Christopher Fitzgibbon is a DISI alumnus who now works at the Triangle Insights Group, a premier strategy consulting firm focused exclusively on the life sciences industry. Chris was a Project Manager in Fall 2014 and moved onto the Executive Board as the Director of Internal Strategy. He was the longest standing DISI board member for a time. He recently returned to Duke to host a PhD consulting boot camp, which is weekend immersion program to introduce students to consulting and the transition out of academia. Chris graduated in 2015 with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering and materials science. In the following interview, he shared about his journey at DISI and his career advice in management consulting.
DISI: Could you tell us a bit about your background?
Chris: I attended Boston University for my undergraduate. I studied biomedical engineering and graduated in 2014. I came to Duke the following fall. I started as a PhD student in Mechanical engineering and Material Science department. About a year and half in, it started to become more clear that the PhD path probably wasn’t be the best option for me. I was fortunate to have found an advisor who was supportive of my ambitions outside of academia. I decided to leave Duke with my master’s degree in engineering and graduated in December 2016. I started working at Triangle the January that followed and I’ve been there ever since.
DISI: How did you explore about your career interest outside of academia?
Chris: Staring with the PhD was a really exciting way for me to continue to explore my academic interest. But also, I was able to find an advisor who’s supportive of my interest outside of academia. At Duke, that translated to me being able to find the time to participate in clubs like DISI, fortunately without stretching my schedule. Some of the most valuable experiences would include the courses I took through Fuqua alongside full-time MBA students. Through them, I was really able to get hands-on experience collaborating with business-focused individuals to solve completely new types of problems. I also participated in Bass Connections, which allowed me to work with an extremely diverse amalgam of Duke students in order to better understand and ultimately address an issue of global health. While these experiences were interesting, engaging and personally rewarding, they were instrumental in demonstrating my skill set to potential employers when I decided to transition out of academia.
DISI: Could you recall how you started to be involved with DISI?
Chris: I knew that I was interested to move outside of academia as soon as I arrived at grad school. With the support of my advisor, I pursued opportunities outside of the lab right away. As soon as I came to campus, I looked for student groups that provided the opportunity to participate on impact driven project work. So upon learning about DISI, I was interested right away and applied in my first semester at Duke. I was invited to interview to be a project manager and led a project that first semester. In the following years, I joined the Executive Board in order to stay involved in the club but also be able to help guide the (still rather young) club through its continued growth and success.
DISI: What were your most memorable experiences at DISI? Did they happen while you were a Project Manager, or while you were on the board, or both?
Chris: I would say both. But there were more unique and memorable moments while working with our team on a specific project, which is something I missed doing while taking on a leadership role within the Executive Board. Had I stayed through my PhD, I would have liked to go back and be an innovator. One of the early presidents of the group (Arjun) finished his term as president and then during the next semester came back as innovator to continue to be involved within the grass roots of the organization he loved. I would have enjoyed doing something similar, but the executive board was a rewarding experience in its own way.
One particularly memorable experience was during my first project when we worked with RAFI (Rural Agricultural Foundation International). Near the middle of the semester, we organized a team dinner on Duke’s campus and invited our client to join. Not only was Kavita (the representative from RAFI) able to drive the hour from Pittsboro to join us, but as a gift she gave us a jar of pickles, which we were really surprised by! But it was a quirky and really generous token that demonstrated their team’s appreciation of the time and effort our team was volunteering. It was a great way to build team comradery and also create a lasting connection with the client..
The project work itself is the most rewarding. You get to see, first hand, what the impact of your efforts are. Being on the executive board, you see impact vicariously through the teams, but being engaged with the client and team directly is a valuable experience. When I was at Duke, I encouraged a great number of my friends to join and I know more than a few who have since joined DISI. I had a great experience with DISI and hope others who are interested take the first step and apply.
Chris: Could you share with us more about the project you worked on?
