3 Questions for Jennifer Mason on Higher Ed Consulting

Consulting as an alt-ac career path.

March 24, 2021

I first met Jennifer Mason when she interviewed me for one of her university consulting projects. Speaking to Mason, I found her to be amazingly knowledgeable, which made me curious about her background. (This is not my usual response when meeting consultants.)

Turns out that Mason is not your typical consultant, and her company, Jennifer Mason Consulting, is not your typical consulting company. On the principle that turnabout is fair play, Mason graciously agreed to be interviewed by me for this space.

Q: Before we talk about your consulting company, I’m hoping that you might share your educational background and professional path. I’m always curious about the navigation of alternative academic career paths.

A: Twenty years ago, I completed a Ph.D. in English at the University of Texas at Austin and set out on a traditional academic career. I had a Mellon postdoc at UCLA that let me focus on research and writing for a year. I taught for four years in visiting positions at Southern Methodist University and Skidmore College. Johns Hopkins University Press published my book, and a public flagship research university offered me a tenure-track job.

While I really liked the department that offered me that job, when it came time to accept the offer, I found I couldn’t do it. My husband and I had spent three of the previous five years living across the country from each other, which was pretty miserable. As an architect, he had more mobility than an academic, and he had moved twice to follow me. But major architecture firms tend to be in metropolitan areas, and a large share of colleges and universities are in places without much of an architecture market. I met an academic who had lived hundreds of miles apart from her spouse for two decades. That wasn’t the life I wanted.

Through random coincidence, I ended up talking to someone who left an English Ph.D. program at another institution to work at a research company called the Advisory Board, which was in Washington, D.C., where my husband’s job was located. I hadn’t decided to work outside of higher ed, but I was curious about what kind of company hired people with advanced training in the humanities and what those people did there. So, when the person I met offered to connect me with someone else at the organization to learn more, I took her up on it.

Due to my total lack of experience with how recruiting worked outside of academia, I was shocked when my next conversation concluded with the person telling me she was advancing me to second-round interviews. What? Had I had a first-round interview? In my experience, first-round interviews happened only after extensive preparation of customized materials and, if you were lucky, flying across the country at your own expense at holiday time. They weren’t the kind of thing that happened without you realizing it.

When I did the second-round interviews, I found myself surprised again at how appealing and even familiar the organization’s work and culture felt. The people I met spent their days doing research, analysis, writing and presenting. The work followed an annual cycle: lead a research study, present findings at national meetings, write a book, repeat.

What struck me most, though, was that the organization was full of people who were not only smart but throwing themselves into the work, because they loved to work, because working hard was their default mode of operating. The energy, the pace, the level of engagement -- it reminded me of why I had fallen in love with academia in the first place as an undergraduate at Smith College. I loved being around smart, driven people who thrived on challenge.

The company was also planning on launching a new division focused on higher education. I accepted their job offer then did a tour of duty in the existing health-care division and learned how they did strategic research. Then I worked with the firm’s chief research officer on the launch of the higher education division, which was initially called the Education Advisory Board and later became EAB.

Most of my time at EAB focused on leading yearlong research studies on challenges facing postsecondary institutions: increasing faculty diversity, increasing student retention and graduation rates, improving undergraduate advising, engaging faculty in online teaching, and helping deans and chairs elevate their leadership skills, among other issues. I also managed the team doing shorter research projects commissioned by individual colleges and universities. The work was deeply satisfying on both a personal and an intellectual level.

Over time, my work moved in a lot of different directions. I worked on growth strategy, content strategy and marketing strategy. I tackled challenges with business development, account management and recruiting and training staff. I created strategic plans and launched new programs. The result of this path was that I ended up with experience across all the major areas of running a business.

In 2017, I launched my own consulting business, and I’ve been doing that ever since.

Q: Can you help us understand what you do all day long as the founder and principal of Jennifer Mason Consulting? What sorts of projects do you work on? How do you spend your workdays?

