in business in general. With a master’s degree, you get a taste for it but doing the full PhD really gives you a better perspective and more seniority. The PhD itself doesn’t become a credential for advancement right away but the skills you gain from doing a PhD automatically shine through and can lead to faster advancement.


You went on to obtain an MBA after your PhD. Do you think having an MBA was important in getting this job?

At my particular firm, it didn’t matter because they really value the science as well as the business side. At generalist firms, which work with all sorts of businesses, having an MBA can make it easier. These firms may work with finance companies, consumer packaged goods companies, etc… so in those cases, having the science background is not necessary. They’ve traditionally recruited from MBA schools so having an MBA does help in those cases. However, the same skills they look for in MBAs are present in strong non-MBA graduate students and firms like Boston Consulting Group and McKinsey, who have already been hiring non-MBA recruits for years, recognize this.


What was the most difficult aspect of transitioning from doing bench science to your current job?

The most difficult aspect is trying to grasp what’s called the 80/20 rule where 20% of your efforts should produce 80% of your results. In grad school, it’s important that you understand as much as possible about your research question and the history behind it to move the research forward into unchartered territory. In contrast, in management consulting, because the timelines are so short, you have to make recommendations and develop insights based on the information you gather in a very short period of time. You have to be a little more comfortable with ambiguity; that is, not having all the information but still having to make the critical decision with what information you do have.


What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

In consulting, you are not the decision maker. You are being hired by a client and it’s part of your job to be as persuasive as possible to convince them that based on your analysis, X, Y and Z are the best recommendations. But for whatever reason, they may disagree. No matter how persuasive you are, there are times when they choose to follow a different path. Dealing with this and moving forward despite the difference of opinion is probably the most challenging aspect, in my opinion. Sometimes clients will come looking for external validation for what they believe the answer to be. But if you find that their answer is not what they thought it would be, it can cause a bit of tension.


How would you describe the current job market for management consulting?

There are definitely opportunities. It’s becoming more and more common to enter the field with a non-MBA graduate degree. A lot of firms will take students without any sort of business experience but it’s still something that requires a bit of selling on the part of the candidate. They need to do their research and consider the different types of firms and their varied interests. In that respect, it’s not a slam dunk but I do think that the industry is becoming more appealing to students. It’s a good alternative to academia and a great way to learn about business and commercialization, if you’re interested in those areas.


What are the top requirements for someone entering management consulting?

First of all, the skills you obtain from thesis-based graduate work, like the ones I mentioned above. You have to be analytically minded and attentive to details. It helps to have a Type A personality and a lot of interest in ensuring that whatever product you’re producing is the best it can be. It’s also important to try to be a little more comfortable with the 80/20 rule. You need to be a good leader but also a good team player. Management consulting is a very social career requiring a lot of team work - the work may have independent aspects but these pieces need to be combined with others’ work to develop the full set of recommendations so you really have to have good interpersonal and intrapersonal skills.


What are your favourite memories from graduate school?

 My favourite memories are probably the social aspects of grad school. The late nights spent in the lab were tough, but having friends there with you definitely helped ease the tension of the work. Analyzing results, writing papers, defending my work, and seeing all the hard work I had done come together in the end is very rewarding. At the time, these were all moments that I struggled with but now looking back, I realize that I liked those times the most.


What was the most important thing you learned in grad school?

In grad school, you have a tendency to get very focused on one thing - your particular research problem. But the world is a big place. You need to keep everything in context and be a little more mellow about life in general. What seems to be a life-ending event may actually open another door. It’s a bit clichéd but your failures are probably your best learning experiences and grad school seemed to demonstrate that lesson to me more than any other experience in my life.


What was the best career advice you received when you were at the end of your PhD?

You don’t have to settle. If something’s not working for you, if you’re not happy with your current circumstances, there is another path that you can take. It may take a bit of work and some time to figure out what exactly is not appealing to you and what it is that you do want to do. But you’ve come a long way, whether it’s a Masters or a PhD. You’ve spent a lot of time on your project, you’re a bright person and you must apply that to do what it is that you really love and want to do.


What advice would you give to students interested in pursuing a career in management consulting?

When I was a grad student, I helped found the Graduate Management Consulting Association, which I think is a great avenue at U of T to get more information about management consulting as a graduate student.

Networking is also key. Grad students have the tendency to be intimidated by networking, but once you start doing it, you realize that it’s more about having conversations with people. Even if someone has what you would consider to be your dream job, don’t be intimidated. Ultimately, they were in your shoes at one point. Most people are very open to sharing and trying to help somebody else because they had help along the way at some point.

 Another piece of advice is that it’s very typical in grad school to have highs and lows. Sometimes when you’re having a low time, it’s hard to tell whether you really don’t like what you are doing or are actually just having a bad day. I advise students not to make decisions about shutting the door to research during those lows, but rather use that time and energy to explore other interests and see if there’s a better fit for you elsewhere. This will either rejuvenate your love for research or help you figure out that you need to course-correct. The earlier you do it, the better. Don’t wait until you are writing your thesis or about to defend. If you can figure out what you want to do with 2-3 years to spare, you can course-correct and start building for whatever that next step might be.