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A company approached me for an interview to explain my work, which has been published as part of my PhD. As I understand from their email, they want to understand my work so that they can use it. However, nowhere in the email they mentioned that I am going to be paid or involved in this project. How would you approach this?

I find this email strange because they are asking me to explain my work and give them information on how to implement it so that they can make money out of it without me having any role in their project. Is this normal? Should I ask to be paid?

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    Until you have a valid joining offer in hand you should refrain from sharing a lot of information with them. Be formal in explanation. – Coder Jul 17 '17 at 17:15
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    You can try to form an official collaboration with your research facility and that company, i.e., write a proposal for a local project together. That way they get insight into the research, and you might get funding for another year or two, to finish your PhD (or do a postdoc). If you can pull that off, it would look great on your CV. – Lot Jul 18 '17 at 10:19
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    An important aspect of research is reproducibility. How have you published papers or a dissertation without including enough detail for others to replicate your results? – Nuclear Wang Jul 18 '17 at 12:58
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    Some experiences: mathbabe.org/2015/06/30/… – Daniel R. Collins Jul 18 '17 at 16:17
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    @NuclearWang the same way as 95 or 99% of all the work out there is published. Check research papers, what do you think is the percentage of unreproducable papers is? – Salvador Dali Jul 18 '17 at 18:31
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It's not normal to work for a company for free, and I'd simply answer something like this:

Dear X,

I am glad to know that my PhD work caught your interest. I can provide more information under a suitable consultancy contract.

Kind regards,

L222

Note: We don't know the content of the company's email and, as some have remarked, the above response might be a bit too sharp, especially if their attitude is not so exploitative as I assumed. A milder approach, which I like, is that outlined in Dan Romik's answer. Since only you can read the email, I strongly encourage you to consider carefully both approaches, regardless of the accumulated votes.

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    Yes - short sweet professional and to the point. – Stilez Jul 17 '17 at 20:29
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    Although the sentiment is right, the brevity is not. This is your chance to make a sales pitch. Sell them on the idea of your consulting with them, without conceding the point of needing to be paid. – DJClayworth Jul 17 '17 at 22:06
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    @DJClayworth From the question I had the impression that the company just wanted to exploit the OP without any compensation, and so I kept the answer quite short and direct. Of course, the OP can adjust and smooth it according to the information they have. In the past, I met a couple of companies who tried to get work for free, and in my experience this kind of companies wouldn't pay anyway, and being blunt saves time to everybody. – Massimo Ortolano Jul 18 '17 at 6:58
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    Sure if you don't want the job. – DJClayworth Jul 19 '17 at 2:33
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    @DJClayworth: which, to be fair to Massimo, is the common case among people who already have a job. If someone wants to persuade you to take on another gig, maybe they should make their pitch to you rather than expecting you to beg them for it :-) All a question of how actively the OP considers themself to be job-hunting – Steve Jessop Jul 23 '17 at 17:46
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Other answers make the case that you should ask for money for your services. I certainly think that is a very fair and reasonable thing to do, but rather than asking for money upfront, I would like to suggest the following strategy to maximize the benefit (in terms of financial gain, experience, and networking opportunities) that you can gain from this situation:

  1. Respond to the person who contacted you with a brief and polite email saying you'd be happy to have a short meeting (over the phone or in person at your office or somewhere nearby which doesn't necessitate any travel on your part) with them to give them a brief explanation of your work and/or hear more about the project. Do not ask for money or mention the possibility of paid consulting. I assume this will be followed up with an exchange of emails to set up the time/place for the meeting.

  2. When you have the meeting, be open and genuinely willing to explain your work (or at least any details of it that are in your thesis or already published), for free, for a reasonable amount of time - say up to 30 minutes or an hour.

  3. If you see that the conversation goes on for long enough that you are about to exceed your predetermined free consultation time, politely -- but assertively -- tell them that you will need to end the conversation soon, and say that you will be open to continuing the discussion at a future date, but that seeing as your time is valuable and you see that they need more of it than seems reasonable to offer for free, you will want this to be done on the basis of a paid consultation. Be ready with a figure for the hourly rate you want to ask in case they end up asking for it, but it's quite possible that this won't come up.

