I have a friend who is considering a part time (~10hr/week) consulting gig with a large, well-established software company, doing a mixture of research and coding. However, there appears to be little quantitative data on past consulting rates for academics, i.e., professors, postdocs, and PhD students whose primary career is not consulting.

Q: How does an academic determine a fair rate for consulting?

...Assuming that a consulting gig is actually compatible with their academic contract! I do of course realize that in many circumstances external employment is prohibited by a contract with the university. I also realize that consulting rates are largely a function of 1. perceived expertise and 2. negotiation skill. But a key component of successful negotiation is an objective view of the facts—in this case, some kind of upper and lower bound on reasonable wages.

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    "Fair"? Fair to who? The hourly rate is "whatever the market will bear", unless your university is one of those that sets the rates that academics may charge for external work. – EnergyNumbers Jan 8 '14 at 18:32
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    Right—I am trying to establish what the market will bear! – Dnuorg Spu Jan 8 '14 at 21:24
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    Maybe the people at workplace.stackexchange.com have more experience about negotiating rates for freelance consulting. After all if you remove the words "...for academics", the question makes perfect sense and has little to do with academia, so it looks very close to a boat programming question. – Federico Poloni Oct 19 '16 at 14:10

As Fomite correctly stated, it is going to vary a lot by field and also individual circumstances.

In my experience, if the consulting work is roughly equivalent to what a non-academic in industry might be able to perform, then the rates will roughly be equivalent, too. This happens a lot in the engineering disciplines, and especially often in computer science (i.e., many computer science professors can moonlight as software engineers). In such disciplines, I have found that companies in industry often classify their engineers into five levels. These go by different names at different companies, but they usually are along the lines of: associate, full engineer, senior, lead, and principal. Associate is the level a freshly graduated undergrad would start at. Full engineer usually implies three to five years experience and/or a master's degree. That is likely the level equivalent to a Ph.D. student. A fresh Ph.D. just having defended would usually start at such a company at the senior level, so it is roughly equivalent to post-doc and junior faculty. The lead level is usually achieved 7+ years after that, so it is roughly equivalent to tenured faculty. Likewise, principal is equivalent to full professors.

Once you have an equivalent job title in mind, you can use websites like glassdoor to search for average salaries for that job title (e.g., "Senior Software Engineer", "Principal Electrical Engineer", etc.). I find that typical hourly rates are in the range of 0.1% to 0.2% of the yearly salary of an equivalent professional, but once again this may vary by profession; my experience is in the world of software.

I have found that some companies will allow a slightly higher-end consulting rate if you can demonstrate that your abilities are above and beyond those of a non-academic alternative. This is especially true if the nature of the consulting work is research-oriented and/or directly related to your research, or if you can reasonably argue that you could complete the task faster than a non-Ph.D or a full-time employee.

You can usually charge a slightly higher rate for short-term work.

Many academics I know often do consulting in the form of acting as expert witnesses at trial. Rates for that type of work seem to be more standard across disciplines, and is more of a function of how unique and qualified you are for the job. Prep work for trial is usually charged at a standard consulting rate, but then days at trial can be charged as much as two to four times that rate.

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    See my answer about how to compute consulting rates here. In my field (optical sciences) and related fields (software engineering and electrical engineering) the going rate for a newly minted Ph.D. is between $125/h and $150/h. Professors, having more experience, can get more than this, but usually not more than about $250/h unless they are a well known "superstar." – daaxix Sep 19 '14 at 17:16
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    130-300 an hour is what I would expect. Its hard to base it off a % of salary since being a professor has several other benefits and people don't do it just for the money, while consulting is often just for the money. As a graduate student my salary at times was 30k a year but I was charging 120$ an hour for consulting. – Behacad Sep 19 '14 at 23:02
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    My % of salary estimates were based off of commercial salaries, not academic salaries. So, for example, if one were a Computer Science professor, one would base one's consulting rate on the salary of a principal-level software engineer. – ESultanik Sep 21 '14 at 2:38

Ask around.

This is going to vary wildly by field, by sub-field, by school, by academic rank, etc. The best way to find out is to ask colleagues what they make, more senior colleagues what they'd expect and if they think a particular rate is reasonable, etc.

While people are occasionally hesitant about asking salary questions, I've not run into anyone whose adverse to discussing the mechanics of consulting with a colleague getting started.

  • Thanks. Actually, that's why I created the question on SE: he asked, and I didn't know! In the spirit of academia.se, I thought I'd try to distribute this "insider info" to the masses... – Dnuorg Spu Jan 7 '14 at 18:22
  • Mysterious downvoter - do you have a comment as to how my answer can be improved? – Fomite Jan 7 '14 at 19:54
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    I would also add that it varies by geography. Some locations simply have higher rates than others. – earthling Jan 8 '14 at 7:06

In the legal arena, private practice rates for pure research start at about $40 per hour while the rates for research and writing are about $60 per hour, on average. In academics, these rates are much lower such that you typically see only law students working hourly in an academic setting.

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    On the "ask around, it varies" answer of mine, these are way low for private practice in my area. – Fomite Jan 8 '14 at 16:13
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    That is obviously the problem with this question: it varies greatly between locations. I would charge between 80-100 euro for consultancy. But this is in Western Europe (the Netherlands). – Paul Hiemstra Jan 11 '14 at 17:58

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