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Consulting on the side can satisfy scientists' appetite for something more

For job seekers new to the labor market, getting the workplace experience that employers demand before actually landing that first job is a perennial challenge. One realistic and effective way for graduate students and postdocs who want nonacademic scientific employment to demonstrate their practical skills and familiarity with the off-campus professional world could be working on short-term consulting projects that apply academic expertise to real problems of real organizations.

Showing that you have successfully used your scientific expertise to solve companies’ problems could boost your resume in the eyes of employers seeking that sort of know-how for the challenges their firms face. It also demonstrates in-demand abilities that many new Ph.D. recipients and postdocs lack, including collaborating and communicating with nonscientists, understanding and conceptualizing problems in terms that make sense in the nonacademic world, and managing projects and delivering on time. So, how can researchers find consulting opportunities? And how do they fit in with graduate school or postdoctoral responsibilities?

The gig economy  

LabMate, a Boston-area, investor-funded, startup company that launched in May, aims to “disrupt” the current science career logjam by bringing the “gig economy” to bioscience through its proprietary online platform, according to co-founder and CEO Craig Russo, who went into business development after completing a bachelor’s degree in biological and biomedical sciences and working as a research assistant. He and co-founder Amar Sahay, a professor at Harvard University and Russo’s former boss, believe their system can help scientists “start engaging opportunities outside of academia earlier in their scientific careers,” Russo says.

The idea is relatively simple. Ph.D.-holding scientists register as consultants. (The “vast majority” of universities allow employees to consult up to 8 hours a week, says Sahay, who advises would-be consultants to check their own university’s policy. He also notes that visa requirements prevent many foreign scientists from doing part-time consulting.) Companies list projects, which “can range from an hourlong phone call—you want to speak with an expert in CRISPR—[to hiring] a postdoc for 3 weeks to build you a protocol for your clinical study,” he explains. LabMate’s algorithm finds a match. Industrial research thus proceeds more efficiently, the pair believe. Companies quickly access needed expertise while scientists gain valuable exposure outside academia. The scientists also make some money, being paid at rates negotiated with the employer. LabMate takes a percentage as a finder’s fee. Companies may also offer consultants full-time employment after a project is completed.

Shorn of its modish Silicon Valley verbiage, LabMate is an employment agency offering short- and long-term jobs—not a very new idea. What is original is applying it to a labor market that has long lacked efficient connections between scientists wanting work and enterprises needing their skills, whether for the short or long term. Whether such an agency successfully matches applicants and openings using old-fashioned index cards or the latest algorithm matters a lot less than whether it actually creates mutually beneficial connections.

LabMate claims that some assignments have already occurred, but it isn’t saying how many. Some 200 Ph.D. holders, about three quarters of them postdocs and the rest faculty members and university staff scientists, have listed their qualifications with the company. LabMate’s website also mentions some client companies, but it does not include the total number. Currently focused mainly on Boston, LabMate also claims a presence in the San Francisco Bay area in California as well as enrollees from institutions such as the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, the University of Chicago in Illinois, and Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL), Russo says. Looking forward, he adds, “we hope to have scientists from across the United States populate our platform.”

A team approach

One place where postdocs and grad students don’t need to wait for a high-tech platform to connect them to potential consulting gigs is St. Louis. As Science Careers noted 5 years ago, a group of young scientists at WUSTL took matters into their own hands, creating the volunteer-run BALSA (or Biotechnology and Life Sciences Advising) Group, which hires out five-person interdisciplinary teams—sometimes including law or business students along with scientists—to do approximately 6-week-long consulting projects for companies, universities, and other organizations. Unlike LabMate, which focuses on obtaining paid short-term and permanent employment for individuals who have finished their Ph.D.s, BALSA concentrates on helping grad students and postdocs gain off-campus experience and polish their nonacademic skills.

BALSA has grown and prospered since our last report. Over the organization’s nearly 7 years, some 250 BALSA members have completed about 220 projects. It has also provided inspiration for other student- and postdoc-run consulting organizations, including miLead centered at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor; Penn Biotech Group Healthcare Consulting at the University of Pennsylvania; Scripps Consulting Club at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California; and the Consulting Club at the Texas Medical Center in Houston.

Unlike most other groups, however, BALSA is most decidedly not a club, but a full-fledged nonprofit corporation that charges for the consulting services of its approximately 80 current members, who are graduate students and postdocs at WUSTL, Saint Louis University (SLU), and other St. Louis-area research institutions. Everyone working with BALSA is a volunteer, with the money their projects earn going to support BALSA and its philanthropic BALSA Foundation.

Consulting through BALSA provides experience with a range of business-oriented issues, nonacademic organizations, and interdisciplinary teamwork. It also offers “exposure to the different types of jobs … out there,” notes Alex Russo (no relation to LabMate’s Craig Russo), a WUSTL neuroscience student who serves as one of BALSA’s two current co-presidents and is a veteran of 16 BALSA projects.

Moreover, “working on a BALSA project gives a certain rhythm to your life that is not really part of lab work,” says co-president Thomas Campbell, an SLU chemistry graduate student who has been involved in “17 or 18” of them. “It’s made me more efficient in the lab, and it hasn’t slowed down my overall progress” toward the Ph.D., he says. Ordinarily, when “I get [an] experiment started, I have to kill some time and linger around for the reaction to run. I’ll use that time to work on BALSA, whereas other people in the lab may be surfing YouTube or whatever.” In fact, the time management skills gained through BALSA appear to help active members complete their Ph.D.s in the same, or even less, time than students who do not consult, BALSA’s Russo says.

Filling the need

So, where can consulting gigs fit into scientists’ career planning? Becoming a highly degreed paid temp worker, a kind of Dr. Uber on call, may be possible under the LabMate model and could form the basis of a freelance career for someone who doesn’t want long-term, full-time employment. (To help scientists achieve and manage such freelance consulting careers, in fact, French scientists have organized a cooperative.) Short-term assignments, whether paid or voluntary, can also make productive use of down time during a job search or between other jobs. 

Consulting also offers a promising approach to exploring career possibilities and trying out potential long-term employers or career paths. In LabMate’s case, Sahay told me, “creating a very clear path … for postdoctoral fellows to gain traction through short-term consulting gigs” could make the platform “one of the solutions” to the current career mess—assuming, of course, that the fledgling company succeeds.

Beyond the currently dysfunctional labor market for science jobs, something else that badly needs disrupting is the pernicious ideology that sees scientists seeking off-campus careers as failed academics rather than as experts who are very valuable to the right employers. Importantly, WUSTL’s administration “has been very supportive” of BALSA, Russo says. “In the recruitment weekend, they speak of BALSA as a way to entice people to come [here] to get their training as a scientist.” Both WUSTL and SLU have also been clients for BALSA’s consulting services. Because of this strong support, consultants generally face little opposition from their lab supervisors for doing BALSA work.

Campbell notes that the “self-selecting” people who apply to BALSA have “an appetite for something” that graduate school and postdoc training is not providing, namely the relationships and experiences that prepare them to move into nonacademic opportunities. Whether consulting assignments come through a commercial agency like LabMate or a nonprofit group like BALSA, they can go a long way to providing that “something” those scientists seek.

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