Following step number 3 above, either they will want to hire you to do additional consulting on the project, or they won't. I think the strategy above maximizes the chances that they will. Moreover, I should add that it is quite common for highly paid professionals (lawyers, financial consultants etc) to offer a free consultation before they start asking to be paid. I think the reason they do this is similar to why the above strategy is a good one -- it makes it easy for the client to approach the professional and explore the possibility of working together (by contrast, if you ask to be paid in the initial email this might be a turn-off and cause the people involved to simply give up the idea of talking to you, even if it may be in their interest to do so). The point of this comment is that I don't think you need to worry that you are being exploited by offering a small amount of your time and expertise for free -- even if you don't end up getting hired for a consulting gig you'll still have an interesting experience and sow some useful networking seeds that may be prove useful in the future. Good luck!

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    Though I generally agree with this approach, which is the best with decent companies (and I used it myself several times), from the question I had the impression that the company just wanted to exploit the OP without any compensation, and this is why I kept my answer quite short and direct. In the past, I met a couple of companies who tried to get work for free, and in my experience this kind of companies wouldn't pay anyway, and being blunt saves time to everybody. Of course, the OP can better assess the situation from the email. – Massimo Ortolano Jul 18 '17 at 7:13
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    @MassimoOrtolano since the "exploitation" is capped at half an hour of wasted time with my suggested approach, I don't think there is much downside there. By contrast, your more aggressive approach risks blowing up any potential consulting gig before any discussion about it even began. Well, as you say, OP can decide which approach works better for them. – Dan Romik Jul 18 '17 at 16:40
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    @Wildcard if they don't need 30 minutes of your time, then they will talk to you for 15 minutes, you will have an interesting conversation with someone who cares about your work and learn a couple of things about what people in industry are working on, and everyone will be happy and go their separate ways. What exactly is the problem? Does everything have to be about money all the time? – Dan Romik Jul 19 '17 at 3:45
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    Dan, sorry my comment was misinterpreted. See the last sentence of it, though. :) "This answer is great as it assumes good faith." I 100% agree with your comment above and everything does not have to be about money. The rest of my comment before the last sentence is more an argument against @MassimoOrtolano's answer's curtness (already noted by that author in an edit), as I don't see how a non-exploitation-minded company could reasonably be expected to mention money in their first email to you, no matter how decent their intentions. This answer deserves more upvotes. – Wildcard Jul 19 '17 at 3:52
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    @Wildcard ok thanks, glad you think my answer is great. To clarify, my answer doesn't exactly assume good faith, it simply suggests an approach that will work well under the good-faith scenario, and in which no harm (or a negligible harm) will be caused to OP in the bad-faith scenario. – Dan Romik Jul 19 '17 at 3:56
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I've never worked with a commercial interest directly, but the impression I get from colleagues is that companies will take as much as they can and pay as little as possible. "It's just business" as they say.

Your experience is valuable, so I wouldn't give it away for free. Ask them what kind of consulting fee they're offering and politely decline or counter-offer if you don't like what you hear.

Also- don't under-value your experience. It took you years to get to the level of expertise where you could write that dissertation, so you can help them avoid years of similar work. For example, in my field and location that would equate to a minimum of $120,000 a year for a fresh PhD grad, so a company would stand to save a hundreds of thousands of dollars by getting you to jump-start their project, plus they'd have the benefit of getting to market faster.

Ask a reputable friend or go to your advisor to figure out what a reasonable price for your first consulting gig might be. Specialized consultants (and your dissertation work would certainly be considered specialized) are routinely paid hundreds of dollars to upwards of a thousand dollars per hour. Be realistic, but also realize that you apparently have an in-demand skill set.

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    To topic starter: Asking for the consulting fee is a bad negotiation sttategy. It's much better to set the fee upfront based on own provided value analysis. Don't hesitate to start above your desired price tag -- your potential clients will likely bring it down during negotiation process anyway. The fact they contacted you is a reliable indicator they want you and your price tag will be more attractive than the cost of doing the same work as you. Use this as a leverage – Igor Soloydenko Jul 18 '17 at 0:19
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    If you do decide to go the consultancy route, don't let the company turn a meeting on "contract negotiation" into "so tell us more about your research". – David K Jul 18 '17 at 12:29
  • @IgorSoloydenko. That is good advice also because anything with a price tag is immediately perceived as being more valuable by the human mind. – Mad Physicist Jul 18 '17 at 16:11
  • Also, if unsure of how much to charge, forbes.com/sites/michaelellsberg/2014/09/19/… has a good rule of thumb: your "happy price" is the price where you'd be genuinely happy to do the job for that sum of money. You may want to make sure that you ask for at least that much, rather than a "whatever price" or a "sad price". – Kaj_Sotala Jul 20 '17 at 9:01
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There's nothing strange about it, you are doing some research, they want to know more about it. Usually PhD theses are made available by the institution anyway, but you are probably also taking some public funds in which case you kind of have an obligation to share with the public the discoveries you made using their tax money, instead of guarding it as a secret.

