18

We need to hire a computer scientist with a very particular specialty as a consultant for a long term industrial research project. We've read the relevant papers and so know who does good work in it. But we don't know the first thing about hiring a professor as a consultant.

  • Do I just email them and say "Hi, Dr. So and so, I've read your paper about X and want to discuss hiring you as a consultant"? Or do I need some type of introduction? Specifically, if I'm coming from a small business (with the funds to hire them, mind you, but a small business nonetheless), will they take it seriously?
  • How can I evaluate their abilities to be a good consultant? I know they have the brains and the know-how, but I need more than that: I need someone who will work on the problems we have, giving us a reasonable assessment of their likelihood to solve them, keeping us up to date, and clearing communicating their results.
  • Once hired, how do we effectively manage them towards our goals?
  • Currently, we have funding to hire them only for the initial stages. With good results, we have investors to approach, and we'd like to say "We're working on this problem; we have Prof. X on it, who's done this so far; with another $1M, we could get here." Will academics be supportive of such an arrangement?
  • How do we protect our intellectual property? Our plan is to leverage existing research towards new technological applications. What's to stop our consultants from taking our ideas on their own? This is especially a concern in the initial evaluation stages, where we don't have a business relationship, but need to discuss our applications in some detail nonetheless.

Finally: Are there any resources on how to do this? Books, articles, services? We'd really like to benefit from someone's experience on this.

16

As an academic with a history of consulting, the proper way to approach the person in question is to contact him directly. Email might work but for initial contacts phone might be better. If he/she is geographically close, a face-to-face would be even better. The initial conversation is really about whether he/she is interested in consulting in his/her area of expertise. If yes, then you can start to dig a little deeper into the project.

Be clear and up front with what you have and what you hope to achieve. Make it clear what the limitations of the project are and that the project might or might not move past the initial phase.

It is unlikely that the size of your business would be an issue but that really depends on his/her personality. You'll know when you ask.

About evaluating if he/she can be a good consultant, explain very clearly what your concerns are. There is no reason for the Prof to be concerned since you do not know each other there is not an issue of personalities and you are not doubting him/her, you are simply saying what you are concerned about. If you have read this person's work you should have an idea of his/her ability to communicate clearly.

As far as managing this person toward the goal, handle him/her as you would any other employee. Normally consultants expect a little bit more freedom but, to repeat myself, be clear with what you want and that might include an update every 2-3 days (more or less depending on the nature of the project - you might want daily updates).

As for protecting your intellectual property, have the Prof sign an NDA/non-compete. This might be an issue if it will in any way limit the Prof from exploring his/her own work. For this, you will need to negotiate what kind of legal protections you feel you need. If you write the non-compete in a narrow enough way, the Prof might feel comfortable enough (he/she is getting something out of the deal).

  • Thank you - this is truly helpful. In short you are telling me: Treat it like any other employee, there's nothing to be afraid of. Even though Prof. Johnson is a world renowned scholar, if he's a consultant, it means he's happy to act as an employee. – SRobertJames Aug 8 '13 at 0:25
  • This answer was very helpful. I posted a follow up in academia.stackexchange.com/questions/11737/… since I thought it was an independent question - Would you be able to take a look at it? – SRobertJames Aug 8 '13 at 16:26
6

One key question to keep in mind is why someone would want to work as a consultant, since that determines how you interact with them. You're hiring someone who already has a full-time job, and who has chosen to work in academia despite having skills that are valued by industry, so you need to convince them that this is worth their time. It's possible you can find someone short of money who is specifically looking for a part-time job on the side, but that will greatly limit your choices. (The best consultants are often already the best paid faculty to start with, and they generally have many consulting opportunities to choose from.)

In practice, I see three main reasons why someone might value a consulting job, in roughly decreasing order:

  1. You offer something they just can't get in academia. For example, unique data or experiences, extensive resources, dramatic real-world impact, etc. A computer scientist might work with Facebook to get access to their social network data, or Google to be able to study search and indexing on a vast scale. This lets them advance their understanding of the field in ways they could not have done otherwise (and hopefully they can publish the results).

  2. Even if you can't offer anything unique or unavailable in academia, you may still be working on cutting-edge problems that help inspire and shape their academic research program. The difficulty here is that the world is full of cutting-edge research problems waiting to be solved. To convince someone to work on your problems rather than their own ideas, you need some argument. Maybe your problems are especially exciting or important, maybe they are a perfect match for this researcher's background and interests, or maybe you are offering enough money to outweigh other considerations.

  3. If what you want is really routine (with little or no academic research significance), then you may need to offer a lot of money.

This only deals with the first part of your question, on approaching faculty, but I see that as critical: once you establish mutual interest, you can work out the other details. Getting to that point is the hard part, and how you frame things can make a real difference. When you first approach someone, it's much better to say "Here's an opportunity in which we'll pay you to do exciting things that will advance the field and your own research" than "Here's what we need and how much we would like to pay. Would you be willing to do it for us?"

  • This is a really interesting point - What type of variation is there among consultant motivations? Is the first question always one of intellectual interest? Or does being able to apply their knowledge to practical industry, and get paid for it, suffice? – SRobertJames Aug 8 '13 at 16:26
  • @SRobertJames: Hmm, it probably varies from person to person (as well as between fields). I don't have a good feeling for overall statistics. – Anonymous Mathematician Aug 9 '13 at 5:19

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.