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WorkDev #5: Becoming a consultant

WorkDev #5: Becoming a consultant

This is the final post in our WorkDev series by Maia Gedde, author of Working in International Development and Humanitarian Assistance: A Career Guide. Don’t miss her previous posts on why she wrote the book, who you can work for, climbing the career ladder and choosing a specialty

The term “consultant” in the development and humanitarian field is quite vague. In more creative sectors, you might instead say “freelancer,” but it can also mean someone who is working for a development consultancy firm.

For the purpose of this post, I take it to mean anyone with specific expertise, who is working on a discrete project and is not an employee. Some consulting jobs might last as little as a few days, while others are multi-year positions.

For some, consulting is a temporary employment solution while they search for something more permanent; for others, it is a conscious move towards a more flexible and diverse lifestyle. For those with very specialist skills, who have outgrown a full-time position in one organisation, it allows them to use their skills to support a range of organisations.

The actual work of a consultant may be anything from supporting an organisation to write its gender strategy, to developing a toolkit or running a training, to conducting an end-of-project evaluation or managing an entire multi-year program.

The life of a consultant can be an exciting one, ideal for those who like discrete projects and challenges, with clients that can change constantly. But it can also be insecure, not knowing where your next paycheck will come from and worrying about whether you will ever get a contract again.

Securing work

Working as a consultant is no easy task, and before making the leap, make sure that you are prepared. Not only do you have to deliver high-quality work, but you have to secure the work in the first place. You will be selling your expertise, not just your time.

Your ability to secure work will have a lot to do with how well you market your product: you.

While some consultancy opportunities are openly advertised, many roles never go through the HR department. The project manager usually reaches within his networks: it wouldn’t make sense to invest a lot in recruiting someone for a 20-day position. Consultants are usually good networkers, attending conferences and making a point to speak to all the relevant people and organisations who might be able to offer them work. Having said that, many consultants start out by getting a bulk of their work from a previous employer.

If you are planning become a consultant, build your networks and showcase your expertise: write blog posts about your work, publish articles, go to conferences and contribute to online forums to get your name out there.

Work environment

As a consultant, your home will often also be your office. This might sound great at first, with a daily routine that takes you from your bed to your desk, via the kitchen. But, not having colleagues to share ideas with can become lonely, and it’s not great for networking.  Many consultants have a shared office space or rotate among cafes.

Money matters

There is a common perception that consultants are highly paid, and it’s not hard to see why, when daily rates might range from $400 to $800 or more for a highly specialised consultant. When you start out, it can be difficult to know what to ask for–speak to other consultants to get an idea of the range. Calculate what your gross yearly salary would be in a full-time position, and add on any extras (like health insurance). Then divide this by the number of paid days you estimate to be working per year. This should give you the daily rate to ask for.

It is not uncommon for a consultant to only get 80 to 100 paid days of work a year. Of course, much more time needs to go in to securing work, and often you will find yourself working 15 days when you only get paid for 10. As a consultant, it’s also important to manage your cash flow, as some months you may have no pay check, and you get paid all at once.

Being a good consultant

The reputation of consultants is not uniformly high. Successful consultants may end up taking on too much work, so the quality of their work goes down and their reputation swings the other way. Being a good consultant also depends on personality and the relationship between you and your client. At the outset of any consultancy, it is also important that you have a shared understanding of the terms of reference (ToR).

Oxfam has published a report for consultants and contracting managers, to ensure high-quality consultants. Chapter 10 in my book also includes first-hand input and ideas from consultants, as well as information on career progression and professional development for consultants.

Want more? Get 20% off Maia’s book using the code FLR40.

Featured image shows a stereotypical home office setup. Photo from Pixabay.

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Maia Gedde

Maia Gedde was born in Australia but grew up in Kenya and Spain before moving to England. She then worked at the U.K. Department for International Development before completing a Master’s in Development Studies in Sweden. Maia has since worked for a number of NGOs, focusing on health and education programs in Uganda, Ghana and Malawi, in between renovating a 300-year-old house in Fez, Morocco. Currently living between Rwandan and Burundi, she is now the Country Manager at SPARK, a Dutch NGO that supports young people in post-conflict countries to become entrepreneurs and job creators.

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