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I'm wondering how to best start offering consulting services as a Ph.D. student? In particular, how to think about stating a consulting business while in graduate school.

A potential partner and I have skills that fill a market need. Both of us are adamant about pursuing non-academic work after the Ph.D. We both are wondering, what are we waiting for? In addition, both of us had has smaller consulting opportunities thus far (these fell in our lap), but would be looking to take this to the next level, and essentially replace our research assistantships with this work. Actually, there's no guarantee that either of us will have research assistantships next year, so it might even be a necessity.

Graduate school seems like a great time to start doing this work. Frankly, I'm unsure about how much a Ph.D. would change this opportunity for us down the road.

How would people go about navigating this while in graduate school?

In advance of the "check with your advisor or department" responses I should add two more things.

1) There's nothing in our agreement with the department or student handbook that stipulates that we can't work outside of the department while a student. It's not encouraged when you are getting a research assistantship. This would replace the assistantship.

2) We both don't feel like our advisors are adequately preparing us for non-academic careers (frankly because they have never worked outside of academia) and are fine with what this might mean for those relationships. It's more likely that they would be supportive of us stepping out of the lab and taking an untraditional route to finishing the Ph.D.

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I experienced working as a consultant during a year in a PhD program.

On the upside, I earned more than my cohort was in our fully funded program.

On the downside, stepping out of a lecture to take a client's phone call was one of my experiences. Having to handle the fallout of another client's death during finals was another, when one client suddenly became several smaller ones.

I found I was losing the support of the head of the department, and I didn't like my grades.

I had confounding issues: one was that my clients and wife were in a town a 3 hour drive away from my program and another was that I was scrambling to catch up with the math required, as I underestimated the preparation required. I found the workload to be unsustainable and withdrew, enrolling in a local Masters program instead.

I'm now likely earning more than the majority of my former cohort, while not facing the stress of the publish or perish monster or dealing with undergraduates trying to understand why you gave them an F for lazy slapdash work. However, I would consider mine a cautionary tale.

I assume you want to complete your degree. To do so, you'll want the support of your department. You may underestimate their desire to see you become a hugely successful academic eventually rising to tenure at an Ivy. They may become dismayed by your desire to work in consulting.

On the other hand, there are hugely successful academics who are also very entrepreneurial consultants.

That said, you don't want your advisor or department chair to think of you as a consultant, unless that's already expected of you. Ideally, you want them to think of you first and foremost as a successful academic. I would avoid loudly publicizing your services until you finish your dissertation (which you should probably finish sooner rather than better, in alignment with this strategy).

Instead, you might profile your ideal client-type and ask your current clients that best fit that profile for introductions to similar ones, or at least to identify them for you. Then, like any sales pitch, you should do your homework on the potential clients, and go put yourself in front of them.

I wouldn't rule out the assistantship either. It likely means high quality time with a great scholar. That should align with your values, considering your current efforts at education. Don't be dishonest about your intentions, but do be discrete. I hope my advice helps.

  • This is very helpful. More context: Both my potential partner and I will be done with quals and ABD by summer, end of summer at the latest, so courses are less of an issue for us. Speaking for myself- I've been in independent research mode for a while... long enough to know I'm good at it, but rather hate being part of research in academia. Frankly, I don't know if I want the doctorate. I've always had a longer term goal of working for a policy firm for a few years after getting my Ph.D. then starting a consulting business. But I'm wondering more and more if I even need the Ph.D. to consult? – bfoste01 Sep 20 '14 at 0:48
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    You don't need a college degree to do what I do (my first boss where I am didn't), but having my MBA makes me a safe hire and helps justify my compensation. You don't need the Ph.D. to consult. But it will help you be more competitive, i.e. a safer hire who can easily justify his fees. There's another question here about ABD that might help: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/28717/… – Aaron Hall Sep 20 '14 at 1:13

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