Graduate students and postdoctoral scientists in the biomedical sciences often contemplate the next steps in their career. I graduated with a Ph.D. in Cellular and Structural Biology from UT Health San Antonio in 2013 and completed five years as a postdoctoral scientist at Texas Biomedical Research Institute and UT Rio Grande Valley. My expertise is in statistical genetics. I left my postdoctoral position in March 2018 and have successfully transitioned to a full-time career as a consultant. I own Blackburn Statistics LLC, a company through which I offer biostatistical consulting services.
Here are 10 tips that have helped me successfully make the transition from postdoctoral scientist to full-time self-employment as a consultant.
Put pencil to paper.
To get started in consulting you will need to know how much time you have to commit. You should also know your personal finances well enough to gauge what risks you can take on. People are notoriously bad at estimating things. Write the details down. You may discover that you don’t actually have the free time you thought, or that your finances are too tight to take on the financial risk of leaving your full-time job.
Baby steps, start small.
A nice aspect of consulting is that you don’t have to go all in right away. In fact, it is probably smart to test the waters first. Many people have side gigs doing occasional consulting while holding a full-time job. Take a small consulting gig that you know you can handle. If you like it, take on another gig, and so on. A consulting career is like swimming, you can dip your feet in the pool and test the water or you can dive right in. I started small and my consulting work steadily grew until I made it my full-time job.
Get the people that matter on board.
Like any major life decision, you need your team on board with you, especially your spouse. In some cases, it is helpful to have your employer on board. Whom you need onboard with your plan is a judgement that you will have to make for yourself. Be mindful of how your choices will affect others and try to reach an agreement about a course of action with enough time in advance that the other people in your life can be prepared. Consulting work can have its highs and lows, and they may be along for the ride with you. Having the people in your life on board with your plan to pursue consulting work is very helpful because they can help you manage your time, resources, etc.
With your employer, don’t seek permission, seek agreement.
One of the trickier judgement calls is how to manage your current employer. Every employment situation is different, but it was beneficial to me to bring my employer onboard with my long-term goals. Once I started to pursue a consulting career I talked to my immediate supervisor and the department chair about my plans. I went to a part-time position for about a year before eventually quitting. This transition period was mutually beneficial for myself and my employer. Keep in mind that this is your life, and you are your own best advocate.You do not need your employer’s permission to pursue what you think will make your life better, but you have to keep in mind that what is best for you may not be best for your employer. Be mindful of your legal obligations to your employer, such as contracts you have signed. It helps to seek agreement about a plan of action, with the understanding that you are going to take the steps needed to reach your goals.
Slow and steady wins the race.
It is better to do a little consistently than everything all at once. Like with dieting and finances, success is predicable with a steady well executed plan. It pays to think about what you are doing and consider the long-term. Having a long-term perspective can help smooth the short-term highs and lows that you may experience transitioning to full-time self-employment consulting, and even thereafter.
Separate your business and personal finances.
Your consulting work is a business and will inevitably go through highs and lows, especially during a transition period like getting started. It helps to smooth these highs and lows out if you separate your personal finances from your business finances. Pay yourself a steady salary and let the business account grow when you are busy and absorb the loss when you are not. There are other reasons to manage your finances this way, such as mitigating risks. Certain business structures can limit your personal liability, but only if your personal and business finances are kept separate.
Make your business profitable.
A major factor in long-term success will be avoiding failure in the short term. For most businesses this means not running out of money. It helps to fund your business sufficiently at the beginning. In the beginning your labor will be the major source of income for your business. The primary way to make your business profitable is to pay yourself less than the company makes from your labor. If your business consistently turns a profit, you will be better prepared to weather a slow down or any other setbacks. If you successfully avoid setbacks, your business will be positioned to make investments and grow.
Advertise and take advantage of earned media.
In order to get new clients, they have to know that you exist. Making them aware of your existence is advertising. Ignoring referrals and networking, the number of new clients you get will be a product of how many people know about your service and what the probability is that they will hire you. Increase the number of people that know about your service and you will improve your odds of getting new clients. You can pay for advertising, which is straightforward, or you can earn it. Examples of earned media are writing editorials, providing expert commentary on current events, interacting on forums, participating on social media, and yes, even writing this article for the Pipette Gazette. Instead of paying for advertising, you are earning it by being a public figure. The ultimate goal is to make people aware of yourself, your company, and the service you provide.
Grow your network.
The saying is, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” There is truth in that. Build a network of professionals and leverage that network to find new clients. If you have good social skills this can be as or more effective than traditional advertising, especially starting out. For some people, like myself, this comes pretty naturally. If you have trouble carrying a conversation, remember that people like to talk about themselves. Ask how things are going with them, dig deeper, but try to avoid overly personal or controversial issues. Think of it as an opportunity to learn something from each person you interact with. Keep in contact with old colleagues. A simple periodic phone call to check in on someone can go a long way in helping them to remember your business when a need arises. Don’t be afraid to cold call people. A cold call led to one of my first and biggest clients. LinkedIn is a great resource for networking with professionals. The more connections you have, the more people you can make aware of your services.
Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket.
You want to have multiple clients as early as possible. If one client dominates your workload, they also dominate your finances and have significant leverage over you when negotiating. If the wrong client needs to make budget cuts this can have a serious impact on your finances, or even cause your business to fail. However, if you have multiple clients, and you don’t let any one client dominate your workload, you are better positioned to wait out budget cuts. Not only does this help you, it also helps your client. When work and finances are right for them again, you will still be available to provide a service.
Bonus tip: Find mentors and take their advice– Believe in yourself but recognize that there are other people who know more than you. Keep in mind that other people have probably been where you are before. Find someone doing what you want to do or are where you want to be in life and ask for advice. Leave it open ended. Sometimes it the things that you haven’t thought to ask about that you need to hear. Take the advice of those people, sometimes even against your own gut instincts. Once you get comfortable taking advice, yes even advice you may not agree with, you will find that other perspectives are often better than your own.
This article was written by August Blackburn Ph.D. Dr. Blackburn graduated from the Integrated Multidisciplinary Graduate Program (IMGP) at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (now called the Integrated Biomedical Sciences program) in 2013. He is now the owner of Blackburn Statistics, LLC.