Strike gold with your grey cells

November 11, 2005

Being an academic is never going to make you a fortune in itself. But, says Harriet Swain, there is no reason why you shouldn't be able to track down some rich pickings in your intellectual endeavours

With access to the literary treasures of university libraries and the intellectual riches of senior faculty, who needs worldly wealth?

You do. Having a mind mostly set on higher things doesn't stop you wondering from time to time how you can make some proper money.

The easiest option is to choose the right area of expertise. Richard Elliot, professor of consumer research at Warwick Business School, says that if you want to maximise your academic salary you should teach finance.

"Finance professors get paid more than anybody else, not just in this country but in America as well," he says. Marketing is another good option.

But whatever your specialism, the key is to keep moving from institution to institution, seeing your salary increase with each new job.

Elliot says that business academics - generally in short supply - can also supplement their salaries by teaching the same course at more than one university. While you would have to square this with the institution at which you are permanently employed, he says that if it is properly handled it could be beneficial for everyone as the variety of students and problems would enhance your skills. How much you are paid for this kind of work depends on your reputation. Professors get more than senior lecturers, and the more reliable and hardworking professors get the most.

The same is true for consultancy, another lucrative option for academics with particular expertise. Philip Ternouth, associate director for research and development and knowledge transfer at the Council for Industry and Higher Education, says that the more senior you are, the better terms you will be able to negotiate for consultancy work, both with your university and with your prospective client. "If you raise £6 million to £8 million a year in research funding for the university, it puts you in a very different position from when you were a new postdoc," he says.

Tim Cook, managing director of Isis Innovation Ltd, a technology-transfer company wholly owned by Oxford University, says that you need to choose your institution carefully if you want to be a consultant; some are much more open to allowing their academics to take on outside work - and to profit from it - than others.

In some institutions, it is possible to sell your consultancy services through a university company, and both Ternouth and Cook advise seriously considering this as a way of capitalising on the university name and avoiding personal indemnity insurance and other administrative and financial burdens. But Ternouth warns that you will have to be able to persuade your university of the benefits of letting you do consultancy work and be absolutely clear about its rules governing the profits from intellectual property. You want to make sure that most of them go to you.

He advises anyone thinking about setting up a business based on academic knowledge to become a consultant first. "The chances of making money in a university spin-off company are limited, and most of the famous examples are of academics who knew a lot about their markets," he warns.

Oswald Jones, professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at Manchester University, says that these days, thanks to the internet, it is relatively simple to start up your own business and his advice is to have a go. Start small, he suggests, so that you do not incur too much expense and risk while learning the skills needed, bearing in mind that only a small percentage of new businesses succeed.

But he says you need to be realistic about your abilities. "Are you a motivated self-starter who can deal with constant setbacks and panics in starting a business but who has also really thought the business idea through?" he asks. He argues that entrepreneurship is a skill that can be learnt like any other. Motivation, which is much more difficult to pass on, is key to success.

Philip Beresford, compiler of The Sunday Times rich list, says that to make money as an academic you need a good idea in a niche market and to possess all or most of the intellectual rights to it. If not, you must develop a recognised name and exploit it with books, TV and any other opportunities. And push up your fees.

"Once you have that, you need to work like mad and put your personal life on hold," he says. You will need to keep a close eye on your intellectual property, knowing when to accept or reject financial offers. If your work is in the arts, you will need to come up with a constant stream of good ideas and cultivate your media image.

If your talents lie in writing but you can't quite achieve the standing of a David Starkey or Sir Martin Rees, one route to riches may be to write a bestselling textbook, "although usually you have to find an American to do it with", according to Elliot.

Once you've managed this, you may be able to spin it off into a consultancy based on the book, so long as the book isn't too academic. "It would need to be something just a bit better than airport bookshop material," he says.

Whatever the source of your riches, you will also need to develop a thick skin. "You have to accept that there will be constant setbacks, but there is plenty to learn from them," Beresford says. "You have to have massive confidence in what you are doing when everyone else asks why you are bothering. You have to have a single-minded approach and an application that's fearsome."

The other option, of course, is to leave academia, Elliot says. "When I see the salaries our students get paid shortly after leaving I think, what am I doing this for?"

Further Information

Council for Industry and Higher Education: www.cihe-uk.com
Isis Innovation Ltd: www.isis-innovation.com

TOP TIPS

  • Be a successful academic
  • Have a good idea and run with it
  • Keep moving
  • Understand intellectual property rules
  • Work relentlessly

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