Profile: Nicole Robinson
Consultant, McKinsey & Company
PhD in Italian Literature, UCLA, 2016
For Nicole Robinson, there is no typical workday. As a consultant at McKinsey & Company—one of the world’s top management consultancies—Nicole has served on projects in fields from financial services to high tech, from risk mitigation to diversity and inclusion.
Teamwork is the only constant. The rhythm of work varies with each project, and the dynamic evolves with each team. The shortest project took only six days, while others could last almost a year. In one case, the weekly cadence was marked by webinars that Nicole’s team produced every Friday; in another case, to co-author the 2018 Women in the Workplace report that reached an audience of millions—a particularly meaningful and satisfying experience—she spent a month connecting with and recruiting companies to the study, two months collecting and analyzing data, then another month writing with partners.
The cycles of newness, the act of problem-solving, and the seemingly endless room for learning and growth all remind Nicole of what she enjoyed the most about graduate school.
Nicole earned her PhD in Italian Literature from UCLA in 2016, where she wrote her dissertation on women exiled under Fascism. “I definitely started my PhD because I wanted to be a professor.” But unexpected horizons were opening up as her doctoral career progressed. In her fourth year, Nicole was serving as president of the Graduate Student Association, and she partnered closely with the university’s Career Center to help graduate students get better career services. From working with Nicole, the director of the Career Center could envision her thriving in socially impactful work, possibly outside the academy, so she suggested that Nicole apply for an internship with McKinsey.
The world of McKinsey was foreign to Nicole, but she felt that the director had “identified correctly that I actually get a lot of energy from work that has more immediate, direct impact on society around me.”
“The humanities are very impactful in aggregate. I firmly believe that.” But Nicole suspected that her dissertation “would not do a whole lot on its own,” as much as she loved researching and writing it. So she took the suggestion and applied.
She didn’t get the internship, though the recruiters at McKinsey encouraged her to apply for a full-time job in the future. The experience put consulting on Nicole’s career radar, but she wasn’t yet ready to say goodbye to academia. “It wasn’t linear. There were fits and starts. I had to decide: Do I want to leave academia? Sometimes I thought yes; sometimes I thought no.”
The summer before Nicole’s sixth year, she submitted the application for a full-time job at McKinsey. Given how selective the recruitment was, she didn’t bank on getting the job, but independently continued her soul-searching vis-à-vis an academic career.
“I knew I loved academia. I knew I loved teaching. I loved my research topic and subjects. But I found it a lot more draining than I anticipated, being the lone scholar in the library. And that’s not something that I really could have known without doing the PhD.” From working in the Graduate Student Association, Nicole found administration rewarding. So if she continued in the academy, she wanted to become a dean.
But then she did the math on how to get there. The job market in Italian literature was abysmal—that year, there were only two tenure-track professorships in her field. Missing those, she would be in the visiting lectureship circuit for maybe three years, and likely in an inconvenient location. With hard work and good luck, she might follow that with an assistant professorship somewhere, then put in the years towards tenure, before she can be eligible to become a dean. “So that math adds up to 13 years from now, plus or minus however many years, assuming no children and taking no time off… That’s when I can become a dean. I can’t actually do the job I want until more than 10 years later.” It sounded like a raw deal. “I didn’t even spend that long trying to get my PhD—it took me 6 years—why would I spend over a decade doing only part of the job that I want, to try and get to the job that I want?” The calculus made this much clear to Nicole: even if she remained in academia, she would seek out a different path to university administration than the traditional professorship, such as through working in student affairs.
Before she had a chance to explore those alternatives, Nicole received a full-time offer from McKinsey at the start of her sixth year to begin the following fall. She finished her dissertation in nine months and embarked on her career as a consultant.
Looking back on how she landed the job, Nicole laughs, “I wouldn’t recommend this to any student ever.” It had been her first real interview cycle. “Normally you should do some practice interviews with some no-regret jobs, that you could even consider turning down if you got the offer. It would be like your warm-up. But I went from 0 to 105, straight to the top choice.” Understandably, the preparation brought on a lot of stress.
“But the interesting thing is, during the interviews themselves, a lot of that stress just went away.” Unique to the management consulting recruitment process are case interviews, in addition to the usual personal experience interviews, in which applicants solve problems very similar to those that actual consultants have to work on. Nicole found herself excelling at these, “I found the interviews really interesting and engaging, and I would forget to be nervous. I was really curious: Let’s solve this thing! That was one of the things that was a good indication—this is a career that probably will be a good fit for you, because you find the bar you have to hop over really engaging.”
Now as a consultant, applying structure and logic to problem-solving is what Nicole gets to do every day. She believes that her PhD background has prepared her particularly well for the job. To Nicole, much of research and writing in graduate school boils down to, “Here is a problem. Research the problem, come up with an answer, and write your paper in a convincing way that people believe your answers. Consulting is just: Here is a problem, research the problem, document your answer, but usually in PowerPoint.” Be it research, problem-solving, or communication, consulting is constantly drawing on the skills and strengths that Nicole honed in graduate school. Even teaching has found its parallel in presentation and capacity building. “The skillset you use to make other people believe that your answer is convincing is absolutely the same. It’s just that, in one instance, you do it in Italian literature. In another instance, you do it in organizational design.”
The applicability of one’s graduate training is not the only lesson of encouragement that Nicole has for current PhD students. “Don’t limit yourself,” she emphasizes.
“I know a lot of my peers who never considered consulting because they thought that’s just for MBAs.” But in reality, “We hire tons and tons of PhDs every year.” Although PhDs in STEM fields fill most of that demand, Nicole also believes that humanities PhDs limit their representation by not applying at all. “More engineers go get a PhD and say, ‘I will go into industry after this PhD, and consulting is part of that industry.’ We in the humanities say, ‘I’m going to leave academia,’ as opposed to go into industry.” This difference in the manner of speaking betrays a problem internal to the humanities, that there are fewer crystallized ways to articulate what alternative pathways look like for PhDs looking beyond the academy. “I want people to recognize that there actually are a lot of careers out there that are not just good backups, but are potentially more satisfying.”
As a graduate student, Nicole had participated in the Graduate Student Association and other extracurricular activities in order to interact with people from different disciplines and departments across campus. Given the heavy load of graduate work and the nature of small departments, it is easy for students to get siloed into very small worlds, which makes it all the more important that they intentionally broaden their world. “Talk to people, and be open to things that are beyond the traditional path.” Nicole observes the tendency of many peers in the humanities to automatically turn to adjunct positions when tenure-track jobs are not forthcoming. “If your entire career goal is teaching, that’s fine.” She said, “But if you’re interested in teaching, if you’re interested in giving back, there are so many things that you could do that aren’t adjunct. You just have to broaden the aperture a little bit.”
Today, she looks on her own future in the same spirit of openness and commitment to growth, “One of the things that I like a lot about McKinsey is that you never stop learning. I’ve been at McKinsey for about four years. It’s really startling how much I’ve learnt in four years. I’ll continue at McKinsey, as long as I continue to learn.”
Profile written by Michelle Mengsu Chang, PhD ’21, History. Interview conducted in August, 2020.