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The Academic Consultant--Why Start a Consultancy?

Over the past year, I made the decision to begin my own business as a consultant in sport science support and environmental ergonomics. On top of a booming research lab and a full teaching load, not to mention a growing young family, why would I take on this new venture? Simply put, the excitement of starting a new venture is too much fun to pass up and an excellent opportunity for personal growth. I love being in academia and am nowhere near giving it up. However, the entrepreneurial spirit that I believe lies within all academics made starting a business a relatively natural extension of my growth as a researcher. That, plus the desire to directly apply research knowledge, pushed me toward setting up an independent consultancy.

In the first of this on-going series of articles for Next Wave, I will examine the reasons for and against setting up shop as a part-time consultant in your field of research. In subsequent articles, I will focus on some of the challenges and opportunities specific to the academic consultant.

One of the fundamental realities of university life is that--lip service from the administration notwithstanding--the primary criteria for career advancement are grants from traditional funding sources and published "basic" research. In contrast, industrial collaborations and applied research are given little if any consideration or appreciation, despite the fact that there are probably at least as many funding opportunities in industrial and applied research as there are through traditional avenues. I have always been a big believer in bridging the gap between basic and applied research and I don't think that the two are not mutually incompatible. Through our academic training and personal research, we have each developed a strong proficiency in something. It therefore becomes an exciting intellectual journey to translate our basic theoretical knowledge into the real world of applied situations. In addition, applied research also requires a level of speed and efficiency that is often difficult to achieve working within a traditional university framework.

Besides the excitement of creating and nurturing a new venture, what are some concrete advantages to setting up your own business consultancy as an academic?

  • The most obvious advantage is taxation. As employees of Canadian universities, we give up much of our ability to write off legitimate expenses such as travel to conferences, books, and software that are not covered by research grants. In addition, most of us probably already have a home office where we do a lot of our work. Being a self-employed consultant permits us to write off some of the costs associated with a home office and other research expenses. However, an important caveat that I will be examining in a future article is the appropriate separation of business and academia.
  • A consultancy is relatively low-risk as a business venture. There is usually minimal overhead in terms of equipment or other infrastructure, and you are usually the only employee. Collective bargaining agreements at most Canadian institutions permit extracurricular consultancy work by faculty members, as long as it does not demonstrably interfere with their primary employment as a university researcher. Therefore, the business has the ability to "hibernate" for a period, whether due to lack of time or lack of contracts, with minimal financial consequences. This allows you to put in as little or as much time as you desire into the business. At worst, you will still have your day job!
  • Because of your research proficiency, you have ideally established yourself as a recognized authority in your field. Therefore, you have already accomplished the critical business goal of establishing name recognition. The main challenge, then, becomes letting the corporate world know of your expertise and how it can benefit them, a topic that I will explore in greater depth in a subsequent article.

Of course, the consultancy life is not for everybody. One of the biggest hesitations to starting a new business venture is the fear that we lack the business skills we'll need to make it in an apparently cutthroat corporate world. Just as teaching is not a skill that is formally taught during graduate training (see my previous series on Transition to Academia), the same can be said of business skills and entrepreneurship. However, I feel that one of the hallmarks of a good researcher is a strong entrepreneurial tendency, and that the similarities between a strong research program and a business model are numerous. Within the research context, we essentially run our own little businesses. Our stock currencies in academia--grants and publications--have strong analogies to a business seeking funding investment while producing quality outcomes. And like any business, we have the constant challenge of recruiting and funding top-notch employees (i.e., students, technicians, and postdocs) while providing them with opportunities to further develop their capabilities. Therefore, it is actually a relatively simple leap from running your own lab to running your own business.

However, some fundamental difficulties exist in creating a consultancy based on your research specialty that may be impossible to overcome. These include:

  • By working outside of the university umbrella, you become completely responsible for insurance and liability. This may be difficult to obtain in fields where there are no specific professional organizations.
  • Related to the university structure, you also become completely responsible for any ethical clearance that may be required for your work. As ethical review boards in North America are primarily based out of formal research institutions, this may be extremely problematic for some fields of health sciences.
  • Although it is true that a consultancy can hibernate, do not underestimate the time commitment involved. Besides the work itself, extra time is required for the administration of the business, and most of us have little experience with accounting and business law. Also, do not underestimate the possibility that the business will rapidly expand beyond your capabilities, requiring a more formal structure and/or the hiring of additional employees. This is where a strong business plan comes in handy, and I will explore some of the considerations you need to incorporate into a business plan in the next article.

In the end, academia may serve as a perfect springboard from which to develop a complementary consulting business. No matter how apparently specialized or basic your field of research, there is almost certainly a market for the direct application of that knowledge and somebody willing to pay for it. The fun part is to find the connections.

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