While postdocs and young faculty members might be at the bottom of the career totem pole, that does not mean they can't reap the benefits of their training early on. Peter Fiske, co-founder of the technology company RAPT Industries and author of a book on career development for scientists called Put Your Science To Work, says young scientists should consider technical consulting as part of their career paths from the moment they have their graduate degrees in hand.
"It goes far beyond just supplementing income," Fiske says. "There are really exciting ways in which consulting can play a strategic element in developing a research program as well as a developing support for a research program. So no matter where you go, consulting is in your future. Technical consulting opportunities for scientists is something that is growing and growing."
He does not recommend full-time consulting, but rather suggests seizing opportunities as they come along, or as time permits during a hectic academic schedule. To be sure, freelance consulting is no easy task for the young investigator who's trying to climb the tenure-track ladder, but it's well worth the effort, Fiske adds.
Beyond the potential extra income, reasons to consider technical consulting include broadening your network of contacts and work experience (both of which can fill out a light CV), that it can be intellectually stimulating, and that it could be the way of the future as companies increasingly seek cheap access to intellectual capital on campus, in place of hiring a team of scientists to work in-house.
Sometimes the only thing that stands in the way of a consulting opportunity is the belief that such an endeavor is out of reach for someone just starting out. "There are a range of consulting opportunities where one is lending one's technical expertise to a company that may not have the right expertise in-house or consulting around legal questions involving intellectual property," Fiske says. "Somebody with a technical background could provide advice to a company considering acquiring technology, or a legal team could engage a consultant to pick apart the technical arguments."
One of the reasons young researchers might have trouble seeing their own potential as consultants is because of what Fiske calls the "insidious infantilization" of students in graduate school, during which time they are constantly reminded of all the things they do not yet know. Another problem, he says, is that graduate students and postdocs are trained to be experts on specific subjects, rather than broadly trained, creative problem solvers.
"A lot of young scientists come out of graduate school feeling like they don't know anything that could be applied productively in a commercial setting," Fiske says. "Well, the fact is that young scientists are often the people who are the closest to the latest technology and can often be the most insightful in a consulting role about how to apply a certain technology to solve a certain problem."
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So how do you go about finding technical consulting opportunities? For starters, Fiske recommends tapping into an established PI or advisor's network for possible leads and keeping a close eye on technology vendors in the field. In addition, attending conferences or expos — and shaking lots of hands — helps build your contacts. And, of course, getting your research published does not hurt. Some university departments or labs have pre-existing industrial affiliate programs and often receive calls from companies looking for talent, so it helps to make it known that you are open to those opportunities.
Ultimately, it all depends upon how much energy you want to put into seeking opportunities, but they are there if you look hard enough. "Any business development in the private sector all depends on how hungry you are, but some companies are really eager to commercialize their technology," Fiske says. "So if you have a field of research that might be in a new technology, you could contact a company that is working on developing that technology and collaborate with them, whereby they provide you with their technology for free. Money doesn't change hands, but it gives the company an opportunity to work with researchers and get feedback."
Harry Greenberg, senior associate dean at the Stanford University School of Medicine and director of the Stanford Center for Clinical and Translational Education and Research, recommends a non-aggressive approach to technical consulting. He prefers to let opportunities arise as a result of his academic work.
"In general, you are asked to consult when you have expertise that somebody knows about and is interested in. I think the best way to come by consulting is as a byproduct of your primary work activity," Greenberg says. "If you are a researcher studying gene expression [and] you publish papers that are highly visible on that and companies take an interest in your research, they will likely find you. I don't think, in general, you should start off by saying, 'How can I market being a consultant?'"
The ethical pitfalls
Greenberg urges young investigators to stay vigilant about the nature of their involvement with commercial entities and to be quick to identify whether they risk entering any ethical gray areas. Before accepting any technical consulting job offers, researchers should first contact their institute's technology transfer office to review its policies.
While the Department of Health and Human Services and the National Institutes of Health are in the process of rewriting what Greenberg expects will be a more prescriptive conflict-of-interest policy for NIH-funded research, he is confident it won't hinder the valuable interactions between industry and academia. "These new regulations should not create less opportunities, because it's critically important for researchers in academia to have a very, very robust and extensive interaction with the private sector. ... Very few people would argue about that," he says. "The issue is when there is a reality or a strong appearance that the financial component of those interactions is being used not for the purpose of transferring knowledge, but for the purpose of marketing in some way. … Despite those problems, consulting is both interesting, important, and it serves a good purpose."
At almost every academic institution, there are rules against giving a company special access to specific research information that has not been made public. While the ease of access to this legal, ethical, and policy information depends on the institution, there are some organizations that aim to help clarify these issues for scientists, like the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, which offers a conflict-of-interest toolkit on its Web site.
At Stanford, for example, researchers are limited in the number of days they can engage in consulting activities per semester. Faculty are also strongly discouraged from accepting pay for speaking engagements while representing a company, and are prohibited from co-developing technologies or inventions with commercial entities. According to Greenberg, the most frequent conflict-of-interest pitfall investigators will run into is when companies attempt to offer scientists lucrative deals or compensation in exchange for intellectual property originating from their own lab.
"For the most part, the policies are in place — it's just a question of learning where the boundaries are," RAPT's Fiske says. "They are in place to make sure someone isn't using university property for private gain and that intellectual property rights are maintained. These issues are increasingly prevalent on campuses because they don't have a lot of internal funding, so consulting is one way to maintain an attractive work environment."