Accounting firms are increasingly providing consulting services, and environmental management companies consult on regulations, permits, hazardous waste, and cleaner manufacturing processes.
- A technical degree will give a candidate a solid specialization.
- Students are advised to take business courses in addition to scientific training and may want to consider an M.B.A.
- Median annual wage: $78,000 (2012)
A consultant’s work depends largely on one thing: what the client wants. A consultant must have knowledge or capabilities that the client doesn’t have and must be able to use them to solve a problem for the client quickly, accurately, and cost-efficiently. Consultants are hired by chemical or technology companies, law firms, government agencies, insurance companies, venture capital firms, individual researchers, and many other entities.
In most cases, in-depth technical consulting requires significant chemical expertise and experience in a specific field. Consultants may work on-site at the client company, providing a particular service or educating employees in a new method, or they may work off-site, gathering information and writing reports and recommendations. Chemical consultants provide expertise in diverse ways such as:
- Expert witness services
- Intellectual property (patent searches, licensing, technology transfer)
- Laboratory techniques
- Market research
- Product or process design and development
- Regulatory compliance—inspections and audits
In addition to technical expertise, a consultant must be able to market their expertise and manage running the business side of their company. The specialization of the firm (geographically, scientifically, procedurally, etc.) will determine the precise market for, and nature of, the consulting work.
In hiring new employees, consulting firms look for individuals who are flexible, confident, and comfortable with a diversity of work activities.
Consulting draws people from a variety of educational and employment backgrounds. Most consultants who provide business and technical support to chemical manufacturers have had significant industrial experience themselves. A technical degree will give a candidate a solid specialization, but working for a consulting firm is more common for recent graduates than starting a consulting business. Students interested in consulting are advised to take business courses in addition to scientific training and may want to consider an M.B.A.
A number of firms consult exclusively for the chemical industry, and most major consulting firms have divisions that serve chemical and scientific companies. These firms provide specific technical and business services. Management consulting firms do some of the same type of work, but often focus their efforts on business management and personnel. Large accounting firms are increasingly providing consulting services, and environmental management companies consult on regulations, permits, hazardous waste, and cleaner manufacturing processes. Depending on the specialization and size of the consulting company, the work may be on the client site, in a plant, or in the consultant’s office and may be mostly local or require significant travel.
Is This Career a Good Fit for You?
Having a wide network of contacts who respect you as a professional and can attest to your expertise is paramount in the consulting world. Consultants must have exceptional interpersonal skills, work well with others, and be able to present complex information clearly and persuasively. The ability to research independently and organize one’s own time is also vital. Consultants describe themselves as people who like to pull information together from different sources. They like to blend their scientific knowledge and analytical skills and, above all, they like to work with other people.
Consultants gather information, shape it for a particular situation, and educate their clients. They study products, markets, manufacturing processes, environmental regulations, and patents. With this information, they can assist executives in making business decisions concerning new and existing products, acquiring other companies, or reorganizing internally.
- Consultants must have a depth or breadth of knowledge in a particular topic that is valuable to a number of organizations
- Consultants must be able to research and gather information independently, including conducting interviews with subject matter experts, processing information, and usually providing a written and/or oral report
- They must have the ability to work well with others, inspire confidence, and market their expertise
- They must be flexible in order to respond to client demands and changes in the business environment, and they should keep their skills and expertise current
- Consultants must also be able to focus their work and be able to refer projects that are outside their area of expertise
- They need business acumen in order to manage cash flow, invoices, accounts payable and receivable, payroll, taxes, and all aspects of running a small business (unless working on staff for a consulting company)
It is unusual for a recent graduate to specialize in chemical consulting. If they do specialize, it would often be in management consulting or working as an analyst for a large accounting firm, engineering firm, environmental management company, and so on.
Consulting can be a flexible part-time career to supplement other income, while allowing you to remain intellectually active. Many chemists begin consulting later in their career or after leaving more traditional careers, so new consultants must be able to compete with their expertise, reputation, and network.
Compensation varies widely and depends on degree, credentials, competition, full-time vs part-time work, and many other factors.
Future Employment Trends
With the advance of the Internet and the widespread availability of factual information, consultants are asked to provide more specific and customized solutions. Opportunities for consultants are emerging in international business. The barrier to becoming a consultant is low, so more people begin to consult as part of their transition to retirement. Companies are also more open to hiring consultants, since they can pay only for the expertise they need and not make a long-term commitment to an employee.
James Gibson earned his Master’s degree in plasma etching of polymers, and he found his first job thanks to the trusty thumbtack.
Ruth Hathaway established her own highly successful firm focused on environmental consulting.
Harry Elston has headed his own chemical and safety consulting business since 1996.
- Contracts and Insurance: Protect Your Consulting Business from Legal Liability
- Success Factors for a Consulting Practice in Chemistry