Opportunities: The Accidental Consultant

Much has been written in the pages of Science Careers about scientists working as consultants. Consulting jobs can be found in nearly every industry. There are management consultants, PR consultants, image consultants, political consultants, technical consultants–the list goes on and on. Demand for consulting services continues to grow as businesses, governments, and the nonprofits find tapping into outside experts (read: more productive and cheaper) easier than developing their own internal expertise.

So, you may be asking yourself, what has any of this got to do with me?

The answer is “plenty.” This month’s Opportunities is a reexamination of the topic of technical consulting from the perspective of you, the young(ish), entrepreneurial-minded scientist.

I should start by explaining that this month’s column is NOT about full-time professional consulting. Consulting as a primary profession can be exciting, financially rewarding, and intellectually stimulating. But becoming a full-time consultant requires joining a consulting practice or, if you choose to do it on your own, building a cadre of clients. That takes time and considerable effort.

The topic I’m addressing is smaller in scope and more … opportunistic. Even if you are a mere graduate student, opportunities exist for you to carry out small, short-term consulting engagements in your (copious) spare time. You don’t have to leave scientific training to have an enjoyable (and lucrative) side business as a technical consultant.

Who would want to hire ME as a consultant???

But years spent in the halls of academia, where value is judged on the basis of scientific publications and esoteric debates over technical minutiae, prevent many young and youngish scientists and engineers from seeing themselves as general problem solvers. They don’t realize that the same skills and creativity they use in their research can enable them to work on a wide range of problems, some of them important both scientifically and economically.

Here are some examples of real-life consulting experiences I have heard about from graduate students and postdocs.

  1. A postdoc in biochemistry consulted for a venture capital firm performing due diligence on several startups.

Give me five reasons why I should take time away from my research to do consulting.

Reason #1: Consulting broadens your work experience

Consulting is a powerful way to broaden your experience and establish yourself–in your own mind and in the minds of others–as a valuable technical resource. In the course of consulting, you get to work directly with individuals in industry and/or government. You learn firsthand about problem solving in a work environment different from the one you’re used to, and you get firsthand experience in a different industry without having to take a full-time job there.

Reason #2: Consulting stimulates your brain

Taking on challenges in areas outside your daily grind is intellectually stimulating and catalytic. It’s healthy to put aside your main work from time to time and engage in a different challenge. Working in different areas helps you make new connections and teaches you to recognize new connections.

Reason #3: Consulting may be sanctioned by your employer

Consulting is commonplace in academia. Some faculty members earn as much from consulting as they do from their jobs as professors. Universities usually have written policies and a committee to vet such work. Whether your adviser or boss is willing to let you spend the time on a consulting assignment is a different question, but I have heard of professors who do a lot of consulting, sometimes handing assignments to their students. I have also heard of a few instances where a postdoc’s consulting engagement blossomed into a major research opportunity for the research group.

Reason #4: Consulting is part of your future, whether you like it or not

Consulting is growing in nearly all fields because it’s easier and cheaper to hire an outside expert for a short time than to hire and/or train an expert internally. This works both ways. When you are managing a project, you may find it more cost- and time-effective to hire a consultant. Some consulting experience will help you make that decision.

Reason #5: Consulting can pay well

I know very few research scientists who earn more than they need. Although most people enter science for love rather than money, perpetual poverty does wear thin. Short periods of technical consulting can provide extra income that allows more flexibility in your life. I have heard of rates of $1000-$3000/day, depending on experience.

OK, you’ve convinced me, but I still don’t know how to find consulting opportunities, or how they will find me.

The first step to uncovering ANY opportunity is to keep your eyes and ears open. If your adviser (or any other faculty member you know) engages in any consulting work, you might want to talk to him or her about it. If your research group or your department has an industrial-affiliate program, talk to the representatives from those companies about any consulting opportunities that might exist. You would be surprised how often academic departments get “cold calls” from companies seeking technical advice. So make sure the department secretary knows that you are interested.

Finally, use your network. There is no better way to test the power of your network than to seek out opportunities for consulting. Start by talking to contacts who have done some technical consulting and find out how they found clients.

It often takes time to find your first consulting opportunity. But once you get started, you may be surprised by how many opportunities follow.

Recently I heard about , an organization that enables advanced students and postdocs to earn income working as medical editors while simultaneously contributing to global public health. Editor consultants work as freelancers, and EquityEdit takes a cut (technically, a tax-deductible contribution), which is used to operate a clinic in Nepal. Duncan S. R. Maru, a M.D./Ph.D. student at Yale, started EquityEdit. As we worked together on this chapter of “Opportunities,” Peter and I found ourselves wondering if similar organizations exist in other scientific fields. Are there other organizations out there that help postdocs and graduate students locate consulting work, and potential clients find scientists? If you know about an organization like this, please let us know. Send e-mail to .

Comments, suggestions? Please send your feedback .

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