From Full Brain to Full Wallet: Planning Your Consulting Business

This is the eleventh article in the weekly Transitioning PhD Blog Series, which is almost complete, written by contributor Margy Thomas, PhD, owner of ScholarShape. If you’re contemplating a transition away from academia, sign up here if you want to be notified of these weekly posts.

What do you do if your head is crammed with knowledge and you are itching to actually do something with it in the wide-open world? And if you can’t stand the idea of having an employer boss you around? And if risk-taking thrills you more than it scares you?

My answer has long been and ever shall be, launch a consulting practice.

Becoming a consultant essentially means applying your specialized knowledge to the solving of clients’ problems—and getting paid for it. The term “consultant” is about as broad as the term “academic.” While academics are people in any field who research, write, and teach in proximity to higher education institutions, consultants are people with any type of expertise who monetize that expertise for individual clients.

Consultants serving businesses and nonprofits might help with anything from market research, to IT, to specialized types of writing (copywriting, SEO-optimized content writing, grant writing, technical report writing, or corporate communications). Consultants who work for private individuals may help with personal tasks, from wedding planning to closet organizing to managing investment portfolios, or may offer more career-focused services like resume writing, job search strategizing, or educational planning for college applicants. Basically, a “consultant” could be anyone who is hired to apply expertise (knowledge and skills) to fulfill specialized functions for organizations or individuals.

What all consultants have in common is that they are experts-in-action, making a living by solving others’ problems. Consultants can intervene at multiple points in the problem-solving process, from gathering and analyzing information to understand the client’s problem, to assessing possible solutions, to designing and implementing the solution that is deemed most feasible and effective. Some consultants engage in the whole process, while others intervene only at key strategic moments. Consultants’ work might involve conducting research, facilitating processes, analyzing and interpreting data, giving explanations and advice, or coaching individuals or groups toward their goals. Often a consultant’s work product is simplytargeted information and practical advice. A large part of a consultant’s value lies in bringing outside perspective to a problem. Consultants may work within consulting firms or be independent subcontractors with their own sole-proprietorships or LLCs.

For PhD-trained individuals who are imagining careers beyond academia, the concept of “consultant” provides a useful framework for thinking about how to turn their expertise into a solid living. Survey a range of consultants, and it’s mind-bottling how many ways creative PhDs are putting their knowledge and skills to good use. A chemist I know became a waste management consultant. A theater PhD I know developed interactive, educational theater productions for use in companies’ and nonprofits’ internal trainings. I’ve heard tell of linguists who became expert witnesses in legal cases. My yoga studio is owned by an anatomy PhD whose teaching and practice draw on her academic training in the body and its functioning. For my own consulting business, I drew on my doctoral studies in literature to develop methods for helping academics through the writing and publication process, and now scholars around the world book up my calendar weeks in advance. Whatever your expertise and whatever problems you’re interested in solving, it’s worth thinking broadly, obliquely, and intensively about what your work might look like.

As you start envisioning the consulting business you’re going to launch, here are four steps you can follow. (1) Identify the expertise that will form the basis of your consulting service. (2) Pinpoint the unmet need you can address using that expertise. (3) Design your consulting services. (4) Iteratively refine those services in light of your own learning and in response to changes in your clientele and the marketplace. This fourth step is one that never really ends – it hasn’t for me five years into my business, as you’ll learn if you read my bio below.

Step 1. Identifying Your Expertise: What You Know & What You Can Do

The first question for any prospective consultant is, what do you know? The second question is,what can you do with what you know? Consulting services are built on your knowledge and skills, and on the interplay between them: expertise. So, start by inventorying your various knowledge domains and skill sets. Consider four angles:

  • Your PhD Brain.What are the knowledge domains and skill sets that your PhD training has made available to you? (Note: I compiled a list of 100+ transferable PhD skills, printed in Chapter 6 of Karen Kelsky’s book The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide to Turning Your Ph.D. into a Job.)
  • Your Disciplinary Brain.What are the knowledge domains and skill sets that your training in your specific academic discipline/field has made available to you? Think in terms of both content and methodology.
  • Your Particular Scholarly Brain.What are the knowledge domains and skill sets that have been made available to you by your specific research project? Again, think in terms of both content and methodology.
  • Your Extra-Academic Brain.What knowledge and skills have you cultivated in your life beyond academia? Think of your non-academic professional experiences, domestic activities, hobbies, etc.

As you think about yourself from these four angles—as a person with a PhD, as a member of your discipline, as your unique scholarly self, and as a human being—consider the various bodies of knowledge you’ve amassed and skills you’ve accumulated. List 5 or 10 of your strongest or most compelling skill sets and 5 or 10 of your strongest or most compelling knowledge domains. You’ll need this list in the next section.

