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Lessons from consulting for PhD students

Updated: 4 days ago

Why I love working in consulting alongside my PhD and how this has improved my research


In my first year as a PhD student, I was always hunting for extra cash. After bouncing between tutoring, marking, and considering flu-camp, I attended a training course by Kohlrabi on a whim (what even is consulting anyway?) and the rest is history. For the past year I’ve been working part-time as an Associate Research Consultant with Kohlrabi alongside my PhD. Though consulting and completing a PhD require similar skills such as effective time management, there are key differences that make consulting the perfect salve for the abrasion of the PhD treadmill.


-              Where a PhD is a marathon with occasional wins, consulting offers shorter projects with regular dopamine hits.

-              Where a PhD is concerned with honing your expertise in a niche area, consulting involves a diverse array of projects and topics to keep a busy mind engaged.

-              Where a PhD is the pinnacle of independent critical thinking, consulting is all about teamwork and problem solving collaboratively – something I’ve found you must actively cultivate in academia as it is not a given.


Consulting has also taught me valuable lessons which have shaped how I now approach my PhD. As well as engaging directly with clients to understand their desired outcome (transferrable lesson: you do not need to be a niche expert to do a good job), I’ve been able to spend time thinking about business development and improving ways of working. This might sound very dry, but I’ve become passionate about systems organisation, and was converted to Notion through reading Jenny Blake’s book Free Time. Rather than getting bogged down in the minutiae of some research methodology, I’ve put effort into creating a project management hub so I’m now more efficient, making well-informed decisions about how essential each task is to get a project (publication) over the finish line.


I’m also thinking ahead more now. In neat symmetry, the beginning of each consulting project involves extensive discussions regarding its ultimate goal – a practice equally crucial in planning research publications. Similar to how we create hypotheses prior to analysis, I ensure I spend sufficient time envisioning the plots I want to generate from the data. Whether the results are expected or surprising, this forward-planning simplifies the communication of findings and keeps research questions on track.


 Finally, since our consultancy relies on collaboration within a non-hierarchical team, I’ve stopped viewing my PhD supervisors as bosses to be kept happy. I now see them as valuable experts on my team, available to advise on the issue of writing a PhD thesis.


If you’re interested in thinking more about how these lessons from consulting could apply to your research, I’ve created a short course with Kohlrabi to help PhD students identify processes or approaches to their own work that can be improved. While so much about research is unexpected, developing certain habits can make the PhD process less painful in ways that we can control; see more information here.


Katie is an Associate Research Consultant at Kohlrabi, working part-time alongside her PhD in Infectious Disease Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

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