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As described in Hiring a faculty consultant, we need to hire a faculty consultant. The initial stages are perhaps only 100 hours, but subsequent stages may blossom to ten times that.

Will good professors be able to deliver that much consulting time? Would I be better off with a grad student or postdoc - could they deliver that much time? Or with a less accomplished professor with more time on their hands?

One alternative we've considered is to hire a fresh Ph.D. looking to enter industry. The problem is that we are not ready to commit to a full time employee - it's only if we get good results in the initial stages (and our investors agree!). Is there a solution for this?

One last alternative is to work out a research arrangement, where the professor would direct some of their research towards our needs. They'd get to publish the papers (with the application details removed, but the algorithms there) and we'd get ownership of the IP and control over the research agenda. Is that an option?

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    Something to note: when you say "mid-level professor" I assume you mean someone who is in the earlier stages of their career, i.e. they are perhaps associate professors but do not yet have tenure. Professors in this position generally have the least free time. – Alex Becker Aug 8 '13 at 1:45
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    ...professor with plenty of time on their hands? — Say what now? – JeffE Aug 8 '13 at 1:46
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    It appears like you believe that research works like an assembly line where x amount of hours equals y amount of results and can be done by anyone remotely qualified. – superuser0 Aug 8 '13 at 12:27
  • @T.F. What we need isn't advancing the state of the art, but taking the existing state of the art and applying to our application (which no one has done yet). Not an assembly line, by all means, but not a stroke of inspiration. It's crossing the chasm from R to D (in R&D). – SRobertJames Aug 9 '13 at 3:13
  • @JeffE - Clarified, I mean a less accomplished professor who has more time available. In any field, the people at the top are usually extraordinarily busy. – SRobertJames Aug 9 '13 at 3:14
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Professors at all levels of seniority and accomplishment are very busy.

They have courses to teach, institutional committee service, and their own research programs. Neglecting any of these for any length of time can have a permanent impact on their career. Professors who are less accomplished or have fewer duties in one of these areas will typically have more in the others.

Even a professor who is very motivated to work on your project may only have a few hours per week to devote to it. One day per week would probably be a maximum. Teaching schedules are often inflexible, so it may be particularly hard for them to visit your site, especially if it is far away from their home.

Senior people (tenured full professors) may be more likely to be able to make time for your project, but they also have lots of other interests.

One thought: you might consider approaching an expert who has recently retired. They should have the time available, and may be interested in your project as a way to continue their work in the field and earn some extra income. But they also may not be interested in working a lot of hours per week, and they may demand a fairly high hourly rate (as they're probably not in desperate need of money).

Keep in mind, also, that research by its nature is very hard to predict. It may be difficult or impossible for your consultant to accurately estimate how much time they will need to solve your problem, unless it is so straightforward that they can solve it almost at once.

As far as fresh PhDs, note that a new PhD has just spent several years working long hours for low wages. It may be hard to entice them with an offer of unstable, part-time work, unless you can offer some other perks like stock options or an unusually enjoyable work environment; startups are a dime a dozen. Of course, a lot will depend on the overall strength of the job market in your industry.

Your third option ("research arrangement") doesn't strike me as particularly feasible. A major reason for being in academia is the ability to choose the direction of one's own work. I don't think you'll find many professors amenable to being told how to direct their personal research program. They not only have to publish papers, they have to publish good papers which are novel, interesting to the research community, and spur further work in the area. If your project doesn't lend itself to that, in the professor's view, then the right to write papers about it is useless to their career and won't be seen as a benefit. Moreover, if they're going to work on your project as part of their own research, which is on their institution's time, then you can expect the institution to get involved in any IP issues, and they often have lots of lawyers. Not to mention outside funding agencies.

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    "It may be hard to entice [PhDs] with an offer of unstable, part-time work, unless you can offer some other perks like stock options". For any part-time jobs stock options are unlikely. What is likely to attract some of them, is a high salary (especially for consulting). (Source: I am turning from a PhD into a freelancer.) – Piotr Migdal Sep 19 '14 at 14:33
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Foreword: I smell a contradiction… you talk about “very large industrial projects”, but “we are not ready to commit to a full time employee”.


You need to hire a consultant… but why a faculty consultant? In pretty much any field of science, you can find decent consultants outside academia, working in, well… consulting firms. From what you describe, it seems than you need a rather large amount of work done, rather rapidly, and the benefits for the academic would not be immediately clear. That doesn't align well with the constraints and career goals of most academics, as Nate Eldredge explains very nicely. However, consultants from outside academia do not have such constraints, and it seems like a better fit for your specific case.