But maybe for whatever reason you don't want to say, that's also fine. You're not really obligated to, even if somebody contacts you about reproducing your paper I think you don't have to cooperate (although if you choose not to obviously it doesn't look great, and also is harmful to science as a whole).

As for handling the email, depends on what you want.

  1. If you want it to go away, you can ignore it.
  2. If you want to refuse nicely, you can write a politely worder letter saying "no".
  3. If you want money, reply and say "I'll do it for $X" (I'd make sure this is okay with university policy and such first).
  4. If you're worried about seeming greedy, you can innocently ask "I just wanted to clarify, are you offering to compensate me for some kind of consultancy or just asking?"
  5. If you just want credit, put a copyright notice on everything, and say top the company "I don't mind explaining it but keep in mind that it is copyrighted so you should attribute it" - although university policy usually regulates intellectual property rights

If you're doing anything except the 1 and 2, you want to check with the legal services or other appropriate office in your university first, because as I said, typically you are not the only one who gets a say in what is done with your work.

  • "but you are probably also taking some public funds in which case you kind of have an obligation to share with the public the discoveries you made using their tax money" -- is this a legal obligation or just common sense obligation? – developerwjk Jul 17 '17 at 22:29
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    Even if there are public funds involved, the Ph.D. candidate's only obligation is to publish the dissertation. There's no obligation to spend hours explaining one's work; if someone wants that, they should pay for it. – Bob Brown Jul 18 '17 at 4:08
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    The public funds one takes during a Ph.D. obligate one to do the work of the Ph.D. and make it public (the OP stated that the work has been published). This answer implies that scholars have form of indefinite indentured servitude not shared by other public servants. Nobody would expect a retired fire-fighter to continue fighting fires in the neighborhoods they once accepted public funds to protect; why would we expect scholars who have ceased to take public funds for scholarly work to continue to do free scholarly labor? – nben Jul 20 '17 at 13:58
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PhD theses as publicly funded and vetted work should be ultimately reproducible for someone well-versed in the field, not secret. The party responsible for ensuring this are the people grading your work.

Any deficiencies in that respect may be reflected in your grades. That's where the buck stops for you.

Any consulting on your work you do for outside companies will not get reflected in your grade. If your work is deficient regarding its applicability and reproducibility, you cannot fix any of the consequences for you in that manner.

So you are basically asked for independent expertise. A reasonable approach is to let all the costs for your talk and an appropriate fee be paid by the company and answer questions regarding how your work could be used for their purposes, basically saving them the time for a thorough evaluation and initial guess as to its usefulness for their purposes. If they are going to actually use it for their purposes, they would be foolish not to hire you as the leading expert for doing that work as long as you are fresh on the market and for that reason comparatively affordable while your work is not actively further developed elsewhere.

Make sure you are reasonably paid for your effort and expertise and do them to the best of your ability. That is: if you are actually interested in followup offers. If not, it's basically a tossup. Do what you consider worthwhile, refuse other stuff.

Make sure to set your conditions such that if no followup offer comes, you don't feel cheated.

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    First sentence is inexact, as PhD thesis can be partially, or even totally privately funded. Some are even not funded at all (so they basically are privately funded by the student himself). – cedbeu Jul 17 '17 at 22:17
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    I don't know how it is in other countries, but in the US PhD theses aren't graded like an essay. They either satisfy the requirement or they don't. You don't get any points, just a degree. – Matt Samuel Jul 18 '17 at 0:44
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    @Matt Samuel In certain other countries, PhD theses are graded like an essay. In some countries and in certain fields, there might be even strong traditions related to the grades. For example, in some areas best grades are reserved for truly the best and things such as grammatical errors or imperfections in the thesis might result in a reduced grade. In other societies, the committee is expected to give the best grade for any OK-ish thesis and not getting the best grade is considered a big disgrace. Then, there's the whole story of ow big impact the grade actually makes in later career. – AndrejaKo Jul 18 '17 at 12:06
  • @AndrejaKo interesting. In the US, you're given feedback on grammar and the like and you correct your dissertation until the committee is satisfied, then they accept it. There's no grade, it's just accepted that in a large body of work, some such errors will escape the review of the student and his/her advisor and peer reviewers and that such errors don't have any bearing on the quality of the work. – iheanyi Jul 18 '17 at 19:47
  • Publicly vetted and funded? Where do you do your PhD D:? – Please stop being evil Jul 19 '17 at 2:16
2

I'm glad you are finding my research useful! I'd be happy to meet and discuss the published paper and what you're trying to accomplish.