Chris: Our client wanted our help with understanding the level of awareness of local farmers in terms of the circumstances of the county courts. The courts were creating and changing initiatives that could have an impact on how farms operate financially. It was said that there may have been a pattern of cronyism or nepotism in these county committees where single families are in dominant control and they could create rules that served the best interest of their farm but not the well-being of the whole group. Given that, we wanted to see 1) if this was an actual problem or complaint from a select group of people; and 2) how aware people were about how they could address problems like this if it was occurring. It was a survey process that involved designing the right questionnaire in order to really nail down what was going on. We implemented this survey digitally, but ultimately we each ended up calling a lot of farmers around North Carolina (you can imagine that farmers may be less inclined to complete voluntary online surveys). While it took extra time, our phone interviews provided the tone and context of our respondent’s commentary that would be lost in a survey online. Ultimately it allowed us to present our clients with a higher quality final deliverable, not to mention some really interesting and funny conversations along on the way. It is rather unique experience you wouldn’t otherwise have as a regular graduate student.
Jiang: How did you like your experience on the Executive Board?
Chris: DISI was so young when I joined the Executive Board. I was interested in internal strategy and wanted to see how the group would grow and evolve. I took a lot of satisfaction in organizations I helped grow during my undergrad, and I wanted to champion that experience at grad school. Being able to implement some of my own ideas broadly to help all future projects proved to be a challenging and but ultimately rewarding endeavor.
DISI: Do you think your experience at DISI informs or affects your career, especially in consulting?
Chris: Yes definitely. It affected it in two ways. First I was able to show my future employer that I was genuinely interested and invested in this career path. By volunteering my own personal time to do pro-bono work for non-profits demonstrates the things I care about and skills I strive to develop, such as: altruism, the ability to work with a team, the ability to work on client-facing project with deliverables, deadlines, and a multi-tasked and very diverse team environment. All of these initiatives are very valuable at DISI, but because graduate students are more often than not siloed within their own schools I found the interdisciplinary aspect very useful because the workforce within consulting is very diverse. Having the opportunity to meet someone completely out of my curricular area really gave me a more open minded perspective and I learned new problem-solving techniques from my peers. The ability to work with different types of people is consulting key foundational skill for future consultants.
The second way I think it affected me manifested when I ultimately started my consulting career and applied the skills I had developed during my time in DISI. For example, in case interviews I needed the ability to communicate complicated topics to someone who might not have share the same basic vernacular or thought process. Project based work provides a plethora of experience to learn and grow from, and often times these are experiences recruiters want to hear about during interviews. Experience where you adapt to other people’s likes and dislikes and personality traits, or resolve a conflict with a team member diplomatically can demonstrate key emotional intelligence traits to your interviewer. Alternatively, communicating to the lead of the project or your superior on the project that your work stream is too burdensome and you need extra manpower, to request to reallocate resources and to get the assistance of team members demonstrates awareness and the ability to manage upwards. The DISI experience provides the opportunity to learn and become a better leader and team member. In the end, it is really up to the individual’s attitudes and what they want to take out of the experience. When you are actively engaged and ready to learn, you receive the greatest benefit.
DISI: Apart from being engaged, do you have any other advice for current DISI members?
Chris: One thing that is usually undervalued is the relationship you build with your team. It is really difficult to get the whole team’s schedule lined up for weekly meetings. Because of that, lots of the social team outings get de-prioritized and end up not happening. Just creating chances to meet and work with people is also valuable opportunity to form friendships. Go to the Kraft House, grab a beer after a meeting and talking about things completely unrelated to project related work. That’s what you’d want to do as consultants ultimately. You’d want to take the opportunities to build relationships with coworkers. Not to mention, relationship building is another valuable skill in consulting (i.e. the airport test).
DISI: Since a lot of our members are interested in consulting, do you have any advice for them?
