In Part I, I talked about balancing your consulting work with your own research work. Setting aside the fact that pursuing your own research in addition to your consulting work may throw the rest of your life out of kilter, you will have to assign a rather high priority to your own research—after your clients’ needs, of course—if you want it to come to fruition in the form of publications. So it helps if the research you do for clients neatly dovetails with your own interests, as was the case for me with the book project I discussed in Part I.
As an independent consultant, you are free to pursue work in your area of interest. (And the more broadly you define your area of interest, the greater the chances that you’ll work in your area of interest: I fit a lot under the headings of “20th Century business and urban history.”) Operating on the theory that beggars can’t be choosers, you should never turn down work, however, and so, if a client engages you in what is, for you, a new topic, consider leveraging it as a new direction of research for you.
Indeed, public history, if not consulting per se, deflected my research trajectory while I was in graduate school. I was working on a dissertation on the development of U.S. foreign aid policy during the interwar period when I was invited to participate in a multi-disciplinary study of the impacts of the oil industry on the communities of California’s central coast, as part of a contract with the now-defunct U.S. Minerals Management Service (MMS). I completed my dissertation, but the contract initiated a parallel research agenda that I have pursued ever since, as time has allowed. (And my first paid client engagement after graduation was another contract with MMS. That contract gave me the opportunity to research in more depth the California oil industry of the early 20th Century, and exposed me to the wonderful world of doing research at the Huntington Library.)
Confidentiality and disclosure agreements, of course, may limit your ability to incorporate the research you do for clients into your own program. This has been the case for me in the area of litigation support. Yet pursuing research interests that are closely aligned with the kind of consulting you hope to do eventually may prove to be mutually beneficial.
This particularly may be the case when you research sources that are not proprietary to the client, such as records found in the National Archives or in newspapers. In such cases, the work product of your research will be proprietary, but the underlying sources should be available for your own projects once the engagement has ended.
What you produce for clients may be available for your research purposes in any case, especially if it is published in the form of a book, report, exhibit, and so on. MMS, for instance, required the delivery of final reports, but encouraged us to use the research associated with the projects in the writing of journal articles. The project associated with the writing of A Better Way to Build involved a series of oral histories and the creation of an archive that will be available to researchers through the Purdue University Libraries. You will need to secure permissions to use or cite material not in the public domain, of course, as you would do normally.
And your client research may simply inform and enrich your own research (and vice versa), which is no bad thing.
Two cases illustrate how client research and independent research can prove mutually beneficial; both relate to my own work on the oil industry in California:
(1) My work for MMS led to an engagement that involved researching the design and construction of two oil refineries that were alleged to have been a source of asbestos exposure. The lawyer in this case contacted us after he conducted an online search and found the reports that resulted from my first MMS project.
(2) With my ongoing research on oil and the urbanization of the Pacific Coast in mind, I serendipitously came across numerous articles on building projects specifically related to my ongoing book project while researching Los Angeles newspapers for the interwar period for a client. As the Pasadena-based construction company I write about in my forthcoming book completed projects in downtown Los Angeles, some of which involved rehabilitating or renovating structures erected in the 1920s, I was able to incorporate some of this research into the narrative of that book as well. That effort also prompted me to do a lot more reading in the secondary literature to set these buildings projects in context. And since the protagonist of my study of the Southern California oil industry, Ralph B. Lloyd, invested much of his wealth in commercial real estate development, I was able to incorporate a discussion of his relationships with architects and builders into the introduction to A Better Way to Build.
I have yet to have found the time to assemble the manuscript of what I thought would have been my first book, but during my time as an independent historical consultant I have published articles (in the November 2008 issue of the Journal of Urban History and the Summer 2010 issue of Business History Review) and delivered conference papers that have addressed just about every chapter of the book, as I envision it.
So, for me, as I expect for most readers of this post, it has been important to continue researching in earnest topics for their own sake that I find to be compelling. Working independently as a consultant has given me the flexibility to pursue these interests. I have not written the book I hope to write sooner rather than later, but I think it is important in any case from a consulting standpoint to publish more frequently. And so, in the spirit of the social sciences, I have put more weight on getting articles and reviews to press than perhaps I would have were I an academic historian on a tenure track. To this end, I have benefited from doing work for clients that has informed my own research or has taken it in new directions.
~ Michael Adamson is a historical consultant, researcher, and writer in the San Francisco area. He holds a PhD from the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Part I of this post appeared on Sept. 19, 2012.