I am lucky to call both of these ladies my friends (and one of them my roommate!). Megan and Katherine answer the questions you have about consulting in this dynamic article that shows both sides of consulting and the environmental industry. Both YoPros have experience working for a science and engineering consulting firm in Greenville, South Carolina, and want you to take advantage of the advice given in their story!
A Consultation on the Consulting Field
Megan Copsey is a 24-year-old environmental engineer who worked at a science and engineering consulting firm in Greenville, South Carolina. She was with this company for 3 years after finishing her undergraduate degree in 2018. Megan is now pursuing her master’s degree in Sustainable Engineering at Villanova University. In her free time, Megan enjoys running and walking, reading a good book, and spending time with friends and family.
How did you get into consulting?
When I was looking for a job my senior year of college, I was under the impression that young engineers in my field entered the workforce in one of two areas: industry or consulting. “Industry” typically refers to working at some sort of plant or manufacturing facility, where you are employed directly by the company and work in a specific area. An example of this would be an environmental engineer employed by Exxon and focused on air emissions. “Consulting” is generally more office-based work, with the opportunity to work on a multitude of projects with a multitude of clients. Plus, your work can be focused on a general area of the field that is independent of specific company operations. As much as I love my steel toe boots and hard hat, I chose to work in consulting because I thought it provided good exposure to many different industries and types of work within the environmental field (plus, I still got to wear the boots from time to time!).
As for actually finding my specific job, I knew that I wanted to move back to Greenville (my hometown) after finishing my undergraduate degree. I researched firms in the area and, using Google and hometown connections, found my current position. I worked on the regulatory side of environmental consulting, which allowed me to work with many types of clients on various environmental regulations.
I can’t say that it has always gone the way I anticipated…I found myself collecting wastewater samples at food processing plants, inspecting stormwater around landfills, and, most memorably, trying to improvise water filtration in the aisle of a Home Depot during a visit to a client site. However, the knowledge and experience I gained over the years from my coworkers, clients, and the project work we completed is immeasurable and has given me an incredible foundation for my career.
Katherine Amidon, AICP is a 31-year-old environmental planner also working at a science and engineering firm in Greenville, South Carolina. She has her undergraduate degree in Organic Chemistry from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine and she has her Master’s in City and Regional Planning from Clemson. She has held four jobs since undergrad and currently works for a science and engineering consulting firm. Her side hobbies include teaching hot power flow yoga, running, cycling, backpacking, and drinking a glass of wine while cooking or baking to Fleetwood Mac’s greatest hits.
How did you get into consulting?
Honestly, I did not understand what consulting as a field really entailed until after college. After completing a year-long thesis working towards synthesizing a molecule that showed cytotoxicity against cervical cancer, I realized that a laboratory job post-graduation would not be the right fit for me. I am a people person. I loved the problem-solving aspect of Organic Chemistry (I also minored in Math), but I knew I craved a more people-facing job. I landed a job with Hannaford Brothers, one of the top employers in the state of Maine. I have always had a passion for food and their Retail Management Training program looked rigorous and intriguing. I was ready to work, pay off my loans, and get a break from academics.
My two years with the company still play into my day-to-day. I call that time my master’s degree in how to work with people. I learned how to motivate the unmotivated, stand on my own two feet in front of an executive, and I learned a lot about my personal leadership style. I made mistakes, had awkward conversations, and discovered I needed something different out of my career. I left on good terms, truly it was a fit issue, and I knew I needed to find my next step.
To the winery I went! I decided to take a summer to reset. I had a live interview where I was put behind the bar and left to give tastings for 2 hours. The boss came back, asked how I liked it, and I was hired on the spot. Within 2 months of being at the winery, I was put in charge of inventory and I assisted with special events and led many tours…tours that led me to know the winemaker…that led me to become the lead chemist for two years of crush season (the time of year when grapes are picked and fermented into wine). In many ways this experience was different from Hannaford, it was a small privately owned company with a core team of about eight year-round employees. I learned how to juggle many hats at once and the importance of being a team player. After two years I had the opportunity to move south with the man who would later become my husband and I felt the urge to try something new.
I got into the consulting industry because I saw the SynTerra logo on a sign as I was driving by the headquarter office. I looked up the company online, saw they had a job opening and I submitted an application. I worked at SynTerra for a year. I loved the diversity of work within the consulting industry and I knew I wanted to learn more so I got my degree in environmental planning from Clemson. Because I left on good terms with SynTerra and kept in touch I was able to come back in a new capacity for the company shortly after Megan came on board in 2018.
Not your average 9-5…what is it like?
Megan: It wasn’t until my first day on the job that I realized work environments changed to fit the type of work that needed to be completed. My job, and therefore work schedule, was surprisingly quite flexible. We were required to work a 40-hour week, like everyone else, but we didn’t have specific daily hour requirements. This allows for flexibility in our schedules to help meet our client goals, as well as balance our personal lives.
Another unique aspect of my work environment is our management structure. Similar to other work environments, I have a direct supervisor and a department head. However, consulting is a project-based industry, which means that there are a multitude of project teams and managers that I work with on a daily basis. Some weeks I work on only one or two projects with a single project manager and others I work on five or six projects each managed by a different person.
Consulting is very flexible. Sometimes you have to work a long day to fulfill client needs, but you might be able to cut out early the next day. In general, it’s helpful to be available during the day to coordinate with team members, sub-consultants, and clients, but if you’re a morning person and want to bust out a few hours of work before most others are logged on, you can do that and then take a longer lunch for example. There can be huge variety in your week too between client visits, desktop work, field visits, conferences, events, meetings…it is very diverse and keeps you on your toes!