Step 2. Pinpointing the Problem to Solve 

What problems do you care about trying to solve? Of those problems, which are you actually equipped to address in some way, given your expertise? That is, what problems will you build your consulting service around? To pinpoint the problem that your consulting services will address, look over the list of knowledge domains and skill sets you made in Step 1. Think and free-write about how they intersect with each other. Work toward a 2- to 3-sentence summary of your expertise in a way that sounds compelling to you.

Then, brainstorm a list of industries where you could deploy your expertise to solve a specific problem. Try completing these two sentences in a few different ways for different industries:

  • My expertise is
  • One industry / type of organization / type of individual who has a problem or gap this expertise can solve is…

Now that you’ve generated a few ideas for problems to solve, dig a little deeper into each of these ideas. Regarding potential clients, ask: Who are they? Where are they, in terms of geography, life stage, and career? How are they currently trying to solve their problem? What else do you need to learn about them, in order to know how to help them? These are big questions, and answering them will require deep thought, extensive research, and conversations with people who are close to the problems you propose to address.

Once you have decided whose problem you’ll help with, and how, you can tailor your description of your expertise so that it demonstrates to potential clients that you can solve their problem.

Deciding on a problem to address with your consulting services will be a gradual process. Even as you proceed to the next step—designing your services—you’ll continue to refine and define your sense of the problem those services solve.

Step 3. Designing Your Solution: Targeted Consulting Services 

By identifying your expertise, who you’ll help, and the problem you’ll tackle, you lay the foundation for the crux of it all: designing your consulting services. Or more specifically, designing theprocesses by which you’ll deliver solutions to your clients. Here, I focus on the actual substance of your consulting processes, rather than on your (fairly domain-agnostic) administrative processes. The big questions are: what will your services look like, and how will you deliver them to clients?

The table below shows the consulting process, which I divide into 6 sub-processes: Initial Contact, Relationship Formation, Pre-Work, Work, Conveyance of Work Product, and Follow-Up. Apologies for giving such boring names to the sub-processes. Within each sub-process, you and the client complete designated activities. The most important phase is the fourth one, the Work stage (shown in lighter grayscale in the table below), which is when you actually create the work product. Try using this table as a framework as you begin to design your consulting processes. Questions in italics indicate areas for you to articulate as you clarify how your processes will look.

As you define and refine your consulting process, keep in mind that it is supported by administrative and business development processes such as marketing, accounting (e.g., billing and receiving), product creation, and others. These parts are often considered the boring parts of business, and may be outsourced to a Virtual Assistant or put off indefinitely.

Step 4. Iterating and Evolving

The steps I’ve outlined above might look all nice and linear, but don’t worry; the process is actually just as messy and difficult as academic research.  Developing a consulting service, like writing a scholarly manuscript, is a recursive process. Over time, you may shift focus to a different problem or population of clients, expand your scope to a larger problem, or narrow your focus to a specific aspect of your original problem.

To ensure you keep refining your consulting processes, take time to regularly assess the need for change. Periodically ask yourself how things are going and how you can improve. Are you enjoying the work? Have you discovered areas to tweak or gaps to fill? Have several competitors sprung up, thus creating the threat that your product will become a commodity? Maybe you need to add, remove, or alter a sub-process, or one of the activities within a sub-process. Maybe you need to evolve your solution. Whatever changes you may face in your business, your periodic self-assessments can be informed by external feedback from clients, from people who consider hiring you but choose not to, and from interested observers (colleagues, mentors, and friends).

Conclusion

If you have a PhD, you have specialized knowledge, skill sets, and training. Chances are that someone, somewhere, will pay you to put these resources to work for them. And the path to that work, in my experience and that of many other PhDs, is to launch a consulting practice. This creative form of self-employment enables us to design and develop new ways to apply our hard-won expertise to the solving of real problems.

About Margy Thomas, PhD

Margy Thomas, PhD, wrote this post on how to launch a consulting business while in the process of evolving her own consulting business, ScholarShape, from a concierge one-on-one writing support service for academics into a larger project that aims to equip all scholars with powerful self-help tools for crafting compelling research-based arguments. Her forthcoming book will walk scholars through the process of crafting their own personal guidance systems for navigating the writing process and producing manuscripts that genuinely move and enlighten readers.

For dispatches from Margy’s early years of entrepreneurship, check out her posts on The Professor Is In. She wrote on making peace with capitalism(also here), and on getting and keeping clients. She has also opined about academics creating academic-support businesses, and about defining her particular consulting service in relation to academic analogues. Please note that these posts are under her former name, Margy Thomas Horton, reflecting a change in marital status that shouldn’t be surprising to you given the hints she has already dropped about her risk tolerance and love of new beginnings.

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