Research consultancy: taking the plunge?

research_consultantOn February 18, SIKS, the Netherlands Research School for Information and Knowledge Systems, organized a career day for Ph.D. students, with the goal of making Ph.D. students think about what are the career opportunities after they finish. It was a very inspiring day, with many interesting presentations and interactions.

I was asked to present my perspective on how to set up and survive as a small (i.e. one-man) research consultancy company. In this post, a quick summary of the points I made in my talk.

As an (academic) research consultant, you are a linking pin between science and society. On the one hand, you translate academic ideas into concrete applications, such as projects, tools, systems, and procedures. However, just as important, you should feed back real-world insights into the scientific process. This way, combining rigor with relevance, you can help build bridges between the two worlds which, unfortunately, are often still so parallel instead of connected.

Pros and Cons

Some of the pros of being an independent research consultant instead of working at an academic institution include:

+ More freedom & control Being your own boss you are, well, your own boss. You have much more freedom and control about who you work for, when you work, and how you work (and even why you work). Of course, bills still need to be paid, boring tasks still need to be done, and annoying people cannot always be avoided, but in general, you can be much more selective. This sense of purpose, control, and fulfillment (and, sometimes, even a free weekend) is exhilirating and nourishing, especially for those who have been under many years of intense Ph.D., tenure track, or postdoc pressure.

+ More relevant research One of the curses of the academic system is the publish-or-perish culture. The pressure is enormous to focus on top journal publications, at the expense of research relevant to, say, society. In my own field, community informatics. hands-on testing of ideas through lots of trial and error is inevitable for getting meaningful results (and, I strongly believe, in the end good science). However, in academia spending too much time on this messy practice is discouraged, as it distracts from the Holy Grail of “The A Publication”. Having been relieved of the publication burden, you have more freedom as an independent researcher to focus on empirical, more relevant research.

+ More own research agenda Rather than having to adhere to an institutional research agenda, you can set and follow your own, personal research agenda, which you pursue in the context of your total portfolio of self-selected projects. This allows you to focus, for as long as you want and in many different settings, on the main research questions that fascinate you. In my case, one overarching question is the activation of online collaborative communities.

+ More diversity Being an advisor to many different organizations, networks, and communities on a very wide range of topics makes you grow, both intellectually and personally. You need to quickly analyze a rich set of practical problems, all somehow related to your expertise. It is very rewarding to try and see the patterns in initially seemingly very different real-world contexts and to formulate and apply lessons learnt. This theoretical sanity check sometimes leads to profound changes in your thinking, which can be most stimulating.

+ More satisfaction Your company is your baby. You still have to work very hard, and inevitably experience frustrating situations, but all of the above  can give a deep feeling of satisfaction when you see the ideas, connections, and impact of your work grow.

Of course, like everything in life, there are cons to being on your own as well:

- More risk Working by and for yourself exposes you to many more risks. You are no longer protected by an organization. No contracts means no income. Being in bed with the flu means no income. And, of course, there is nobody else in the organization to blame for errors and underperformance but yourself.

- Less (rigorous) research As your attention is scattered among more, shorter-term projects, and since you focus more on relevance instead of rigor, the research you do tends to be more case-based instead of methodologically deep. Also, in the general busi-ness associated with running your own company, it is easy to postpone doing and reflecting on your research. On the other hand, this situation is not really so different from the average  academic position where meetings, supervising, teaching, and travel also causes most serious research work to be postponed to evenings, weekends, and holidays…

- More goodbyes One of the nice aspects of working in an academic group for many years is that a real “sense of community” between its members develops. When being a consultant, you are literally “all over the place” and working more on a short-term contract basis. This often means that by the time you start to really like (some of) your colleagues, you have to move on again.

- Less beaches Probably the best perk of academia is the ability to go, and often stay and work for longer periods of time, in really amazing places. My academic life has taken me to many corners of the globe, resulting in many unforgettable impressions and experiences.

Do’s and Don’ts

So, how to go about starting your own one-(wo)man show? Following are some of my own lessons learnt.

- Be ready: PhD + postdoc is ideal It may seem that I discount the value of academia. Far from it, I think it’s the world’s greatest connector in terms of people and ideas (and largest travel agency!) Despite all its downsides, I have had a marvellous time, and it has shaped me professionally and personally in so many ways. So, I would not advise recent graduates to immediately start their own research consultancy. Ideally, you would have a PhD and at least a few years of postdoc experience. During your PhD, you learn the ropes, define your main ideas, and create your initial network. A postdoc is invaluable, as you learn project managament skills and (hopefully) how to descend a bit from the Ivory Tower. A postdoc forces you to learn the all-important skills of translating your Great Ideas that Will Change the World (but that, I know it hurts, nobody outside a tiny part of academia is interested in) into a more practical form that at least some members of the rest of the human race might be willing to pay for.

