What's a reasonable hourly rate for private consulting?
August 20, 2012 9:26 AM   Subscribe

How much should I charge for consulting, when it's about something (grad school admissions) where consulting is uncommon? I've never done this, so I'm not sure what a reasonable hourly rate would be.

I might be retained as a consultant by someone who really wants to do a Ph.D in the department where I recently got my doctorate. My job would basically be to give advice to help him strengthen his application package--look over and critique his statement of interest, his writing sample, and possibly some of his external grant applications.

(He knows this service is not normal in academia, but everyone else in his family is in business/finance, where 'getting a consultant' is often just what you do. I guess their thought is that it can't hurt to get someone's opinion who's been through the process relatively recently.)

What hourly rate should I propose? A bit of Googling suggested the rule of thumb that for consulting, you should double or triple the hourly rate you make at your own job. For me, double would be $80/hour. That strikes me as steep, but I really have no idea how this stuff works. And when I consider that I'll probably only do a few hours of work (my estimate is 5-10), it seems less stratospheric.

What do you think?
posted by Beardman to Work & Money (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I think the comparison would be to the people who coach high schoolers with their college essays and with the application process. Here is a link to one I just googled in my area. Look up college consultants or college essay writing help.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:34 AM on August 20, 2012

I agree, it's almost like tutoring. I think $80/hr is steep when your client is a prospective grad student.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 9:40 AM on August 20, 2012

For me, double would be $80/hour. That strikes me as steep

This person wants to make an investment in their academic future, it seems like a lot of times people in education/academia have an odd kind of guilt about charging a fair value for their services. Take a look at how much you are charged per hour by the plumber or the guy who fixes your car -- people pay 80/hr for things all of the time. Remember too that you will have to cover your transportation and also pay self-employment taxes. Time to reap some of the benefits of your previous hard work!
posted by cgk at 9:47 AM on August 20, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks so far. I should clarify that his father, a lawyer, would be paying for it. I had thought of this as akin to tutoring at first, too, but his dad kept using the term 'retainer fee', and made it clear that he thinks of this as ordinary freelance consulting.
posted by Beardman at 9:50 AM on August 20, 2012

Ask for a $1,000 retainer and tell him your hourly rate is $80/hr. If he balks, either ask what he is willing to pay or let him find a suitable replacement. You have unique perspective in this situation because you are fresh out of the program. He will have a hard time finding a suitable replacement. $80 an hour is reasonable.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:53 AM on August 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

It is inappropriate to call this "equivalent to tutoring" because the customer in question is not buying OP's services as a graduate application editor (which is not uncommon in the world), but rather as OP's unique perspective as someone who has already gone through the program in question (which is exceedingly uncommon in the world).

Thirding that $80/hr is absolutely reasonable. I would actually suggest pushing that up to $100/hour. There's a big psychological difference between suggesting a price of two digits, suggesting unprofessional labor (after all, a mechanic could quite easily charge $75/hour), and $100/hour, which suggests valuing your time highly (as you should).
posted by saeculorum at 10:00 AM on August 20, 2012

I just checked to see where you are (Your location indicates Toronto). In the Boston Metro, I currently charge $100/hr for consulting services for my specialty skillsets. If I had a PhD I would probably push $175. By doing so, my employers limit my hours, but they also limit the amount of BS that I have to wade through since they'll have to pay for it.

This isn't tutoring. He isn't soliciting you for help and to bounce ideas off of you. This is consulting. You are the expert. Your opinion is the only opinion in the room, and if he bounces ideas off of you, stick to your guns unless you can turn his idea into a better idea. Do not undercut your worth, and do not undercut your expertise. The access to the expertise is worth a premium. You are being paid to find problems and to eliminate them so as to ensure his successful PhD candidacy. If you aren't harsh and working over his work, the various boards he will have to go in front of will.
posted by Nanukthedog at 10:41 AM on August 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think it's entirely in line. I agree with the rule of thumb, and if your day job pays $40 an hour, you should get at least $80 an hour for any ad hoc project someone is asking you to do that isn't based on family ties or friendship, be it grad school advice or washing their car. If they want someone cheaper, they can find someone cheaper. You have a valuable perspective to offer that might change the course of their professional life.

If the payee is an attorney, they will know all about charging for time and will not likely bat an eye. The way they're framing the discussion makes it sound like they're encouraging you to charge, and charge well. This is a Very Good Sign about how reasonable they will be to deal with, provided you meet their expectations.

If at some point toward the conclusion of the project you feel like this was all too easy, I'd offer the bonus of an hour free or so - NOT reducing the hourly rate. You never know when someone else might want the same services.
posted by randomkeystrike at 11:08 AM on August 20, 2012

I do some freelance coaching in a different situation, but one of the things I coach the people I work with on is how to value their services and price accordingly. Most people undercharge in situations where you're providing particular expertise like this. I wouldn't charge less than $100/hour and would start somewhere around $125/hour with a $1000 retainer for 8 hours of work. If you're close to finishing at 8 hours, then you could fudge the time slightly and give him an hour of bonus free time but do not reduce the rate!
posted by marylynn at 11:28 AM on August 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think there's a tenancy for current or recent grad students to vastly underestimate the pay scale in the "real world" (I say this as someone in academia). ~$100/hour is totally reasonable in a major city. Depending on your interest in actually doing this, you might want to consider raising or lowering your fee.