Time Management…how do you prioritize your day?
The consulting industry provides schedule flexibility, but that flexibility requires diligent time management. Various projects with various project managers also have various deadlines, creating a scheduling challenge. At the beginning of each week, my group held a coordination call to discuss project work for the week and coordinate resources. In preparation for this meeting, I would make a list of each task that needed to be completed during the coming week and when I wanted to have it finished. On particularly busy weeks, I would actually block off the time in my calendar as a scheduled event. This helped me use my time more efficiently because I could see exactly how much time was allocated to each project. Plus, when tasks were scheduled as events, Outlook would “remind” me when it was time to switch to a new task.
I should clarify that the schedule I made for each week was really a goal for what I wanted to accomplish. As with any job, other items came up during the week that needed immediate attention or had a higher priority than the scheduled task. Generally, I tried to leave a few hours “open” to deal with these items, but it was definitely easier said than done. It also raises the question of which task is a priority and why. I personally prioritized my project work on a time basis. I used questions like “When did I receive the task?”, “When is it due?”, and “How much time do I need to complete it?” to help assign priority. Using this approach is beneficial because it compares factors that each project has – timeline and workload – and allowed me to make a more informed decision when planning my week and accepting new tasks.
In my role, I do some of the similar steps that Megan mentioned. Recently, I have been using a notebook to assist with my time management. I guess I am old school and like to write stuff down. I make a list every day of both work and personal tasks that I would like to complete…they are goals just like Megan mentioned. I have a limit to the number of work goals I can accomplish in a day, which helps me set realistic expectations, and including personal tasks helps me stay balanced.
Like Megan said though, items do come up. A client may call with an immediate need, you might gain new information about a project that causes you to pivot, or in my case, I might get a call about a new project lead that could be time-sensitive.
Flexibility is key. If at the end of the day I do not get everything accomplished, I know that task needs to get pushed to the next day or even further. Someone once told me that if you find you keep pushing something into the future, you may realize that it’s not a true priority. I think those are good words to live by both in and out of the office.
Personality Differences…How do you manage different personalities and expectations in the workplace?
As I already said, the consulting industry involves various projects with various project managers who all have different project management styles. Some project managers prefer more structure and take a more micro-management approach (think weekly check-ins and regular email updates) while others have a very hands-off approach (basically here is the work and get it done by this date). It can be challenging to manage these differences, especially as you are figuring out your own preferred style. I have found that communication (sometimes over communication) in this area is helpful. I think it’s better to set clear expectations with your project managers regarding the timeline, final work product, and any personal preferences when the work is first assigned. That way, you understand the project expectations and can adjust as necessary.
I personally prefer a more structured approach to completing work (see my section as using Outlook to schedule my work), so I would always ask about the project timeline when the project manager expects to have the work product, and if/when they want to have status updates. I was also very transparent about my workload and when I was able to get things done. This helped with workload management and boundary setting so that I didn’t commit to completing 60 hours of work in a 40-hour workweek.
I am going to dive into external expectations. The themes Megan mentioned are similar for managing client expectations. I have learned that the biggest component of a great consultant-client relationship is trust. Your client has to have confidence that you are going to be responsible with their budget, that you will deliver a high quality and thorough project, and that you will bring the necessary expertise to the project as needs arise. That includes pulling in a sub-consultant if necessary to get the job done. It is so important to be honest and resourceful. One of the best parts about my job is building client and partner relationships that make solving a project fun. When you pull the necessary expertise to assist with a project challenge, creativity and innovation can result. Partners include other firms that specialize in something we do not do in-house, but they can also be regulators and entities like the local government, a state entity like SCDOT, or even a federal organization like EPA. I have worked with clients that take longer than others to build that trust and thus will micro-manage each task making sure you are getting each step done how they want it. Although that can be frustrating, once you get past that point and you gain the trust of a client they may become a client for life.
Just like dating, these relationships take time and effort to build. It is so important that I get to know my clients and partners, because once that synergy is gained, the project will run more smoothly, and future projects with that client and partner can result.
Three years running…why do you still love it?
It’s hard to answer this question! Earlier I said that I got into consulting because I thought it provided good exposure to many different industries and types of work within the environmental field. I was 1,000% right about this. My job gave me exposure to multiple types of industries and various types of environmental regulations. I also got to work with various types of clients, ranging from big corporations to small businesses, and various types of project managers. Each project I worked on taught me something new, whether it is about communication with clients, balancing internal workload, or technical information about a new industry or manufacturing process. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have learned so much in my first job after college!
In terms of the overall industry, consulting is enjoyable because there is always a new, slightly different problem to solve. No project is the same which keeps me on my toes! There is always something new to learn, whether it’s a whole new topic or just improving your expertise. Each day is different as you work on different projects with different people, which is something that I really enjoy!
It is ever-evolving, “learning on fire” and “on-the-job training” are realities. Like Megan, I feel lucky to have been exposed to so many different types of projects and challenges in such a short amount of time. Because I pull in multi-disciplinary projects I often get to work with talented engineers, geologists, and scientists all at the same time. With the diversity in projects, I am constantly learning new things. I have a goal to be a forever sponge, soaking up new knowledge. Consulting is a great way to keep learning.
Connect with the Authors here: Megan Copsey