• October 24, 2014

When Faculty Consulting Helps -- and When It Hurts -- Your Career

Both beginning and experienced science faculty members have much to gain in developing consulting relationships with government and industry. In addition to being a good reality check, such arrangements can be an excellent source of ideas, data, and problems, as well as extra money.

As Hau Lee, a professor of industrial engineering at Stanford University and a consultant to numerous corporations and government agencies, puts it: "There is tremendous wisdom and experience out there."

Consulting also enables professors to say to students and colleagues that they have seen the workings of government and industry. It gives them more credibility while providing them with an important window on what is truly relevant.

Consulting and other industry collaborations can also provide a faculty member with research support, additional income, and help with the placement of students.

At the same time, a variety of concerns about faculty consulting have surfaced in recent years. The central concern, according to Carol M. Boyer and Darrell R. Lewis of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, is whether consulting leads faculty members to shirk their other university responsibilities. (Their study was published in 1986, but their conclusions are as timely as ever.)

The basis for such concern, they say, is not with the earning of supplemental income per se, but with the earning of supplemental income on university time -- what some observers perceive as "double dipping."

Ms. Boyer and Mr. Lewis go on to note, however, that faculty members who consult teach as many courses, devote as much of their professional work time to teaching and research, and are as active in departmental and institutional governance as their peers who do not consult.

Professor Lee, who has led seminars for Stanford professors on the pros and cons of consulting, has some important advice for faculty members who wish to add consulting to their already full academic plate:

The key is to do it well. Leverage your consulting work toward research and teaching goals, learn from your mistakes, develop the right ethical principles, and maintain the discipline that enables you to use these activities to further your teaching and research.

This advice is particularly relevant for new faculty members. Ph.D.'s and postdocs are guided mostly by their advisers in terms of what research to do. As beginning professors they are responsible for selecting their own topics and research direction. Working with government and industry can provide junior faculty members with insights that can help them determine their own research emphasis.

Yet, young faculty members should not move too fast with arrangements outside the university structure. By all means they should not consult only for financial gain; they simply don't have the time.

In particular, new faculty members should stay away from such things as expert-witness assignments, which often take place in stressful courtroom environments where their expertise is constantly under challenge from opposing counsel, or pure service assignments such as debugging software programs, which do nothing for their teaching or scholarship.

If new faculty members choose to do consulting, Mr. Lee offers them these recommendations:

  • Abide by university regulations and make sure the work does not interfere with teaching and research

  • Choose subjects within their areas of expertise and interests

  • Set up guidelines for pricing (e.g., travel time, teaching, initial meetings) but be prepared to be flexible if needed

  • Always look for teaching and other scholarship opportunities through such engagements

  • Spell out clearly the terms of confidentiality and publication rights

  • Work with people who have strong interests in the success of the project

Keep in mind that it is usually the better-known senior professors who are hired for their expertise as consultants. Young professors are more likely to be engaged for their research capabilities in a particular area.

Rather than go outside the university to consult with companies, it is often better for new professors to bring work into the university through research contracts or unrestricted gift funds from industry. With this approach everything is above board, which is particularly important if students are involved, where even the appearance of a conflict of interest should be avoided.

When engaging in such arrangements, Professor Lee advises that faculty members make sure there is an explicit delineation between sponsored research and gift funds. The latter are usually for less-defined research activity in the general area of the faculty member's expertise, while the former requires specific research "deliverables" according to a timetable.

There are a number of ways to get started with consulting and other industry projects. Former advisers, and even former student colleagues, can be good sources. As time goes on, former students and postdocs will provide contacts, as will liaisons from industry. Word-of-mouth, publications and presentations, referrals by colleagues, and even cold calls into the university have led to consulting arrangements for many professors.

Consulting has many benefits for both faculty members and their institutions. Done with the appropriate care, most professors will agree with the conclusion reached by Yasemin Aksoy of Tulane University that "consulting motivates, exhilarates, and reinforces the academic spirit. It becomes a strategic alliance between university and industry."

Richard M. Reis is director for academic partnerships at the Stanford University Learning Laboratory, and author of Tomorrow's Professor: Preparing for Academic Careers in Science and Engineering, available from IEEE Press or the booksellers below. He is also the moderator of the biweekly Tomorrow's Professor Listserve, which anyone can subscribe to by sending the message [subscribe tomorrows-professor] to Majordomo@lists.stanford.edu

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