To me, this sounds like a royal pain in the ass. My impression is that people who would hire consultants for something like this are probably people who are going to have a really hard time actually getting in and are looking for a "trick." Of course, there are good things to know, but no real "tricks." Maybe this impression is unjustified some/most of the time, but it's been backed up by my anecdotal experience.
posted by Betelgeuse at 11:30 AM on August 20, 2012

This is not tutoring, I would second Nanukthedog and say put $100/hr. Possibly 125$ if you are in a top program and this is something where a PhD could lead to an actual lucrative career which means that this is looked at as an investment. And, quote both the low and the high hourly estimate ('about 5 hours for the application only, depending on rewrites of course, but I could help you with some grants which would double our time' or whatever). You are being paid not to read an essay, but to use your insiders knowledge of professors and the department's research goals, needs, and attitudes to tailor his strengths to their specific desires. While simultaneously minimizing his weaknesses - this is not a simple application and essay editing gig. (Which I might quote at double your rate if it was a general admissions gig). If it turns out to be easier or less work than expected feel free to quote a free hour or two to do something *extra* so that you appear thorough with value added.

Also, be clear that you aren't planning on putting in a personal recommendation with your previous adviser or anyone on the admissions committee/department unless you know the prospective client well enough to comfortably and ethically do that. Similarly, I would be *very* careful of accepting this gig if you are in academia or still need to network with your department. If he is accepted but turns out to be a poor fit and it is known that you consulted on his application I would think that this could taint your relations in several ways (at least, it could in my field).
posted by McSwaggers at 11:30 AM on August 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is definitely equivalent to a private college counselor, and they charge a fortune. My parents hired one to help me get in to college, and I saw her again for help with my grad school app as well. I don't think it's as uncommon as you think, and I wouldn't be shy about charging a lot.
posted by radioamy at 11:54 AM on August 20, 2012

The Professor Is In does grad-school related consulting; her rates for various services are here and might be helpful.
posted by ChuraChura at 2:28 PM on August 20, 2012

I respectfully still disagree. I've numerous times had people from a particular graduate program look over my application/writing sample and give me advice on how to improve, and I have done the same for other people applying to such programs myself. I can't count the number of times I've given advice to people hoping to get into medical school, even my particular medical school, and read over their CV and writing samples/applications - not even as friends, this includes friends of friends or acquaintances.

Perhaps medical school is different than other graduate schools in some way, but I have never paid anyone else to do this for me, nor have I ever expected payment for doing it for anyone else. It was done as a favor. Tutoring may be the wrong word for what I was referring to - I saw it more as mentoring and I was happy to repay the favor for free after having had mentors help me along my career path. From that perspective, $80 an hour still seems steep. But if the question is, how much can I get away with asking for from a wealthy person who can afford to pay me for my opinion, rather than how much is it worth for me to help someone with their grad school application, then that changes the answer.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 2:56 PM on August 20, 2012

Grad school admissions consulting is not at all uncommon. Experienced, full-service consultants can charge $15k or more. You probably shouldn't go there. Maybe start at $5k or so, and be clear about what your service will and won't do, what it will and won't be held accountable for.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 7:36 PM on August 20, 2012

treehorn+bunny, I think that I might have read the question slightly differently than you - I guess it is the difference between paying a tutor and helping out someone out to me. If he is going to pay, then I would act professionally and treat it properly by valuing my time and knowledge appropriately, not lowball out of a sense of propriety. Otherwise, I wouldn't charge and do it because I wanted to.

But I do agree that you have a very good point: I have absolutely both offered and received application/grant fellowship advice to both friends and acquaintances/friends of friends for free and with no thought of payment, compensation or quid pro quo as you suggest. You are right, it is a common and good thing to do. However, if this person is not in some sort of personal relationship with the op and is approached simply because he recently defended in said program which the applicant would really like to attend with (metaphorical) cash in hand, which was my reading, then it seems like a business arrangement and not a mentoree or friend.
posted by McSwaggers at 10:11 PM on August 20, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks everybody.

(treehorn+bunny: I totally understand your perspective, but in this case the situation is as McSwaggers read it. This person isn't a friend, a friend of a friend, or an acquaintance. They found me on the internet and proposed it as a business arrangement. I would never think of charging anyone I knew to look over their stuff--I've commented on and copy edited countless writing samples, grant applications, etc. for friends, to say nothing of refereeing papers for journals and conferences.)
posted by Beardman at 5:03 AM on August 21, 2012

I know what program this is for, I think, and if you're going to be looking over writing sample in particular it is a big job. I agree with everyone else: be sure you value your time and expertise appropriately (ie highly).
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:42 AM on August 21, 2012

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