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Consulting--The Career Path Not (Oft) Taken

Most of us go to college with the idea of working for someone else, usually in academia, industry, or government. But a rather different--and increasingly viable--option is to become a consultant. Today, many financially challenged corporations and universities are not hiring permanent staff, given the economic uncertainty they face. But corporations--including major pharmaceutical companies--are still developing products for market, and they still need scientific expertise.

Enter the scientific consultant.

This article will review the options that are available if you're thinking of becoming a consultant and will offer some tools that can help you in the process.

There are many options for employment as a consultant. You can start your own business, you can work for a consulting firm, or you can work for an agency that places you into temporary assignments. Each option has its pros and cons, depending on what you're looking for and your personality. We'll take each in turn, beginning with starting your own company.

Be Your Own Boss

Starting your own business can be fun, exciting, and challenging. As Stephen Cheung writes in his Next Wave article, "The excitement of starting a new venture is too much fun to pass up and an excellent opportunity for personal growth." There are several important considerations to becoming an independent consultant, including such matters as how to get work, legal and tax issues, and determining if you have the entrepreneurial skills for the pursuit.

Insider's tip #1: Finding an assignment

Consultants spend up to 75% of their time networking to find their next paying assignment (see related links for tips on networking). Your professors may be a good source of leads; contacting heads of research at companies is another good way to get an engagement.

But before you start as a consultant, you should talk with a lawyer and an accountant to help you set up your business. There are several different approaches to establishing a small company in the United States. For example, you can incorporate as a sole proprietorship, a partnership, a limited partnership, limited liability partnership, or a limited liability company. Before spending your money on expert advice, take some time to educate yourself. Books and Web sites can assist you, and I often recommend Getting Started in Consulting by Alan Weiss and Consulting for Dummies by Bob Nelson and Peter Economy as good introductions.

The federal government's Small Business Administration and some states, such as Pennsylvania's Open for Business Web site, provide guidance in establishing a new small business.

Companies will be open to engaging you as a consultant if you have done your homework and have your legal and tax infrastructure in place.

To help determine if you have the skills needed to start and run your own business, you may want to turn to your career resource center for evaluations. Skill and personality tests are available that can assist you in evaluating your strengths and weaknesses in terms of starting and running your own business.

Consulting Firms

Another growing area for scientific consulting is in the traditional consulting firms. For example, Booz-Allen & Hamilton is a global management-consulting firm. Its pharmaceuticals practice provides scientific consulting services to some of the largest pharmaceutical, biotechnology, medical-device, and diagnostic companies in the world. Pia Götze tells Next Wave that she learned about these types of jobs by attending workshops organized by management-consulting firms such as McKinsey and the Boston Consulting Group. As science-related industries grow, these management-consulting firms are expanding their scientific consulting practices, providing new opportunities for scientific graduates.

Insiders tip #2: Create opportunities

If a workshop is not on the schedule at your university, contact one of the major management-consulting firms and invite a representative to meet with a group of graduates to discuss what a career in that company is like. Some of these firms are beginning to offer graduate internships, providing interested students with an opportunity to test the consulting waters.

Working for a consulting firm is very similar to working for a company. For example, you usually get benefits and a steady paycheck. When you work for one of these firms, the company places you in an assignment. Often, your salary is set at an annual rate and does not vary by assignment. But at some smaller firms, the wages may be based on the assignment length. Most of the time, the assignment duration is part of the contract between the company and its client. This allows you to know when you need to start lining up the next assignment.

Staffing Services

Staffing-services companies offer another consulting arrangement to consider. Staffing-solutions companies engage customers and then assign someone with the needed scientific expertise to work on the contracted project or problem for each customer. Kelly Scientific Resources is an example of a firm that provides consultants with specialized scientific skills to client companies.

One of the benefits of working for a staffing-services company is that the company finds the assignments and handles most of the paperwork. Generally, you are paid only if you are on an assignment, which is usually for a specific duration. But your assignment can end at any time, leaving you without a paycheck between assignments.

Staffing-solutions companies generally offer a more stripped-down benefits package than you would get working for a scientific company. People who like flexibility in scheduling their work often find this work arrangement better suited to their needs.

Insider's tip #3: Hedge your bets

If you decide to work for a staffing-services company, you may want to register with more than one. That way, if an assignment with one firm ends and the company does not have a new assignment for you, another firm may be able to fill the gap.

Choices of Independence

There are, then, essentially three ways to work as a consultant: You can work for yourself, for a consulting firm, or for a staffing-services company. All three provide you with some degree of independence. And each approach offers something different in terms of flexibility, benefits, and the effort you'll need to put forth to acquire assignments. The important thing to remember is you have a choice: Academia, government, and industry are not your only choices for a job. Being a consultant is not for everyone, but if you decide it's for you, you now have the Insider's Edge.

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