Chris: For people interested in consulting who don’t know much about it, they should try to come to a Triangle Insights Group bootcamp, which is a weekend immersion program to introduce students to consulting and the transition out of academia. Another resource would be the book, The Lords of Strategy. It is a brief history of management consulting; how it started, how the big three came to be, and the path along the way. Another very valuable resource would be graduate students who are still on campus but have reached a final round interview or even received an offer. They can help set a standard for what you would need to achieve in order to earn a similar job. Having an experienced candidate give you a case every once in a while helps you learn a lot faster than if you and your inexperienced case partner have to learn by yourself all along the way. And since I haven’t mentioned it, you have to do LOTS of case practice. There are useful books here as well (Case in Point, Case Interview Secrets, Crack the Case) in addition to the case books filled with examples from past years.
DISI: Thank you for all the sharing and advice!
Chris: Absolutely! It is great to recall the fond memories and be of help to DISI!
Connie Ma was a four-term DISI veteran from 2014-2016. She graduated from the Sanford School's Master in Public Policy program in Spring 2016. Since then, she has been working in Taipei, Taiwan in education-related social enterprises. In the interview, Connie shared about her journey at DISI and beyond, her take-away from her DISI experience, and her advice for current DISI members and future applicants.
DISI: What program were you in? When did you graduate? What was your career path after graduation?
Connie: I graduated from the Sanford School's Master in Public Policy program in spring of 2016. I studied social policy (education and labor policy). Since then, I have been working in Taipei, Taiwan in education-related social enterprises.
DISI: In what year did you participate in DISI? What position were you in at DISI? What project did you work on?
Connie: I participated in DISI during all four semesters of my two year master's degree, and it was one of my favorite experiences in graduate school. In 2014-15, I participated as a PI in two projects: Dare Education Foundation and The Power of the Dream. In 2015-16, I participated as a PM, leading projects with the Durham Literacy Center (Project LIFT) and Summer Science Program. I would have loved to work with the Board if I had more time, but I also found it very satisfying to be a PM and get more hands-on experience.
DISI: How did you hear about DISI? Why were you interested in and decided to become part of DISI?
Connie: Since DISI was started by Sanford students, our fellow public policy students recommended that first-years try out DISI, so several friends and I applied. It was my first taste of doing any consulting as a part of a team, which I wanted to try out. I also worked for three years in non-profits before I came to graduate school, so I felt I had an affinity with the organizations that DISI services.
DISI: What was your most memorable experience at DISI? What was the most challenging aspect? What did you like the most about DISI?
Connie: My most memorable experience at DISI was coming out of a Partner Organization visit where we met some Durham residents who were experiencing homelessness. It was an eye-opening experience to see who they were and how the shelter worked with them. One of my PIs who is an international student quietly asked me how a man with graduate education had actually ended up on the streets, and it gave the chance for us to have a difficult but important conversation about social mobility in the US. It left a deep impression on me because we were able to really share our experiences and get to know each other even better. I also remember very well my final presentation as a PM when our client thanked us sincerely and told us that our recommendations and research were being utilized by their Board of Directors; our whole team was surprised and touched, because we had had a difficult semester working with them and striving to redefine the problem and the scope of the project. It touched us to know that they came to respect us and our contribution.
I think the most challenging thing about DISI is that as a student organization, everyone's allowed to stumble and make mistakes. Some of my teammates and friends were not as committed as they probably should've been, and while it would have made a better experience, it's important to learn how you're going to deal with teammates who don't shoulder their weight. Some Partner Orgs also should not have been given projects, because they didn't understand what DISI teams were going to do, or weren't in good shape to make use of a DISI Project, but that also taught us how to deal with clients who didn't know their own needs very well. Those things made for a frustrating experience during my two years, but I think it's also a gift to be able to encounter those difficulties in the sandbox of graduate school. That being said, I'm sure better screening for Partner Orgs and for students will help improve the experience going forward no matter what.
Throughout my two years, I met so many other graduate students at Duke that I never would have known otherwise. I came to know so many Fuqua students with similar backgrounds; I loved learning about their experience and their courses, and they brought a different perspective to working on a team. Also very educational was working with the engineering school students, who have an entirely different academic and work background. I also met PhD students that I still keep in touch with, and in general have a broader friend group today because of DISI. It was also easier to work with some complete strangers than friends that I knew too well from my cohort at Sanford, so I think that was also a benefit. We were able to really treat each other just like colleagues because that was the only context in which we knew each other.
