Starting Out as a Consultant


I’m considering leaving my position at the end of the academic year. I’m overwhelmed with thinking about what comes next, but I have done some consulting work in the past and might be able to do more of it in the future. 

What I’d love to know from folks who have already done it is, how do I start off as a consultant? In particular, I feel like there’s a lot to learn in setting up a small business, marketing myself as a consultant and getting people to pay me for this. I know I could do the work and have done a few odd projects here and there, but I’m struggling with how I might ramp that up into a full time business that supports me. I just don’t know how people find enough clients. 

What do people do to get enough work to make ends meet? Are there folks who have successfully made the transition from academic to consultant/small business owner? If so, what did you do to get there? 

-  Considering Consulting 

Hi, Considering Consulting! 

How one starts consulting will depend, I think, on the industry you want to consult for. I’m a UX consultant, but I don’t have my own business, per se. I’m an independent, I have not incorporated my business at all, and I file my taxes as an individual. I’ve talked with a lot of other consultants/freelancers, and they’re mixed on the value of incorporating. I know that isn’t the heart of your question, but I found it useful to hear from others about incorporating or not when I was first considering going out on my own. 

As for how to find clients and sustain yourself, there’s a couple things I’d recommend doing. First, find out what your true monthly spending is. Incorporate everything--fun, housing, medical, etc. Do some research on how much insurance will cost you as an independent (if you’re in the USA and not married/not on someone else’s medical insurance) and factor that in. Remember that consultants/freelancers get no PTO or sick leave, so factor that into your calculation as well. 

Once you have your baseline budget, figure out how much you’d need to make per hour to meet that budget. 

Once you’ve figured out your rates, think about the kind of client you’d like to have. Maybe at the beginning you take what you can get as you build your reputation or maybe you have enough other stable income that you can be more picky. Have an ideal client in mind regardless, because it will help you target the folks who might want to hire you. This will also make it easier to network. Networking will be key to finding clients. Go to meetup events, industry events, spaces where your prospective clients might be and make connections. Like all networking, it probably won’t end up in work right away, but it will pay dividends in the future. You’re growing relationships with these folks so they think of you when they need work done. 

Once you’ve done a little work for people, if they’re happy with you, they will tell their colleagues! Referrals are gold when it comes to building your client base. Eventually, you will have to start saying no to people who would like you to do work for them, which is a great problem to have! :) 

This is basically what I did--I made connections in the community, proved myself with my work, and I keep getting work thrown at me. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t lean times where there’s less coming in than I’d like, but you get to a point where you can save for that and still be comfortable in the leaner times. 

Good luck! 

  • Abby Bajuniemi 

Dear Considering Consulting,

The most important thing that I did when starting out as a freelance academic editor was telling my entire professional and social network about it. I set up a website and basically sent a mass email/mass social media update telling everyone that I’m now an editor for hire. My website listed my services and rates; something that people have told me they liked a lot because it offered transparency. Almost right away, people started hiring me or referring their students and colleagues to me. I made sure to blog regularly and keep people updated on my progress as I took editing courses, attended my first editing conferences, etc. I also collected testimonials on my website, which contributed to my credibility. 

Another thing that is really important is to find your community of colleagues. I have received steady support from and found a community in editor colleagues, or “edibuddies” as we call each other. I’m a member of several Facebook groups where editors share advice and experiences. I’m also a member of several professional editing associations like Editors Canada and the SfEP, which again makes me more credible in the eyes of potential clients and provides training opportunities as well as networking events in the form of workshops, conferences, and discussion forums. Therefore, I really recommend looking for a local or virtual community of colleagues, because I have received invaluable advice through these. Some of my colleagues have referred work to me (and I to them). Freelancing can get lonely, so it’s lovely to have a community, even if it’s virtual (and you will then have friends across the globe to visit!).

