Academics working as freelance consultants or providing ad hoc expert hours to companies is not a new idea. Yet, we found that many researchers face challenges working with industry. At the same time, the trend to collaborate with corporates is growing: it provides researchers with great flexibility to determine their working hours and allows for working from remote locations. Along with providing researchers with the opportunity to flexibly earn income, it opens up the opportunity to transition from academia to industry whilst gaining a wealth of new experiences. I have been working with various companies, for almost 20 years, engaging in commercialising new technologies. I was collaborating with scientists on a daily basis and I found that no matter the geographic location or industry, the challenges of the academia-industry relationship were almost always the same. Here I will present you with a few observations that I hope will help improve collaborations for both researchers and companies.
First, find out if you can work as a consultant
If you are working in a university, you can easily check the policies on providing external advisory services. Some institutions might be concerned that you will give away sensitive information and reveal scientific research which could be used by others, while the university has different plans for it.
Find out what the financial policies are – do you need to share fees you receive from your consultancy work with the university or it is entirely your own earnings? The same applies to researchers already working for the industry – please review your employment contract first to see if there is anything prohibiting you from engaging with other companies.
Sign an NDA with your client
Prior to any engagement with a company, you will be asked to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA). This is common practice and protects both the client and you individually. It is preferable for you to ask the company to provide their version and assure them that you will fully meet their requirements in regards to keeping your work with them fully confidential.
Generally, this means that you must not communicate with their competition and you must not mention their name and the details of the assignment even in casual conversation with friends on a Friday night down at the pub.
Unfortunately, it is true that consultants too often speak of their work in public – which is absolutely forbidden. It is essential for companies to keep their work on new tech and new ideas particularly confidential in order to stay ahead of the competition
Industry thinks differently, don’t take it personally
Industry and academia think differently and speak different languages, which can lead to misunderstandings. Most companies are motivated to grow revenue, save costs and ensure their shareholders are happy. Fundamentally, money.
They’re impatient and timing is everything: getting that new product to the market before the competition is crucial. They do not understand the world of academia and the need for publishing more research (and for a fee, a crazy concept in the eyes of the world of industry). They will also not possess the patience necessary to read and the ability to understand your research papers – you need to summarise it for them in plain English (for example Smart Tribe bliztcards are a good example of how to communicate research discoveries with industry), ideally organised into bullet points and using industry lingo.
Make sure you make your expertise relevant to them and their industry. Predominantly you will be judged and valued not on your achievements as a researcher, but how much you understand their needs and adapt your scientific research to their industry applications. So don’t take it personally, people in the industry aren’t bad people, they just think differently and although they have great respect for you then tend to show it differently.
How much you should be paid
Never agree to work for free for companies. Not even if this is the first time you will work with a company and you’re still learning how to work with industry. Business people do not respect such a free service. Their mentality is that free service is of poor quality.
Consulting bill rates vary and heavily depend on the researcher’s experience working with industry. The location also plays a role and it is no secret that companies will try and take advantage of the low bill rate of an expert based in India in comparison to the high rate of an expert of the same level based in the UK or Singapore. Another dependency is the length of the assignment: the price of an hourly rate for a short phone advice should be higher than the rate for a longer-term project.
My suggestions are if you have a PhD, still at university or just completing your degree with no experience working with companies:
- Start with bill rate of USD/Euro/£50 (gross => before tax) per hour or USD/Euro/£400-600 per day (depending on the project length – longer than a month you might need to lower your bill rate)
- That will quickly reach up to USD/Euro/£150-200 per hour if you gain 3 to 5 years of experience
- This can even go up to £600 to USD/Euro/£800, after a number of successful projects where you managed to help your clients and make a difference.
- Often you will be able to agree on a fixed time with your client and if this is a substantial period of time (e.g. a few months), you can provide a discount starting with 10-20%.
VAT does not apply since you are not an organisation. Make sure that all extra out of pocket expenses such as travel (and per diem if you are required to travel for your client), tools required for your work, paid support materials, are all charged back to the company. Make sure it is understood right from the start and included in the contract.
Do not shy away from negotiating – business people will respect you more for it. However, do not be arrogant, you want to have a good relationship with your client and you want them to come back for more work once the assignment is finished.
Like with most professional experience, the more companies that you work for and deliver quality outputs, the better. At the same time, you must not forget that you have signed an NDA, so you must be careful how you talk about this experience both publicly and privately. Even under an NDA, you can still ask for references and testimonials from the client. Your client can give testimonials about the quality of your work and expertise without giving away details on what you were working on with them. Those testimonials will bring you more work and allow you to increase bill rates.
You are great!
One of the most “annoying” moments while working with researchers is when the researchers tell me, “I need to do more research”. I understand that there is a never-ending need for more research and researchers often feel too unsure and uncertain to give a final answer. But, 99% of the time you know enough of what the industry needs to know to make an impact. Work with what you already know and you will almost certainly already have good enough answers and solutions for company problems. Many projects don’t demand perfection, but something that is good enough to bring value to the company.
Pay your tax
It might sound strange but many people forget that all income is taxable. Report your tax to HMRC (in the UK and it’s equivalent in other countries) on time.
You can either ask an accountant for help or do it yourself (e.g. consider registering as self-employed or set up a Ltd company which takes 24 hours and currently costs £12 in the UK).
Nowadays, tax offices digitise almost all their services and thoroughly explain what you need to do.