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The Big Pivot: 7 Insights from a Management-Consultant-Turned-Adjunct-Professor

February 01, 2019 | Filed in: Your Career

In our new series, The Big Pivot, we feature women who have made major career reinventions. Next up is Anne-Marie Jeannet, who finished undergrad early to leap into a career as a management consultant in New York. But after three years (and a promotion), she heeded the call of her inner scientist and went back to school. After earning a Master’s and a Ph.D in Social Policy, she’s now an adjunct professor at Bocconi University in Milan. Here, she shares insights on finding her vocation and embracing a “smaller” life.

Practice ‘purposeful procrastination.’

“I was a history major at Northwestern, and in the fall of my senior year it dawned on me that I needed to get a job. I thought I wanted to go to law school, but I needed a better LSAT score. In the meantime, I wanted a job that would help me ‘productively procrastinate’—as in, not be something I would do forever. Banks and consulting firms were heavily recruiting on my campus, and that’s what everyone was applying for; it was a crowd mentality. I was a very competitive person then, and I liked the idea of having an elite job that was hard to get. So I applied and took a job at one of the top strategy consulting firms. I even decided to start working right away, so I finished college two trimesters early. I don’t know where I was rushing off to, but I was rushing.”

Think of yourself as an anthropologist.

“Within a week of starting the job, I was in front of the client at one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world. I was 22 and had never worked at a company before, and I was supposed to tell this client how to run their business—it was wild. I quickly learned that the job mostly consisted of putting together PowerPoint presentations and Excel spreadsheets. I was so curious about what was behind all these decks, but I quickly realized: nothing. It’s just air getting pumped into decks in order to make whatever business case our boss wanted us to make. In order to survive, I decided to think of myself as a little anthropologist, a participant-observer. I would sit in these boardrooms with very high-level executives and look at the way people sat, how they power-posed, how they jockeyed for prestige. I was doing my own ethnography, in a way.”

Hop before you leap.

“Eventually, I realized I wasn’t happy. I was living out of a hotel Monday through Thursday every week, and I was missing out on a lot at home. And when I started to work on the quantitative side of projects, I began to have ethical concerns. I’m a scientist by nature, and I didn’t agree with the way we were using statistical data to convince clients of certain things. I decided to apply to grad school to get a Master’s in public policy, and I got into a program at the London School of Economics (LSE), which was actually more affordable than a lot of the programs in the U.S. I didn’t officially quit my consulting job—I just took a leave of absence. I was very careful to leave the door open in case I decided I wanted to go back after grad school. But by the time I finished my Master’s, I was really excited about policy, and I went on to get a Ph.D at Oxford. I worked at think tanks and did research to support myself throughout those years.”

Even after making the jump, you might waver.

“When I finished my Ph.D and was applying for jobs, it was unclear what I would be able to get, because there are very limited post-bac opportunities in my field. In a last-minute panic, I reapplied to consulting firms. I got to the final round for one, but I think it all bombed when the interviewer asked me to estimate the size of the ski market in Afghanistan. I was like, ‘F this. I’m not going back to this world.’ So I recommitted to academia and I ended up taking a job at a university in Milan, even though I spoke no Italian at the time.”

Pay attention to your shifting priorities.

“When I was a consultant, I was always trying to get away with doing as little work as possible. We were working 80-hour weeks, but we were always watching the clock, waiting for ‘real life’ to start. Now I feel like I’m actually living my life, at work and outside of work. I execute my own ideas, and my time is so much more valuable to me. I wish I had more time for work, rather than less. I’m not a star by any means—I’m an adjunct professor at a university in a medium-sized city. It’s not a super prestigious job, but it’s a very enjoyable one. And that’s fine with me—I’m much less competitive than I used to be.”

Downsizing your lifestyle can be liberating.

“The funny thing about my career trajectory is that, over a decade later, I make less money than I did when I was a 22-year-old management consultant. And that’s with two more degrees and 10 years of additional experience! But I’m happy with the choice that I made. I have a really nice life, but it’s a small life. I’m the breadwinner in our family, and I have two young kids. So I do ‘go without’ things that I had at 22. I shop less; I buy less; I cook more at home; I can’t just take off for a ski weekend. But being able to do that isn’t essential to my happiness anymore.”

Note how you feel when asked: ‘What do you do?’

“When I was a consultant and I’d meet someone at a party, I used to dread the question, ‘So, what do you do?’ That was a sign that I was in the wrong job. I didn’t feel that management consulting reflected who I was, and I didn’t want that label. It made me feel misunderstood, and it was also a conversation-ender. ‘Oh cool. You’re a consultant. Got it.’ Now, I look forward to being asked about my work. People’s eyes light up when I talk about my research, and they want to talk about it. I’ve truly found my calling. I think back to that little pretend anthropologist observing in the boardroom, and I’m so glad I followed that instinct. My career switch wasn’t strategic—there are no numbers that would have justified leaving consulting and going into academia. But it was still the right choice for me.”

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Tory Hoen is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor. She spent five years as the Creative Director of Brand at MM.LaFleur (where she founded The M Dash!) and has written for New York Magazine, Fortune, Bon Appétit, and Condé Nast Traveler. She loves doughnuts and inter-species friendships. Read more of Tory's posts.

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