I have been able to support myself from the money I make, but when I first started out, I moved in with my father in order to keep costs low (this took about six months). I also recommend volunteering for some assignments, for example consulting for a non-profit, so you can get some experience on your CV and perhaps some references/testimonials for your website. Is it perhaps also an idea to attend conferences where your potential clients hang out, bring a stash of business cards, and meet them? Or are there any Twitter chats you can attend or hashtags you can follow? Can you interact with potential clients in other ways? 

Finally, I recommend cold-emailing companies and people through a targeted LinkedIn search. For this, you need to know who your ideal client is, and how much they should be able to pay.

There are many resources out there that can help you get started and run a successful business. I like the podcast Deliberate Freelancer, where Melanie Padgett Powers, an editor, talks about how she grew her business and found high-paying clients. There is a lot of other valuable advice on marketing your business, so do read! You can definitely do this! There are clients out there, but they have to know that you exist, that you are reliable, and that they can hire you!

-- Marieke Krijnen,

From my experience I can share that there is much more research work out there for consultants than academics are generally aware of. I left academia in the European context, so I've had the luxury of being covered by unemployment benefits while doing the groundwork to profile myself as an expert, creating the necessary visibility and reaching out to my dream clients (organisations). 

I joined an association of professional anthropologists (mostly doing marketing research) and I'm doing my consulting work through a cooperative, hence I'm surrounded by others who don't exactly do what I do, but who in one way or the other can relate to what I do. It's been refreshing to learn from and with these new colleagues.

Something else I'd love to share: Leaving academia has been a time when I could finally let go of neoliberal market language. In fact the very reason I decided to leave academia, was that I wanted to ground my work in values again. A book that greatly helped to prepare me for my post-academic life is "What Colour Is Your Parachute?" A few questions that might help: What drives you? Why do you do what you do? What would you do if you didn't even have to earn money? 

It can be anxiety provoking (in fact it is) to jump into a new field, but I found new encounters and a deep awareness of what I really have to contribute that eventually gave good contracts for the first 18 months of consulting.

  • Anonymous 

How to Convey the Academic Skill Set Outside the Academy

I'd love to get some advice about how to explain and describe my academic skillset in the world outside of the academy. Are there some tricks for how to easily convey the skills I honed while in grad school and completing my PhD? I've had some success so far, but still I find that I'm not as succinct as I could be when trying to explain that my skills are transferable to so many other sectors.

- Transferrable



Dear Transferrable, 

First off, as you’ll read from my colleagues below, this is gonna take some translation work, but there’s a lot of great advice in here to start. 

My favorite trick is to figure out what problem I would enjoy solving with the skills that I have and then try to talk to folks who have that problem. The goal is to learn how they talk about solving it. All too often the language we use inside academia to talk about our skills is not the same as the language used in industry. This means that our skills are there, but we have to figure out how to tell people that we can do this work for them. 

For instance, editors can solve a lot of problems with their work. They could help people or organizations tell their stories in a more compelling way. They could help someone make a more coherent argument. They can help folks who speak English as a second language. They can also make sure there are no typoes or that the citations are in the right order. These are slightly different problems to solve and while you may feel as though you can solve all of them, they may be talked about in different ways. 

I often help scientists and folks in tech who are trying to figure out answers to problems that they may find in the data but where the data can’t tell them the solution. Sometimes this is called market research or user experience research or consulting or design thinking. Regardless of what it’s called, it still uses the same skills I learned in academia: mixed methods research. 

Another way to figure this out is to imagine you’re talking to a super helpful and well connected person at a cocktail party who is absolutely going to connect you with someone who you want to work with. Who is it that you want them to connect you with? Asking them to connect you to “someone who needs an editor” is very different from “ a bilingual scientist who need support in editing their scientific papers” or “a woman who is trying to make her social media tone more easygoing.” The more precise you are with this super connected person, the more likely it is you’ll get to talk to the person you want to talk to and help them solve their problems. 

Hope these answers help give you a way to gain these translation skills! 

  • Beth Duckles 

I think one of the hardest parts about describing your skillset, or more broadly, your value, to the world outside of the academy is learning to speak the language of whoever you’re talking to, and describing your skills in that language. There is no one size fits all rule for this. I’d recommend making contacts in the industries you are interested in, and then asking them to help you translate yourself.  

