In the week piirus.ac.uk launches its PiirusMatch Service, designed to connect academic expertise to those bodies and organisations that need it, I thought it would be relevant to reflect upon some of my own experiences of occupying the worlds of both consultancy and research, and pass on a few pointers for any researchers hoping to take the plunge into the consultancy world.
There can undoubtedly be a tension between research and consultancy, and at times academic integrity can be challenged, but it can also be a vital means of connecting your work and knowledge to the outside world, providing new research opportunities and building your personal profile, among other benefits. With government departments spending something like 800 million pounds on consultants each year (not to mention other sectors), there is clearly a world of opportunity out there.
It’s worth acknowledging that I never occupied the research and consultancy world simultaneously, but shifted to the latter after a brief, but what I like to think of as, highly illustrious academic career (others may not agree!). I think my experiences in both these worlds enable me to offer a useful insight on how consultancy differs, and how to bridge the gap and make your mark.
My research focus was rural development and its governance, but I somehow managed to secure a consultancy role in the field of international development. I could be more specific, but I don’t think it’s necessary here. What I will say is that I suddenly found myself occupying quite a complex field, and to be honest, if I had not had an excellent mentor I may have felt very lost and so I can sympathize with anyone finding the shift from research to consultancy challenging.
What’s different about consultancy?
Let me be very clear, if you are expecting consultancy to be a straight forward extension of your academic career, think again. Consultancy is a whole new world that will require you learn new skills and to speak a whole new language. You will be acting as a bridge between the knowledge you hold and a whole host of different vested interests and concerns. Whether your expertise has been brought in to conduct an evaluation, write a report, provide training, sit on an advisory board, or indeed something else, there are three significant areas that make academic consultancy different from day to day academic life.
1. Effective ‘non-technical’ communication – the way you communicate and the words you use will be fundamentally different from what you typically use among your peers. Clear communication is absolutely key and this means academic jargon must be left behind. This one is surprisingly easier said than done, and it took me a while to find new words and new ways of getting my message across.
2. Output focused methodology and approach – the models, frameworks and design of the research you undertake will be more limited and output focused. You are more likely to be drawing from tried and tested research methods than cutting edge ones. Approaches that allow you to collect the data you require quickly and efficiently are much more valuable than those that see you getting lost in theory and deeper intellectual concerns. This may not always be the case, but be prepared to keep things simple so that you can confidently deliver what is required.
As a researcher I was taught to question my own knowledge on a constant basis, but in the consultancy world you need to present more definitive answers. Often you are hired to help make decisions, and you often don’t have time to sit on the fence until more evidence and knowledge becomes available. You must use what you know, and offer the best possible guidance you can. Spell out the facts clearly and be prepared to make recommendations on the information you have at hand. To do nothing until more knowledge is found is rarely an option.
3. Building client relationships and selling yourself – your work will be more outward facing and you will have to learn to manage your clients and to some degree sell your services. This does not mean you will have to commission a billboard with your name on it, but it does mean that you need to be on the lookout for opportunities. The demands placed on you from a client over a relatively short period of time can be intense. There’s no place to hide, so you have to make sure you manage your clients to good effect, be happy to contribute to proposals and keep them in the loop. Often a partnership type relationship is far more effective than a client-customer based one.
Finding your niche
Finding your place in the consultancy world is likely to be your first significant challenge, and many researchers have no clue where to begin. To start with you need to find your niche – contact some consultancy firms that relate to your field and ask for a chat – see what they are looking for and find out if your area of expertise is relevant: if not, find out what you need to do to make it relevant. Alternatively, try speaking to fellow academics in your field who are already offering consultancy services as they may require some support with projects and may be able to help you gain relevant experience.
Finding your niche may take time, but don’t think of it as an arduous pathway. It can be a truly rewarding part of your personal development as a researcher. If opportunities don’t arise immediately, make sure you continue to build your skills, make connections and raise your profile – by doing so you might be surprised where you and your expertise end up!
Image credit: by Mai Le on Flickr, CC BY 2.0