- Have (and keep!) a financial buffer (>1 yr) Continuing this point, one of the hardest things to do when starting your own research consultancy, is to prove that you have something practically valuable to offer. It is no use to advertise in the Yellow Pages and it may take a long time before you have enough paying contracts to break even. So, before you start, make sure to have enough savings for at least a year. This means you will not have to accept unacceptable offers and allows you to negotiate your contracts from a position of strength, not panic. Also, once you are finallly in business, make sure to refill the buffer as quickly as possible. Contracts never come at regular intervals, and you must be able to weather the next storm.

- Logo, website, blog Before you go public, make sure to have a professional logo and a well-designed and informative website. First impressions matter and the very first thing potential clients will do is to check out your site. The way you shape, structure and fill it with content says a lot about what you expertise is all about, so make sure to invest in this at the very beginning. Also, if you can, try to keep a blog. It doesn’t have to be a daily chore, but post at least once in a while so that potential clients can get a better idea about who you are and how you think and work.

- Network, network (and network!) Contrary to what many outsiders think, research is all about meeting people: fellow researchers, problem owners, potential clients, and just interesting fellow human beings. Networking is all-important, especially in our line of business. Go to anything that may seem remotely interesting: conferences and seminars, of course, but also meetings of the Chamber of Commerce, public lectures, etc. Also, start meeting up with contacts you haven’t seen in a long time and tell them about your ideas. A warning: don’t network and expect something to come out of it immediately. Don’t try to pressure people into giving you a contract, it won’t work. Just try to go and genuinely meet people for the fun of it. In fact, I find this one of the most interesting and rewarding parts of my work. Everybody has a story or two to tell. Listen and learn!

- Be pro-active Gone are the days that there was a professor or supervisor to tell you what to do (if those days were ever there). When running your own company, NOTHING happens by itself. You are your own boss, employee and secretary. Scan your environment for opportunities and go for them. Don’t wait for the world to come to you. It won’t.

- Don’t underestimate acquisition Acquiring a contract is hard work and can (and will) generally take a much longer time than you expect. Try to not put your research darlings first but represent the interest of your clients. What is their problem they want to have solved? Make a list of ten words that capture the key concepts and techniques of your research approach. Now can you formulate a solution without using any of these terms in the first 5 minutes of your presentation? If so, you may have a chance of landing a contract!  This advice is exaggerated, of course, but only just. Try to think and talk in terms of the client’s language, at home and in your publications you can wallow in all the scientific jargon that you want. Besides being able to frame the problem and solution in the client’s terms, be patient. Acquisition can sometimes take a very long time from the very first conversation to the actual signing of the contract. As stated above, you must have the financial capacity to afford the wait.

- Don’t set rates too low Coming straight out of academia, hourly consultancy rates seem sky-high. Clients know this, and may try to take advantage of it. However, don’t set your rates too low. Being a research consultant, you have many more unbillable hours than others as you have to invest in your research: the time to read the literature, scan the Web, attend conferences, travel, etc. Then there are the hours other freelancers also can’t charge: doing the administration, acquisition, travel to and from clients,  set up your office, and so on. There’s the investments: office, equipment, travel expenses, and so on. You have the full taxes and social insurance to cover, pension to take care of, risks to take. Taking all that into account, your average income may actually be less than what you earned before, definitely in the beginning. So, don’t set your rates too low initially. You may offer an introduction rate for a limited amount of time, but make sure to know and show your worth.

- Plan and track time Even more so than in academia, there is an overwhelming amount of short-term and long-term things-to-be-done. Establishing and running your company, keeping track of numerous projects and clients, and, oh yes, do some research reflection once in a while, forces you to be systematic. Your calendar and to do-list become your best friends. Also, meticulously keep track of time, assigned to specific activities. This is not only useful for billing purposes, but also for getting a feeling of where your time goes, and how to improve your ways of working. There are many different systems. I prefer them Web-based, using Google Calendar as my calendar, Remember The Milk for my to do-s (using Getting Things Done as the organizing methodology), and SlimTimer for keeping track of my time.

- Stay connected to research community One of the joys of academia is the continuous meeting of minds, the sharing of ideas, passions, and good times with kindred spirits. From a more down-to-earth point of view, being an active member of one or more research communities is essential for keeping on top of the state-of-the-art, of growing your ideas and building your reputation. Being a research consultant does not mean you should sever these all-important ties. Keep in touch, remain active in the field by visiting colleagues, attending seminars and conferences, participating on mailing lists, reviewing papers, and publishing.

- Invest in research time and places Set aside a minimum number of hours a week, and the occassional longer period of time for writing a paper or fundamental reflection. Don’t just do this from home, but travel as well, to meet up with research colleagues and friends. If possible, try to get invited as a speaker, which lets them take care of travel and accommodation and reconfirms your reputation as an active member of the field.

- Enjoy it! Last but not least, enjoy it! Setting up your own company, besides being hard work and somewhat risky, should be fun. It can provide you with a priceless sense of freedom, direction, and self-realization, getting yourself very high on Maslow’s pyramid…