Another tip is to go on LinkedIn, search for people who are in roles and industries you are interested in, and see what words they use to describe themselves. Ideally, follow up by contacting those people, and as part of an informational interview, see if they can explain to you what common phrases really mean in their industry. It’s especially helpful if you can talk to multiple people, and see if you get the same answers. 

It also will be difficult to have an intuitive sense of what words and phrases common to other industries really mean. Without realizing it, you’ve developed deep connotations of words and phrases that are common in your field, which also will not mean much to people in a different industry. The same will be true for people in the industry or industries you are interested in. Learning what these words and phrases are and what they connote may help you to be more succinct, which is probably why they develop in the first place: they mean so much, but can be quickly conveyed, and also are code for “I am familiar with this industry, and thus I belong”. 

An example: I now work as a quantitative researcher, and one phrase I really struggled with, and never did understand before I left academia, was “data driven”. In my academic field, everything was data driven, and I suspect that is true in one way or another in most academic fields (academics hold each other to some standard of evidence for an argument). After about 6 months out of academia, I started to get that the reason “data driven” is so important is that for many industries, using numerical evidence to base strategic decisions on is fairly novel.  While I might still secretly think the phrase is faddish and somewhat ridiculous, now I get why it is important.  

When I was first trying to convert my CV to a resume, it really helped me think of this as a translation exercise. It helped that I actually did translation work as a side job in grad school and am a linguist. The first thing I tried to do was take a list of the responsibilities I held in the academy and tried to really explain to myself what those things really mean. 

For example, teaching: 1. Project management (yours and your students’--making sure deadlines are met and your assignments fit in the timeline of the course). 2. People management (making sure everyone has what they need to succeed) 3. Making complex information understandable to a non-expert audience, etc. 

So once I had that list, I then did two things: 1. I scoured job ads in the field(s) I wanted to explore and paid attention to the language used for the skills they wanted. 2. I did lots of informational interviewing and networking to learn the vocabulary of field(s) I wanted to try to enter. It’s really like learning a new language. You need to have the vocabulary before you can effectively communicate your skills to a new audience. 

It’s also an iterative process. You will be bad at it at first most likely, but it will get better as you learn more, become more comfortable, and are able to refine it to something you’re really happy with. 

Figuring out how to reframe your academic skills for audiences outside the academy takes thought and practice.  I’m glad you’ve found some success already. It sounds as if you might be trying to pitch your skills very broadly or to a very diverse audience, and this may be why you’re struggling to be more succinct in your answers. You can develop more than one answer about how you’ve honed your skills. 

How you frame an answer depends on who you’re speaking with and the context of the conversation. If you’re doing an informational interview or a job interview, you’ll need to have an answer that relates your skills to the needs of the industry/organization/job. However, if you’re speaking with people in more casual conversations, your answers can be more broad. For example, if you’ve studied social behavior in ants, and you’re talking with your neighbor, it might be enough to say “I learned a lot about social motivation in communities through my doctoral work studying ants’ social behavior.”  However, if you’re interviewing for a job in UX research, your answer should focus on the data collection, observation and assessment, and presentations that you did (or whatever the job description prioritizes). In the second example, your study of ant behavior is the example by which you explain how you acquired your skills; in the first example, your research is more of an interesting topic of conversation that prompts people to ask further questions.

When talking about your academic skills to a non academic audience, think also about the timing of your answers. Are you talking for more than 1-2 minutes? Try timing yourself answering a question about your academic skillset to see how long you’re actually speaking.  It may be your answers are longer or have more detail than many people want to hear. Also, use examples to ground your answers and help you avoid vague statements about your skills or ones that are too broad. When speaking to a non-specialist audience, you’ll need to avoid jargon and likely streamline details that are too audience-specific, but examples help illustrate how you built your skills and invite your audience to ask more questions.   

Finally, practice various answers until you feel comfortable explaining your skills.  Find willing friends and family to help you, or ask an Athena for help.