Most UK academics have space in their workplan for a spot of consultancy. It can be a nice little earner, and keeps you in touch with what’s going on in your field. However, running a side business can also be time-consuming and fraught with peril: the good news is that at most universities, there is an internal consultancy arm that’s ready to help.
These range from a set of arrangements to follow for doing consultancy or knowledge transfer “on the books” with help from dedicated administrative staff, to full-fledged university-affiliated companies that actively encourage academics to set up shop as consultants.
The kinds of work you might undertake depend on your academic field, but could include:
- advising on proprietary technologies for a corporate client
- analysing a client’s products or materials
- expert witness testimony
- working on an outside scientific advisory board
- bidding for commercial projects put out to tender by public bodies or corporate partners
- specialist problem-solving for clients
- providing bespoke professional education on-site for clients
- developing and marketing a commercial product
In some cases these types of consultancy can eventually be developed into a “spin-out” business.
Why make it official?
Simon Freeman, Consultancy Manager at the University of Birmingham’s Alta Innovations consultancy arm, explained why academics may choose to undertake consultancy through the university instead of independently. ”An academic using [our services] benefits from: expertly negotiated fee rates, contract negotiation, professional indemnity insurance cover, Alta invoicing and securing payment on their behalf, use of the University’s name, and peace of mind that the contract has been dealt with appropriately,” he said. “We aim to take on the contractual and administrative burden, leaving the academic to concentrate on the technical aspects of the project.”
Drawbacks and cautions.
Freeman highlights the crucial areas of benefit, but there can be drawbacks. University-based consultancy is paid as if it’s additional salary, which can mean a big tax bite for those in higher earnings brackets. Setting up an outside business of your own can have significant tax advantages.
Also, some university departments have a long-standing tradition of expecting academics to contribute fees from consultancy to departmental research or other funds. This may or may not be an arrangement that appeals. In others, it can be difficult to get approval for any hours that are above your contracted allowance for such activities, even if the work will be done outside of normal work hours. And not all university-based consultancy support runs quickly and smoothly, which can be a problem when clients expect a fast response.
If you don't feel comfortable with drawing up contracts and pursuing invoices, that alone could make “official” consultancy preferable—although if the opportunities are lucrative, you could always contract with an external support service instead. Being able to trade under the name of your employer can give you a reputational boost, but can also reduce your own name’s prominence.
Either way, when opportunity knocks it’s worth considering the possibilities.