Want to consult? Here are some resources for education consultants.

by Stephanie Chasteen on August 9, 2017

I’m pleased to announce the launch of our new Physics Consultants Directory on PhysPort.org.   Here you can list yourself as a consultant, or find consultants to help with a variety of projects.  We are trying to populate the directory intensively by August 17th, so please try to list yourself by then (though the site will be available for ongoing submissions).  And yes, you can list yourself if your expertise isn’t strictly physics, as long as you can work in the physics realm.

Many thanks to my collaborator Sam McKagan (director of PhysPort), my husband Terry Ollila (who did the custom design for the consultant form), and Lyle Barbato (who worked web magic to integrate this into PhysPort).  This project is supported by a mini grant from the Physics Education Research Topical Group of the American Association of Physics Teachers.

Should you consult?

You might be wondering, is consulting for me?  Is this something I can do?  Should do?  Would be good at? How do I figure out who I would work for?  Many of these things are difficult to figure out in advance, which is why it can be great to jump in and do a few small consulting projects (often as a subcontractor, or working for someone you know), to get a taste for the work and if you like this style of working.  That’s what I did, creating a podcast for the NSDL as my first project, then doing external evaluation, which I originally hated.  My mission statement and sense of purpose has changed over time, and now I make most of my living as a consultant, conducting external evaluation for projects aimed at spreading educational reform.  It was not a linear path and yours may not be either.  Many people consult on an occasional basis, and that’s just fine too.

One of my go-to resources which is highly valuable for researchers like us trying to figure this out is Consulting Start-Up and Management: A Guide for Evaluators and Applied Researchers. This nuts-and-bolts guide talks new consultants through figuring out their value, whether they’re up for throwing themselves into this business, and discusses practical matters such as finding clients, managing time, and setting rates.  Many of the following questions are taken from that book.

Are you the right personality?

Consulting requires time management, organization skills, and an entrepreneurial spirit.  If you are none of those, this might not be right for you.  You may need to finish a project on time and in budget.  You may need to go out and seek clients.  You will need to be easy to work with and honest, so clients will come back.  And since we are academics most working in an academic environment, you want to cater to that culture; many academics are leery of marketing or business strategies that would work well in the private sector.

My story: I was told by one of my clients that the projects I work on are the ones she knows will get done.  I think another reason people hire me is that I strive for efficiency, and think carefully about whether what I’m giving to a client will really help them do their project better.  This takes a lot of time — I spend many unbillable hours on professional development, and making sure to organize my many projects and timelines. Some questions to ask yourself:

  • Am I good at multitasking and dealing with competing demands on my time?
  • Am I resilient?
  • Am I self-motivated?
  • Can I work efficiently and meet deadlines?
  • Do people like working with me?
  • Do I like being my own boss?

Do you have something to sell?

This is usually the hardest question for people.  What services would you sell? What are you good at?  This requires looking at your experience from the point of view of a client.  What value-added do you offer?  Why would someone hire you?  A common resume-writing mistake is to write a resume in terms of your experience, rather than your skills, thus making your employer “work” to figure out how your experience can help them. The same is true of consulting.  Spend some deep time thinking about what kinds of projects you might work on, and how your expertise supports that.  You can get some help by looking at the categories already pre-listed on our consultant directory.You can also talk to potential users of your services in mini-interviews to help target your work.

My story: For me, I thought I would mostly provide services in writing for teachers and conducting workshops, due to my journalism and professional development background, but found that the market wasn’t strong enough for this — and so turned to external evaluation.  I still write (and do research) in this job, but for a very distinct audience. You can also talk to potential users of your services in mini-interviews to help target your work.   Some questions to ask yourself:

  • What skills am I selling?  Is there a market for them?
  • What am I good at?
  • Are there ways in which I offer unique combinations of skills?  (For example, I have education research, and public communication expertise)
  • Who is my target market?  What are their problems and how can I help them solve them?  (Your market may be departments, faculty, project leaders, or even other consultants, like me, looking to subcontract work)
  • How can I bolster my own skills by joining forces with others or expanding my skillset?
  • Can I prepare a one-page description of my proposed services and the types of clients I might serve?

Where can I find more information?

Some other books that have been recommended for getting started:

  1. Consulting And Evaluation With Nonprofit And Community-Based Organizations
  2. Million Dollar Consulting: The Professional’s Guide to Growing a Practice, Fifth Edition (Business Books)
  3. Escape From Cubicle Nation: From Corporate Prisoner to Thriving Entrepreneur
  4. Book Yourself Solid: The Fastest, Easiest, and Most Reliable System for Getting More Clients Than You Can Handle Even if You Hate Marketing and Selling
  5. Working for Yourself: Law & Taxes for Independent Contractors, Freelancers & Gig Workers of All Types

Useful resources to explore:

And of course, don’t forget to list yourself on the  Physics Consultants Directory!

Please add questions and additional ideas in the comments, and we can use this to help share our experiences as consultants.

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