Skip to content Skip to navigation

Consulting and Other Industry Relationships

Message Number: 


From time to time I hear from untenured faculty who express an interest in doing consulting, but aren't sure if doing so is a good idea with respect to their tenure and promotion. Below are notes from a discussion on this subject with Hau Lee, professor of Industrial Engineering and Engineering Management at Stanford University. 

Hearing about your experiences would be most welcome. 

Rick Reis 

---------------------- 889 words ---------------------- 

Consulting and Other Industry Relationships 

"Engaging in consulting and other industry projects can be important for a successful professorial career in engineering, as well as some sciences. In my field (industrial engineering, and in particular supply-chain management) there is a trend toward placing more and more value on such activities, sometimes even in tenure decisions. The key is to do it well, leverage such activity towards research and teaching goals, learn from your mistakes, develop the right principles, and maintain the discipline that enables you to use these activities to further your teaching and research. 

"There are a number of reasons for faculty, both beginning and experienced, to develop working relationships with industry. Engineering is, after all, an applied field and industry, in addition to being a good reality check, is an excellent source of ideas, data, and problems. I have found "tremendous wisdom and experience out there." Relationships with industry enrich my research, teaching and professional development. In addition, consulting and other collaborations with industry can provide research support, additional income, and help with the placement of students.

"Such experiences will enable you to say to students and colleagues that you have seen the work of government and industry. They give you a more seasoned credibility while providing you with an important window on what is truly relevant. 

"With respect to new faculty and their research, let me make the following point: At the Ph.D. stage you have been guided mostly by your advisor in terms of what research you do. As a new professor you are responsible for selecting your own topics and your own direction. You have to find your way and do what is relevant to you and not to your advisor. Working with industry can provide you with insights to help you determine your own direction. 

"With respect to consulting, however, I caution young faculty not to move too fast with arrangements outside the university structure. Don't do this only for financial gain, you simply don't have the time! I urge young faculty to stay away from expert witness or pure service assignments which can cause considerable stress while doing nothing for your teaching and other forms of scholarship. If you do choose to do consulting, I recommend you: 

* abide by university regulations and make sure the work does not interfere with teaching and research; 

* choose subjects within your areas of expertise and interests; 

* set up rules for pricing (e.g. travel time, court time, teaching, initial meetings,...) but be prepared to be somewhat flexible if needed later; 

* always look for teaching and other scholarship opportunities through such engagements; 

* spell out clearly the terms of confidentiality and publication rights; and 

* identify and work with individuals and managers who have strong interests in the success of the engagement. 

"In truth, most young professors are not likely to be hired as consultants. This is because senior professors are more well known and are hired for their expertise as consultants. Young professors are less well known and are more likely to be engaged for their research capabilities in a particular area, usually under a research contract or industrial gift arrangement. It is often better for new professors to bring work into the university through research contracts or gifts. With this approach everything is above board, which is particularly important if you are using students where you don't want there to be even the appearance of a conflict of interest or commitment. 

" Other examples of faculty-industry relationships include: 

* company gift funds, usually for less defined research activity and without specific deliverables, 

* company partnerships with university research centers or affiliate programs, 

* foundation-funded research studies, and 

* company-government-university research partnerships. 

When engaging in such arrangements you should: 

* make sure there is an explicit delineation between sponsored research and gift funds; 

* seek a clear understanding of expectations and deliverables, including the intent to publish parts of the work; 

* specify the participation and involvement of company personnel; 

* recognize the importance of periodic site visits and management briefings; 

* demonstrate your willingness to listen, observe, and change focus when necessary; 

* actively solicit coauthorship with industry participants; 

* don't "nickel and dime" everything. Think of the long-term relationship; 

* spell out clearly confidentiality terms and publication rights; and 

* involve students as much as possible. 

"There are a number of ways for you to get started with consulting and other industry projects. Former advisors, and even former student colleagues, can be good sources. As time goes on, your own former students and postdocs will provide contacts, as will liaisons from industry. Word-of-mouth after a certain number of successes, visibility from publications and presentations, referrals by colleagues, and even cold calls into the university have all worked for me. 

"I try to develop a teaching case or find other ways to integrate the material into my courses. Often I am able to write an application paper from the work I do, sometimes with a coauthorship from someone in industry. In addition, I can usually find ways to extend the work I did with industry and the data they provide me with, by stimulating doctoral students to work on such problems in their dissertation research. With all this kind of leveraging it's hard to see why I wouldn't want to develop such collaborations."