A: The short answer is that I help senior leaders across the higher education sector solve problems and address their goals. My clients include colleges and universities, higher ed associations, nonprofits, international development organizations, and other change-making organizations in the education-workforce ecosystem. While I don’t have a “typical” engagement, most of my projects involve some combination of strategic research, strategy development, tactical execution support, change management assistance and creating materials and presentations for high-level stakeholders, such as boards, organizational leaders, policy makers and current and potential partners and investors.

Because of the variety in my work, one day or week might look nothing like the next. For one project, I might be conducting confidential interviews with organizational leaders or board members, researching peer institutions or competitors, analyzing market dynamics, and synthesizing that information into recommendations for organizational growth strategy or program development. For another project, I might be creating tools that help institutions assess and implement best practices, such as a diagnostic for evaluating whether tenure and promotion practices are equitable, inclusive and transparent.

Across my work, I do a lot of writing and create a broad range of strategic content. As a consultant for the World Bank, I wrote a policy paper on prioritizing investments to make the greatest impact on student learning outcomes in Laos. In another project, I helped the CEO of an organization evaluate a multimillion-dollar offer for partnership and then wrote a script and created slides for his presentation to the board to make the case for his recommended course of action. I also write executive briefings, white papers, program overviews, press releases and other strategic communications from or for senior leaders.

Being able to work on so many different kinds of challenges that relate to important issues that I care about is one of the things I love most about what I do. In the past few years, I’ve been able to work on faculty hiring practices that promote inclusive excellence, finding better and more equitable ways to structure undergraduate STEM education, creating more accessible professional education opportunities for college and university leaders, and building institutional capacity for teaching and learning innovations.

Q: What advice might you have for academically trained folks like yourself who are considering shifting to a role in higher ed analysis and consulting? If you could go back and talk to your newly minted Ph.D. self, what would you say?

A: Some academics end up working as consultants after discovering that other colleges and universities need help with the type of administrative work they have been leading at their own institutions. For early-career academics, the most common path into consulting -- whether in higher education or another sector -- is through a research or management consulting company.

Most of the major consulting companies (Bain, BCG, McKinsey, Deloitte) do work in higher education. There are also many midsized and smaller firms that do consulting and/or strategic research for postsecondary institutions. And many of the technology companies in higher ed also help clients with change management and so need people for consulting-type roles.

If you are considering shifting to a role in higher ed analysis and consulting, use all of your networks (including personal and alumni networks) to find and talk to as many different people at as many different companies as you can. Organizational culture and the nature of the work can vary significantly from one company to the next as well as at the same company at different points in time. Informal conversations with a company’s current employees are the best way to find out what it’s really like to work there now.

Most companies will be looking -- first and foremost -- for people who excel at analyzing and solving problems. How good are you at determining what is and isn’t relevant, evaluating potential solutions, and thinking on your feet? When approaching problems, how persistent, creative and flexible are you? If you get stuck, can you reassess your initial approach and take help when it is offered?

Consulting companies use case interviewing to assess these skills. If you get to the interview stage, be sure to research case interviewing and practice with people familiar with it. Also, make sure you can talk about your own Ph.D. research in ways that highlight your problem-solving skills and ability to explain complex ideas clearly and succinctly. How did your work challenge conventional wisdom or previous understandings about your field? What, in brief, are the main insights from your work? Consultants are teachers to busy executives who need key takeaways presented quickly so they can get back to the work of running their organizations.

While analytic ability is central to consulting, I think the greatest determinants of success and happiness in this kind of work are flexibility, comfort with ambiguity and confidence in the face of the unknown. Consulting is the intellectual analog of being in a military special forces unit: you’re parachuted into an unfamiliar environment to solve a problem. You go in with a game plan but might find you need to pivot, more than once, to an entirely different approach -- or that you actually need to solve a very different problem or set of problems than what was initially described. If that sounds interesting and exciting to you (rather than terrifying or awful, as it would to many people), consulting could be a good fit.

As far as what I’d say to my younger self, it would be that there is a lot of comfort in having a very structured professional pathway -- in having a defined sequence of challenges laid out before you and being able to orient all effort toward a well-marked end. But sometimes the best opportunities require moving beyond what’s comfortable and forging your own path.


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