Running start… to a great career: Launching a consulting business

Tips from early career psychologists who also work as consultants.

By Rebecca A. Clay

Michael Fresé, PhDConsulting has been good to geropsychologist Michael Fresé, PhD. As a consultant who provides psychotherapy to residents of the Los Angeles Jewish Home, Sunrise Senior Living and other facilities, plus training and consultation for staff, Fresé works just 20 hours a week, has almost zero overhead and pulls in six figures. Plus, says Fresé, “I have the freedom to make my own schedule.”

Maryam M. Jernigan-Noesi, PhDFor Maryam M. Jernigan-Noesi, PhD, part-time consulting is a way to intervene on a broader scale than she can in her private practice. With her Hartford, Connecticut-based consulting firm, she works with K-12 school systems, higher education institutions and community mental health centers on diversity issues. “I enjoy working with people on an individual basis…, but even better is the ability to work with larger systems like schools and communities,” she says.

Whether you hope to consult full time or just add a sideline, keep these tips in mind:

  • Educate yourself. Consulting isn’t typically covered in graduate training, says Jernigan-Noesi. But faculty and other mentors can offer advice, serve as role models or even include you in consulting gigs, she says. The U.S. Small Business Administration also has helpful information on writing a business plan, registering your business and more.
  • Lay the groundwork. Early on, says Jernigan-Noesi, an organization might hire you to do a workshop and give you a stipend that you deposit in your personal bank account. That casual approach isn’t enough if you hope to contract with larger systems, such as the federal government. In that case, she says, you’ll need a website listing your services, a taxpayer identification number, a business name and bank account and other markers of serious business. It’s also important to create a support network, adds Jernigan-Noesi. In addition to working with an attorney and accountant, she has gathered a scientific advisory board of mentors who give her honest feedback. “It’s my think tank,” she says.
  • Build relationships. Fresé goes out of his way to get to know facility staff, even to the point of attending staff meetings and supervising social workers without compensation. Chatting with physicians, nurses, social workers and other staff doesn’t just help keep him abreast of patients’ needs and garner new referrals; it also builds trust. “We’re coming in as strangers, not as employees,” he says of himself and fellow consultants. Do your best to fit in with the organization you’re working with, says Daniel Abrahamson, PhD, associate executive director for state advocacy in APA’s Practice Directorate and the APA Practice Organization. “It doesn’t hurt to be sensitive to the more nuanced aspects of the organizational culture, such as whether staff typically use titles or first names,” he says. Also, be sure that you’re safeguarding confidentiality, he adds. “As a consultant, you must pay extra attention to issues such as confidentiality and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act policies,” he says.
  • Find the right balance between too little and too much. Soon after Fresé launched his consulting business in 2010, he found himself shuttling around nine facilities in Los Angeles County. “Early on, it was just work, work, work,” says Fresé, who built his practice by cold-calling facilities and offering his services. “It was overwhelming and exhausting.” Instead of spreading himself too thin, he now relies on two facilities as core clients. For Jernigan-Noesi, combining consulting and private practice means she has the liberty to be selective about the offers that come her way. “It might be too stressful if consulting were my sole income,” she says, noting the inconsistent income that may come with consulting when you are just starting out or are only consulting part time.
For additional information and resources, visit the Business of Practice section on the APA Practice Organization website.