Many people take on consulting to earn extra money, but seldom think of consequences it can have on the rest of your life. After all, consulting gives you the flexibility to set your own hours and not have to report to an office. So, why should it be a burden?
In the world of consulting, you often get more than you bargained for, particularly with needy clients, ever-stretching project requirements, and an overall lack of communication between client and consultant.
On the other hand, consulting can bring you a steady stream of part- or full-time income, a flexible work program that is under your control, and the prestige of building your portfolio within your field or in a different field, which can be highly advantageous to your resume.
So, how do you know how much consulting is a good idea and when it becomes too much?
Have a Plan But Don't Be Stuck to It
After finishing my Ph.D. in 2005, I knew I didn’t want to teach but wanted a research-oriented position. Somewhat by chance, I ended up at an education research firm for four years that I quickly disliked. So, two and a half years ago, I quit this job with the plan of pursuing full-time freelance writing and consulting. Before I knew it, I was operating as a consulting project manager for a company that wanted me to help manage their freelance writers but didn't give me the flexibility to set any of my own rules and guidelines. Frustrated, I decided to start my own company to run things my own way and under my own vision.
I didn’t exactly plan on becoming an entrepreneur. But it turned out to be one of the best professional decisions I ever made. Allowing myself to be flexible and not fixed to independent freelancing encouraged me to take the initiative to go into business for myself, which, in the end, was more lucrative than going completely solo.
Negotiate But Be Prepared to Wait
One of the most important things to remember with consulting is that your opinion matters. Even when you sign a contract to do a specific task or project, contracting with a company is a two-way street. If you’re not happy with the arrangement or if project specifications or conditions have shifted, then you have the right to complain. Of course, be forewarned that business negotiations do take time and are not always pretty.
For the past year and a half, I have had a challenging relationship with a major publisher that has forced me to learn quickly how to stand up for my own business interests. This client has provided a relatively steady stream of income for my consultants and me, but the people there have proved to be incredibly frustrating to work with. Shifting guidelines, jam-packed schedules, and poor management led to inevitable problems on both sides of projects. We made mistakes, but so did my client, only they didn’t quite own up to it. They never quite understood that it is nearly impossible to achieve a quality product when you’re dealing with consultants who feel buried under multiple deadlines with a confused idea of what they should be doing.
Consider Your Time Carefully
When hiring consultants, the first thing I do is to consider a candidate’s job/life situation and how much time he or she may have to complete the work at hand. Recently, I have had an issue with people signing up for projects and dropping out a few weeks in, claiming that they didn’t fully realize what a time commitment the project would be. While this is in part the freedom of consulting, it can also be its death knell, as I’d never hire any of these dropout writers again.
If you are trying to decide whether or not to take on consulting, consider your available time on a daily basis as well as a monthly basis. Are you willing to commit weekends? How many free hours do you actually have? Will the project include periods of revision after your main work is complete? Are there hidden elements in the project that may eat away your time?
Getting clarity on project specifications and asking lots of questions up front can save both you and your potential client a lot of time and energy. If you’re serious about consulting, then you need to be prepared to donate a good chunk of your time to the task at hand. Yes, you get the flexibility of working on your own schedule, but within the parameters and end deadline of your assignment. Be respectful of your clients and the project requirements, as they are likely on a tight schedule and have their own deadlines to meet.
Do What You Know
When you’re first consulting, staying within or around your field of expertise is a smart way to begin. Once you’ve established a comfort level with taking on extra work, then begin to expand your horizons to other industries, as it feels comfortable.
As academics, we’re taught that we can do basically anything, since we have the ability to define a topic, research and assimilate information, and write it up in an efficient, if not always compelling, manner. This is the skill set that makes an academic the perfect consultant on paper. However, it can also be a recipe for disaster when you attempt to take on work with which you’re not quite familiar.
Indeed, the biggest mistake you can make as a consultant is taking on work that you either can’t do or can’t finish. Like lying on your resume, claiming expertise that you don’t possess as a consultant is pointless. Someone will figure it out, particularly when you’re called to write, speak or research on a topic that is totally alien to you on a schedule where everything feels like it was due yesterday.
That said, if you’ve got a diverse set of interests, indulge yourself as you have the time and look for work across fields. It is highly rewarding and can open up new career directions that you didn’t expect.
For my part, I have made the decision to take a break from running a company and return to full-time freelance work myself. I am burned out from dealing with consultants and tricky clients, never mind from the busy-ness of having a nearly one-year-old baby at home.
But I have mainly missed the freedom and focus of writing on assignment in my preferred fields, which are fashion and the humanities. I am hoping that a return to independent consulting will give me the surge of inspiration that I need to feel professionally energized and happy again.
Jessica Quillin  is a writer, brand strategist, and marketing consultant. She received her Ph.D. in English from the University of Cambridge and has an extensive list of publications across a variety of industries. Her first book, Shelley and Musico-Poetics of Romanticism , is now available from Ashgate Publishing.