DISI: What did you take away from the DISI experience? How did it help with your career?
Connie: I learned some very important lessons at DISI. One was to trust in my own skills and step into roles when needed, not when I thought I was fully ready. During one semester, I was considering applying for a PM, but felt like I hadn't learned enough. When I did join as a PI, I found that the PM for our group actually had less DISI experience and full-time work experience than the rest of the team members, and that seemed to be one of the reasons we had a difficult time working with our client. It was an unexpectedly frustrating semester, but though I didn't enjoy it, working under someone that I disagreed with taught me valuable things about how to be professional in rough situations. I also learned from his mistakes, getting to a better understanding of what Project Managers (and all good managers) should do. Instead of working on behalf of the client to communicate with the team, it's the other way around: the project manager actually works on behalf of the team to communicate with the client. It's one of the keys to being a good leader and fostering good teamwork.
I have also learned that my DISI experience is one thing, and real life is another. Of course, just because you learn about problems and experience them through DISI, it doesn't always mean that you'll be able to avoid those in the working world. I feel like one of the most important things is to be humble because you'll never anticipate all the problems you can face. You will keep running into problems you never thought of, and the only thing you can do is to add that to what you've learned in the past, and proceed with more caution and try to be more prepared. So the mindset that you adopt in DISI of taking problems in stride is really one that you should keep in the future.
DISI: Would you recommend DISI to other students? What advice do you have for current DISI members or prospective applicants?
Connie: DISI is a great experience for any students who were interested in problem-solving, working on a team, and project management. It does take time to do everything right, and you need to have respect for your teammates and clients. Embrace that you have a lot to learn, and you're going to find that in DISI. It's also an organization you can really contribute to on a school-wide level and see some results, whether that's recruiting an organization that you know could benefit from a DISI project or helping others learn about a school or community resource that could help them. I participated in four DISI projects, and after I graduated, I outlined and wrote the first draft of the handbook that DISI uses today, because I wanted to pass on what I learned. Even the idea of DISI came out of a master's thesis by a Sanford MPP student. You can do a lot with DISI if you want.
In DISI projects, I always tried to look at myself as a professional doing consulting, even if it was pro-bono, and strived to be on-time, respectful, and to listen to my teammates and the client. Even if there were disagreements among the team or if the client was being unreasonable, in our opinion, I think it was a valuable exercise to take them seriously and learn from the mistakes that everyone made. As I mentioned above, expecting more out of yourself and your partners yields better performance, and that's because the DISI experience is what you make of it - if you don't take it seriously and only attend half the meetings, you're not going to learn anything or get a good reference from your colleagues. If you strive to really understand the client's perspective and those of your teammates, you'll get a lot more out of it, and understand whether you're a good fit for working as a consultant after you graduate.
DISI: Thank you for sharing your experience and advice!
The Duke Interdisciplinary Social Innovators and the Advanced Professional Degree Consulting Club and are excited to present a weekend bootcamp to start preparing you for consulting interviews. Dr. Leah Townsend, an Associate Consultant at Triangle Insights, and Christopher Fitzgibbon (MS ‘16), a Strategy Analyst at Triangle Insights, will be leading four interactive workshop sessions that aim to lay the foundational skills you need to land that coveted consulting job. This bootcamp is primarily designed for Ph.D. students who are at least a year away from graduation to prepare them for interviews in Fall 2018 and beyond. Meals are included for Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Since the bootcamp is focused on building and practicing skills, participants must be able to attend all sessions (to be held on-campus).
Below is the complete program of the bootcamp:
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Application Deadline: Thursday, February 15th
* Spots are limited, apply to attend by registering at the link above. Prior business/consulting experience is not required. You will be notified of your acceptance into the bootcamp by February 16.
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