At the meeting do not reveal anything that isn't explicitly already said in the paper. Don't worry about signing an NDA at this point, or entering into a contract.

This is important, because you want to establish a relationship and rapport, and further you'd like to find out what application they are using your research in and how it applies. At this point you both need to gain more understanding and determine if this is something you can work together on, and in what way.

If they press for details, indicate that you need an NDA, and a contract, and perhaps discuss the various ways you might be able to offer your services.

Take copious notes during the meeting - who did you meet, what they said, what you said. This may become important later if there's a legal question or problem.

Then work on an arrangement you can both be happy with. If they aren't willing to enter into a contract or pay you for detailed information, you aren't out anything. If they are, then this is the best way to ensure you have a good start to the relationship.

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This sounds more like an opportunity than anything else. Don't let your doubts stop you from profiting off this.

No personal experience in your specific matter, but I would suggest before you do anything(as long as this applies), file a provisional utility patent with the USPTO. You obviously have something new on your hands that this company wants.

If this company wants to take your product to market, your best bet is to discuss your involvement in terms of a consultancy position(pay check 1), as well as make them sign a leasing contract in order to monetize your hard work(pay check 2).

Remember, always look at for #1. That's you.

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For what it is worth, I have a colleague who, after completing his Phd, applied for a patent on an important breakthrough application of his research in medical diagnostics.

While the patent was still pending, he was approached by a large company to get more details on his inventions and research. He took all the precautions, like a non-circumvention agreement, and non-disclosure agreement. Then in several meetings with the technical staff of the company he described in not too much detail his invention and research. I don't recall if he was paid for these consultations.

He didn't hear again from this company for 3 years. Then he was surprised to learn about new products this company brought to market that were based on his invention and research. By this time he was granted several patents by the US Patent and Trademark office, which were still pending back when he dealt with the company.

Long story short, he sued the company with his attorneys working on a contingency basis as they were confident they had a winnable case. After 9 years of litigation, the company never settled despite the plaintiff offering very attractive settlement and patent licensing terms. The company chose to spend much more money in litigation costs than to settle with and pay the man they stole the invention from. The judge at the first circuit court of appeals, ruled in favor of the defendant. My colleague never got justice.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Never talk to anyone until you have a granted patent, not just patent pending.

  2. Even then, make sure you are protected by enforceable contracts, non-disclosures, etc. that are drafted by an attorney experienced in these matters and customized for your case.

  3. If possible, arrange the meeting with this company at your attorney's office.

  4. Don't trust anyone upfront. Trust has to be earned.

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    It's not at all obvious what the advantage of a "granted" as opposed to "pending" patent is. If the exploiter is going to breach non-circumvention agreements and litigate rather than settle, there is not a lot you can do. If the judge ruled in their favour, maybe your colleague was mistaken in his view of how much was your colleague's invention. – Martin Bonner supports Monica Jul 21 '17 at 10:29
  • I don't think my colleague's attorney firm would have taken the case on a contingency fee basis if they didn't think there was a considerable threshold for infringement. I posted this answer to illustrate an example of the level of ethical and moral integrity these corporations, and a corrupt legal system. – 0tyranny 0poverty Jul 21 '17 at 12:14
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Accept the invitation as "a chance to discuss mutual interests" Find out from them exactly why they are interested. i.e. to define what their problem is. You are trying to find out if there is a match between what they need and what you have done, but you are not going to reveal anything that is not in your thesis, except for incidental stuff. If it emerges that there is a match, remark on that, with whatever degree of enthusiasm you feel is appropriate, and then ask them, so where do we go from here? They are then left to propose some form of collaboration, consultancy or employment and you negotiate from there. In brief, plan how YOU can be in charge of what happens.

Your university probably has rules about much time you can devote/ money you can accept under various arrangements. Become familiar with these before the meeting

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