Being Available: Consulting & Outside Work

Consulting in Academia | New Faculty

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I was asked by some grad students how to get into consulting work months ago and I had no good answer. So, I did what anyone with a question does: I asked google. Just kidding. I started asking my colleagues. I sent emails, I asked in person, and everyone had a handful of answers that I’ll share with you today. The long and short of it is this: there’s no ONE answer. Every discipline is different and what the opportunities look like are sometimes very different with shades of grey. As a young faculty or rising grad student, I would urge you not to get ahead of yourself, some faculty I spoke to had ZERO time for consulting work due to work, family, and 100 other obligations. Some also said (although very few) that they felt no need to do outside work.

Every faculty is different. If you take nothing else away from this post, know there is not ‘recipe’ for what this will look like in your future career. As a recent grad, young faculty, or seasoned veteran, faculty all seek out opportunities and in many cases, others seek out the expertise of them as they build their career. I won’t go into the ‘veteran’ category today–clearly I’m not there and I suspect that many of my readers have not reached that point in their careers yet.

Young academics find themselves in a few life rafts:

  • i need $$
  • i need work
  • will work for food
  • i need to get my name out there
  • i like using my brain for other things outside of my very specific research & this makes me happy

Consulting and other outside work can often help pad the income, diversify our research portfolio, and help us network with our colleagues. Consulting and other outside work can reap benefits but should also be done with caution. Many universities and other businesses are increasingly interested in what their employees are doing outside of ‘work time’ so my caution will be this:

check your place of work and their policy on outside work.

Seriously.

Don’t get fired or in trouble over a few hundred dollars. That would truly be a shame. During your negotiations, make sure this is on your list. While you may not build up your consulting network during your first year, you want the option to do so after you start to get into a good routine. Your future employer will also help you define what is ‘service’ to the university/business and what is true ‘consulting’ in their minds.

This conversation is 100% necessary so no one is in the dark later on. 

Just do it.

There is no set formula and every place defines outside work differently. Some things may include:

  • Grant panels
  • Contributing to book chapters or writing them
  • Writing books or editing one
  • Adjuncting for another dept or another university
  • An outside job that you enjoy (maybe you really love working PT for a landscaper in the summer or you nanny some kids for a friend regularly for money–insert whatever here)
  • True consulting: getting hired on an hourly/daily basis with or without travel to consult another professional group
  • Odd jobs: picking up extra grading/research on a team that is paid/collaborating because you know it will be beneficial for you and lead to other possible work

Now you may be thinking, “what i do with my time is my business” and I don’t disagree with you, but I will refer back to my earlier point:

have that conversation

Academia is extremely proprietary and is becoming increasingly sensitive to what their faculty are doing outside of school hours.

How do you get into it? My colleagues had the following tips to share:

  • Be available-balancing your real work and this kind of work is tricky, so know yourself enough to say that you can or can’t handle XYZ # of projects
  • Open those lines of communication. It’s ok to send a note to someone saying, “I would enjoy collaborating with you” or “If you see any areas where we can work together” without sounding too desperate or needy.
  • Accept that sometimes, there will be no money. I hate to be the buzzkill, but there might not always be a dollar sign attached to a project.
  • Turn out good work. This one is a no-brainer. Always be proud of the work you produce, even if it’s your least favorite subject to work on. You never know who will pick it up and say, “i want to work w/ that guy/girl.”
  • Network-hanging around at the office or being present where potential colleagues also gather can be helpful. Informal conversations can turn into serious conversations. I once sat in a workshop at a large conference and when the speaker finished, we chatted about the work. The chat turned into him asking if I’d review papers for the journal he was one of the editors for. Sure will! No money, but I got access to lots of manuscripts, saw trends, evaluated other research in my field, etc…the list is long. (don’t turn to stalking, that just gets weird).
  • Think critically as to how it will or won’t help your career. Sometimes, we want to say yes to everything because we’re dying to ‘get our foot in the door’ but we need to really evaluate how it will help us.

There is no recipe for success here, but trust your intuition, make sure your employer is happy, and everyone has clearly communicated. How do you handle consulting work? Any tips or suggestions?

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