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Why Be an Independent Consultant?

1 April 2017 277 views No Comment
This column is written for anyone engaged in or interested in statistical consulting. It includes articles ranging from what starting a consulting business would entail to what could be taught in a consulting course. If you have ideas for articles, contact the ASA’s Section on Statistical Consulting publication’s officer, Mary Kwasny.

Stephen Simon is a part-time independent statistical consultant and part-time faculty member in the department of biomedical and health informatics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He writes about statistics, evidence-based medicine, and research ethics.


So, you want to be an independent statistical consultant? Hang out your shingle and start helping people who come your way? Give up all the security that comes with consulting within a larger organization?

Are you crazy?

Inside a large organization, you have a support network. You have a human resources department that can help you update your insurance coverage when you get married. You probably have access to an administrative assistant who can help you prepare expense reports. That large organization will support your professional development, paying your way to the continuing education course at the Joint Statistical Meetings.

Independent consulting is not a job for the timid. But if you like being in control, it’s the best job in the world.

I like to write books and articles, and I haven’t figured out yet how to bill any of this work to a particular client. That’s true in some large organizations as well, but many places do offer time and support for professional activities that are not directly tied to a particular client.

In a large organization, if you don’t know how to run a mediation analysis, you can walk down the hall to a colleague’s office to ask a few questions. You also don’t have to go out and find customers, because your customers are down the hallway from you, as well.

At a larger organization, you will have a boss and, for all we like to gripe about bosses, they can often be a great benefit to your career. They review your work and make suggestions on how to do better. They pick the work assignments they think will help you grow and become more valuable to your organization. They counsel you when you have problems.

Most importantly, if you’re part of a larger organization, your paycheck and working hours stay constant during busy and quiet times. In contrast, it’s feast or famine in the world of independent consulting.

As an independent consultant, you end up doing a lot that isn’t really statistical in nature and may take you outside your comfort zone. I work with an accountant, but I’ve had to learn a lot more about accounting than I expected to. I’m the sort of person who, if the amount in your checkbook register is within a hundred dollars of what the bank says you have, thinks the difference must be sampling error.

It’s not just accounting. I pay someone to do my taxes, but when I became an independent consultant, the amount of paperwork I had to pull together for him by April 15 tripled.

You can get legal advice on the best type of business entity to set up, but this is your business, so you will still need to understand the fundamental differences between a sole proprietorship, limited liability corporation, S corporation, and C corporation. Even if your lawyer reviews your contracts, you will end up reading them in detail before you sign off.

Most importantly, you don’t have an organization that finds work for you. So, if you don’t market yourself properly, you won’t have any clients, you won’t make any money, and you will starve to death.

And yet, if you’re the right person, you’d be crazy not to consider a career as an independent consultant. When you are your own business, you have a level of control that is liberating. You don’t like a particular client? You have the option of just walking away. It’s a loss of income, for sure, but some clients are not worth any amount of income. If you try to walk away from a client at a larger organization, your boss needs to okay it first. Nine times out of 10, you will get so much grief about not being a “team player” that it won’t be worth it.

Independent consulting is indeed spread irregularly, but even during busy times, you still have a lot of control over when and where you do your work. That was one of the biggest attractions for me. I have the option of going on field trips with my son and attending all of his track meets. I can be home with him when he’s sick and take him to all his doctor’s appointments. And when he sleeps until 2 p.m. on weekends, that’s when I get much of my work done.

As an independent consultant, you do have to pay for your own continuing education, but the nice thing (beyond it being a tax deduction) is that you don’t have to justify to anyone other than yourself that it’s about time you learned how to run all these new Bayesian models.

That support network in a larger organization? It’s not always there, to be quite honest, and you can build your own support network as an independent consultant. I volunteered to step in as president of the Kansas City R Users Group, and beyond the exposure and the number of new clients it has brought me, the other members of this group have been invaluable resources for things like version control software, data mining, and text analytics.

Independent consulting is not a job for the timid. But if you like being in control, it’s the best job in the world.

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