A soft job market and regular assaults on public funding for higher education have characterized my entire academic career. If my own experiences are in any way typical, it’s not much of a speculation to say that the financial pressures exerted upon higher education have significantly hurt morale among faculty at many of our universities. While not universally true, many of us are underpaid compared to historic averages for the profession. In my own case, the combination of stagnant wages in the University of North Carolina System and modest annual inflation over the past five years means that my real wages have fallen significantly in the time since I began my appointment. The same is true for my colleagues, and particularly for my colleagues in the non-tenure-track ranks, for whom this passive wage deflation is especially painful.
In this environment it can be easy to forget that our expertise and our experience have value. Real value. Our expertise is worth actual money.
And I want to encourage you not to give away your expertise for free. Or, to only give away your expertise in very deliberate ways.
I’ve been somewhat surprised since taking up my current faculty position by how many out-of-the-blue solicitations for help I get from private companies and would-be entrepreneurs. What I’ve come to realize, though, is that very few of the inquiries I receive are serious.
I quickly noticed that: 1) such inquirers will suck up as much of your time as you allow them to; 2) they often expect to get your expertise for free, as though the flattery of having consulted you is payment enough; 3) having a fee schedule in place prevents you from wasting your time on overenthusiastic idea floaters; and 4) you might actually make money from those solicitations that are serious and arrive from legitimate corporations or businesspeople.
Some faculty positions have built into the appointment the expectation that the faculty member will consult with the public as part of regular job duties -- some agricultural programs come to mind -- in which case it would not be appropriate to charge for such services. Presumably there is a difference demarcated between such expected and routine consultations and other types that might constitute appropriate freelance work. If there are several things that most universities are careful about, they probably include money, intellectual property rights and work for hire. Your university likely has established guidance for such situations and how to differentiate between those services that are part of your expected position and those that go beyond your employer’s expectations.
It’s important to note the difference, too, between consulting work and simply communicating with the press. No press outlet with any integrity is going to pay for your thoughts. While it may be time-consuming, agreeing to share your expertise with a press outlet is another matter entirely, and, if handled properly, can be a boon for both you and your employer.
Disciplinary differences in attitudes towards money and taking outside consulting work vary considerably. Some humanities disciplines seem to take the attitude that it is gauche or crass to take on consulting work. These attitudes, however, are ridiculous, and explain some of the marginalization to which humanities discipline seem to be relegating themselves. While not all consulting work is responsible and ethical, it certainly can be, and is not, as some might imply, something that automatically compromises one’s integrity. It depends on what work you’re doing, and whom you’re doing it for, and under what terms. In other disciplines, such as those related to business, it is almost strange if teacher-scholars do not have some outside consulting endeavors related to their expertise. The thought is, I believe, that such endeavors keep one in touch with the “real world” and might even enlighten one’s scholarly and teaching duties.
If you work for a public institution, there are very likely conflict of interest disclosures that you must file when you take on outside consulting work. Generally these disclosures are intended to prevent faculty members from undertaking work that might unduly influence their decisions related to teaching and university operations. Imagine, for example, a faculty member who encourages his university to adopt an expensive software package sold by a company in which he has a significant financial interest.
The other thing that public universities look for in such disclosures is an assurance that the outside work you take on will not interfere with your primary teaching, scholarly and service duties. Your day job, so to speak, must be the primary focus of your attention. Some institutions have limits on the number of hours one can work in a consulting capacity (particularly during the academic year, if you are on a nine-month appointment).
A final source of potential conflict that your employer will look for is to see if any university resources might be inappropriately used in your own private consulting or contract work. Generally speaking, rules prohibiting the use of publicly funded equipment, materials, software and spaces for private enterprise are quite strict.
Simply establishing a fee schedule for yourself and actually cultivating a consulting business are quite different enterprises. Establishing a regular consulting service requires considerably more work -- work that extends well beyond the purview of the thoughts I’m offering in this column. Establishing a fee schedule, however, is relatively straightforward and will help you to cull out those nonserious inquiries for help that you might receive from time to time. You might simply set the fee schedule yourself, or you might do some research among other experts within your discipline and locale to find out what the going rates are for others with related expertise and experience. In either case, I think that a fee schedule should be high enough to weed out nonserious inquiries, and high enough that if someone does want to retain your services the work will be, quite literally, worth your time.
At times you may have the opportunity to lend your expertise to nonprofits or charitable causes that you are sympathetic toward. In my own case, I would not charge a consulting fee to a charitable cause that I identify with. But I would also need to set firm boundaries regarding how much work I could offer, as charitable organizations are in constant need of help and the work, without established boundaries, could quickly become overwhelming. If you have an established consulting practice, such donations of time and expertise might be tax deductible (don’t take my word for it -- consult your accountant). So, indirectly, even the altruistic sharing of your expertise may have a financial value for you when tax season arrives.
Just because your expertise has value -- just because it is too precious and too preciously won to give away for free -- does not necessarily mean that you will be able to sell your expertise in the form of consulting or other services. Experts with effective consulting practices tend to be extremely well networked both within their discipline and with relevant industries. They fill very specific knowledge niches, and they have worked hard to build up a client base. However, being prepared when an inquiry arrives will protect you from those who would only waste your time, and may provide you with opportunities to generate additional income while simultaneously improving private sector endeavors with your hard-won knowledge.
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