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    +1 He most likely search for a consultant. And there is no shortage of consultants with PhDs or other strong academic background. While some academics do consulting on side, I don't see why he restricts to searching for faculty consultants. – Piotr Migdal Sep 19 '14 at 14:50
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Let's deal with the 'easy' part first: hiring someone for ~100 hours of consulting.

How easy or difficult this will be is going to be based on what answers you need to the questions "When can you start?" and "For how many hours are you available per week?" If you need them to be available during set hours, this will also effect the situation.

When can you start?

Most busy/qualified/established professionals book their time out in advance, very often 3-6 months out or more. I'm not some super-in-demand expert or a professor, and yet I've turned down four offers in the last few months because I have already dedicated myself to things that would make my first availability to be summer of next year - unless it was just an amazing offer with triple the money, at which point I'd still only be available a fraction of the time for the next 3+ months.

Especially with teaching, grants, budgets, and research schedules, finding someone who could dedicate more than a few hours a week within 3-12 months will not be common.

If you only need someone for a few hours a week spread out over the next 3-4 months, you will likely have a much easier time of finding someone who is at least available and potentially interested.

Sabbaticals, Summers, Internships, and Finding the Time

If the initial stages go well and you need hundreds of hours of consulting or extensive research, this will not fit into the schedule of a professor under normal circumstances. It's not to say it can't be done, but if the person is really interested - both by the project and by how much money they stand to make - there are a few ways to make it work.

One way is for academics who have flexibility in the summer. While senior faculty will often direct labs, summer research, and some even have teaching duties 4-5 days a week over the summer, there is still often more time that can be squeezed out for consulting than other times. If this has been arranged a year in advance, or if the person happens to have already arranged for a light/no summer load, they would potentially be available for consulting for this larger work load.

Once you start needing more than 20-40 hours a week of consulting, it is reasonable to start considering having more than one person. It would not be unheard of for a professor - especially in fields that are highly tied to industry like in technology/computer fields - to arrange for a summer internship/research project where they and their hand-chosen grad students might be available to do work.

This sort of arrangement would allow sufficient time and expertise, and allow a faculty member to get a sufficient return for their invested time - teaching, helping students, conducting applied research/work, and bringing in some extra personal wealth.

Approach a Prospect and Be Open, Honest, and Straightforward

You have a situation where the industry lags behind the state of the art research, and you feel you have a great financial opportunity if you can close the gap - and need an expert to help you do it. That's great!

Professors and researchers are humans too, and are interested in things like making money (especially when it brings the potential for even more money), working on interesting problems, etc. If it is applying existing knowledge/research to a problem it might not result in interesting research, but this is very field-dependent as case-studies and applied techniques are standard in some fields and unpublishable in others.

Most people who have any experience in industry also understand the funding cycles are surprisingly similar to academics - you have a little bit of funding available to invest into exploration, and what happens from there depends on the results you get. So be open about this - if you know you have budget and money to pay them for the exploration phase, say so. If that phase doesn't work out then it will mean you don't expect to have any more immediate work - say so. And if it works out and you get the funding you are shooting for and will need a lot more work done - again, just say so.

Start a conversation and see where it leads. As with most professional tasks, it is not uncommon to have an offer come across your desk that just isn't something you are interested in, but perhaps you know someone who you might refer the opportunity to. Perhaps you'll find the professor who wrote the papers that attracted you to them in the first place will say that they actually don't feel they are the expert, and that actually the student they were working with would be better able to help you. Maybe they'll insist they are a package deal - you hire them and their collaborator. Perhaps they just aren't interested. Perhaps they already had a sabbatical planned and haven't 100% decided what they wanted to do, but this would fit the bill nicely...etc.

With a clear plan, seed funding in hand, and an open and honest discussion about your situation, goals, and what you can offer, most professors will be happy to take a meeting with you and discuss the matter! Few people are so busy as not to be able to talk about extra money, and most higher-level professors reserve a portion of their schedule for consulting gigs anyway (again though, this varies by field).

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I think hiring a new Ph.D. to a full-time job is the best approach. For the initial consult you may be able to hire a current Ph.D. student or two to a temporary summer job. They would both be able to help you sort out if the idea is likely to pan out, and let you determine whether that person would make a good hire.

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