Should you set out on your own as an independent consultant?


Among new Ph.D. graduates, there seems to be a particular fascination with independent consulting careers. I’m not talking about management consulting jobs at big companies such as McKinsey & Company or Boston Consulting Group, which often hire Ph.D. holders. A position at an international consulting firm like that is as different as night and day from the kind of job I’m talking about this month.

Independent consulting—with an emphasis on independent—means setting out on your own (or joining a small firm) to offer your expertise to clients. To the many Ph.D. holders who have an entrepreneurial streak, that can sound mighty good—especially after spending years working under an adviser. Earning a living without bowing and scraping has an appeal, as does setting one’s own hours and place of business. Having worked as a consultant for most of my career, I understand the lure. My co-worker Ryan Raver, who recently started in consulting after earning his Ph.D. a few years ago, also appreciates the variety. “Consulting allows you to get exposure to a wide variety of projects all at once,” he says. “You will never be bored.”

But it’s not for everyone, and it doesn’t come without tradeoffs. For those of you considering whether a consulting career could be right for you, here’s the real rundown of the ups and downs.

Flexibility and responsibility

My friend Jack Cohen, who printed up his consulting business card more than a decade ago, nicely sums up the tradeoffs of this type of work. “My hours are relatively flexible, and I can work whenever I want to, as long as I’m meeting my client’s needs. I no longer have to squeeze vacations in between company meetings and budgeting,” he says. On the other hand, he continues, “I have no company benefits, like health care and paid vacations, which takes some getting used to. If I don’t work, I don’t get paid.”

In other words, consultancies are not as easy as they sound. Sure, it is no problem to hang a shingle up and announce your availability to the world as an expert in a given area, offering services up by the hour, day, or week. The tough part comes when you realize that being a consultant—whether it’s as a Wall Street biotech investment adviser, an executive recruiter, or a standalone technical expert—requires that you build a business.

When I was hired as an independent consultant just over 30 years ago by a firm that specialized in recruitment, the boss pulled me aside on day one and told me, “This is an ‘eat what you kill’ job, and the sooner you realize that, the better.” That sounded shocking, and I had to ask for clarification. As it turns out, “eat what you kill” is a fairly common expression in the consulting world. It means that you must go out, find clients, and bring that business back to get paid. This type of consulting career requires you to spend half your time or more marketing your services.

As Jack puts it, “if you’re in this kind of consulting, you’ll need to market yourself.” The process that he undertook in building his business was not that different than the networking used to find a job. It started with LinkedIn and contacting people he knew from his earlier career and education. Jack had years of experience with a couple of major pharmaceutical companies, so clients came easier than they would for a newer Ph.D. recipient. The lesson is that if you hate the calling and networking involved in looking for work, you’re not going to like a big part of what independent consulting requires.

But being part of a firm offers a bit more security than going out on your own, and for some it is more palatable than hanging up the shingle and becoming one’s own boss. The good news is that there are thousands of small consulting firms all over the world, each in some specialized niche—perhaps an area where you feel that you might contribute. For just one example, Bioprocess Technology Consultants is a small consulting firm that works in bioprocess scaleup, automation, and more. There are companies like this in every sector.

But even when working for an organization, consultants must consider themselves self-employed: chief cook and bottlewasher, as they say. “If you decide to consult, remember you’ll be asked to do everything, at all levels, whatever the client needs,” Jack explains. “You are there to help. I’ve worked with younger consultants who seem primarily interested in demonstrating their knowledge, but that’s not why we’re here.”

Does it sound like this could be the path for you? If so, Jack and Ryan offered the advice they would give to newbie consultants.

“People depend on you, but be prepared to say, ‘I don’t know,’” Jack says. “You may be an expert from the best lab, and you certainly know what you’re doing, but you are not perfect and will occasionally be stumped or mistaken. I will occasionally call old friends for advice or survey current practice, and I wouldn’t hesitate to turn down work if I thought someone with different expertise could do a better job for the client.”

For Ryan, it’s simple: “It all comes down to productivity and self-motivation,” he told me. At first Ryan found it a bit shocking that no one was there in the morning to tell him what to do or to help him structure his day. Getting thrown into the fire would be the analogy that I would use for that feeling. Ryan’s success at coming out the other end is truly because he is the kind of person who knows how to motivate himself. If you feel that describes you too, perhaps a career as an independent consultant could be in the cards for you as well.

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