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Working by the light of the moon

The pros and cons of projects beyond the professoriate

By TIM JOHNSON | MAR 12 2007

Karan Singh’s professional life has long straddled the line between world of private industry and the halls of academe. After first designing animation software for a Toronto company, Dr. Singh took a job at the Dynamic Graphics Project lab in the department of computer science at the University of Toronto, where he is now co-director. But he still makes frequent forays out of the ivory tower-big studios like Disney and Dreamworks come calling, and he enjoys spending his spare time on outside projects. “It helps me keep a pulse on what’s happening in the industry,” says Dr. Singh.

His career path has included a swing through Tinseltown, where he and his colleagues on the film Ryan picked up an Academy Award in 2005 for Best Animated Short Film. The project was formally associated with U of T, but directed by an old friend from his former workplace. Singh was not even paid for his work on the film, which was lauded for its innovative three-dimensional animation. “We did it mostly for the science,” says Dr. Singh. “It was very satisfying.”

Complimenting, not contradicting your scholarship

While few will ever take home an Oscar, many academics perform outside work in their field. Like Dr. Singh, they are often motivated by a desire to stay in touch with industry and to tackle the types of challenges that occur beyond the walls of the university. That’s the case for Bernie Kueper, a civil engineering professor at Queen’s University who consults in his area of specialty, contaminant hydrogeology (the study of contaminants below the ground surface and their clean-up). “I think it’s absolutely essential that engineering professors do outside consulting. It’s the only way we can practice our trade,” he says.

Mark Thompson, Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, agrees. Dr. Thompson, an expert in industrial relations, worked on a number of private and government projects over more than three decades at Sauder, including serving as a labour arbitrator for contract negotiations. “Doing this work gave me insights into the distinction between what I was reading in books and journals and what was actually happening in the workplace,” he says. “And, to be frank, the money was attractive.”

An asset or liability for institutions?

Having professors moonlighting with other pursuits presents a mixed bag for a university. There are certainly advantages. On one hand, having professors who are also in demand by government and private firms allows the administration to advertise that they employ experts in the industry, a worthy boast that can attract prospective students and give a bump to a school’s stature. And there’s an added bonus when the work generates media exposure, says Gil Troy, a history professor at McGill University who, beyond his academic work and writing, has made appearances on national television and written articles for major publications, including the New York Times and the Washington Post. McGill tracks its media mentions, and that generating media hits is smiled upon by some in the administration. “To the extent that universities live and die on the prestige game, when you have McGill experts speaking about issues, and ‘McGill University’ is right there on the television screen or in the newspaper, it makes a difference,” he says.

Added to this is the fact that current, practical experience can make an academic better at his job. “You’re a better teacher and a better researcher if you’re solving real problems at real sites,” says Dr. Kueper. Dr. Thompson agrees. “I always felt it added to my teaching,” he says. “Students are much more impressed by a war story from an arbitration case than they are by an article addressed to other academics.”

But there are drawbacks, too. Having professors performing outside work opens the door to certain abuses, such as the use of university facilities and students for private work. Some in the administration may also worry about blurring the line between industry and academe. But the biggest worry, it seems, is about time. Universities typically take a hands-off approach with a professors who do outside work, but they commonly issue guidelines about how much time should be spent on it, and often expect academics to report how much of this work they’re doing (and sometimes the firms that are employing them).

Watch the clock (and your back)

And there are certainly disadvantages for the academic, as well. While outside consulting is commonplace and looked upon favourably in fields such as business and engineering, in other fields a moonlighting prof runs the risk of being seen as less than a serious scholar. “I was once in a hiring meeting in the history department where the department chairman asked someone in a non-neutral tone, ‘Are you the kind of person who will try to get on radio and television and make comments about politics?'” laughs Dr. Troy. “I’m sitting there and I’m thinking, ‘Is this directed at me?'”

Another potential drawback is the potential for liability when venturing beyond the protection of the university. Dr. Troy says that after publishing his first Op/Ed article in the Montreal Gazette, a man sent a lawyer who offered Dr. Troy the choice between an apology plus $50,000 or a libel lawsuit. Neither the newspaper nor the university offered support. “I went to McGill, asked for help-and got zilch,” he says, noting that the school told him he was a freelancer in this matter. Dr. Troy held his ground and the man and his issue disappeared. He advises a thorough knowledge of libel laws.

In other fields, such as medicine and engineering, academics who take on outside work may want to consider liability insurance. Dr. Kueper says that he looked into insurance for errors and omissions, and liability, but found that premiums were very high and that all of the policies he reviewed excluded coverage on the release of contaminants into the environment, which, as a contaminant hydrogeologist, made them useless to him. He discloses his lack of insurance to his clients up front, and admits that he’s taking personal risk.

There’s also the added work and annoyance of keeping track of the extra income, and reconciling with the tax man each spring. However, it’s a fairly simple matter, especially if the side operation is small. “You may have to do some calculations, but because I don’t have any employees, the accounting side of it is pretty easy,” says Dr. Kueper. Seeking once-a-year help from an accountant may help. And, says Dr. Thompson, there may be an upside, too. The outside operation can be considered a small business, which means that you may be able to deduct books, supplies, and rent or mortgage on a home office. “The tax advantages are considerable,” he says.

The biggest complaint is related to time-the lack of it. “Time, more than anything else, it’s just time,” says Dr. Singh. “It’s incredibly busy. I supervise eight students, and just being able to find the time is a big thing.” Because of the inevitable competition for time that moonlighting presents, a common piece of advice across various fields is for young academics to stick to their academic work in the first years of their career, and then consider outside work after they’ve gotten experience, reputation and tenure. Generally, outside work hinders rather than helps a young professor on the tenure track. “Unless the consulting you’re doing is actively increasing your publication and research record, you don’t get any brownie points for the extra cash you’re making by doing work on the side,” says Dr. Singh.

Dr. Kueper notes that once you do start consulting or doing other outside work, time management becomes a very big issue. Always make your university teaching and research your top priority, he says, and that you must be prepared for less personal time. “You have decide, ‘Am I willing to make that personal sacrifice so that I can do some outside consulting, or am I going to say no to the consulting so that I can have more hours available for my family? And that’s a personal decision,” he says. Striking the right balance can be tricky, says Dr. Thompson, but he’s worked out a system that seems to work. Never spend earnings from outside work on fundamental expenses like mortgage payments or utility bills, he advises. “If you do, then you become locked to this other source of income, and then you start making comprises,” says Dr. Thompson. “Don’t get too wrapped up in this, and keep in mind who sends your paycheque every two weeks,” he says.

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