I’m a physicist by training, statistical data analyst by trade. Although some of my work is pretty standard statistical analysis, more often I work somewhere in a gray area that includes physics, engineering, and statistics. I have very little formal statistics training but I do study in an academic-like way to learn techniques from the literature when I need to. I do some things well but there are big gaps in my stats knowledge compared to anyone who has gone to grad school in statistics. On the other hand, there are big gaps in most statisticians’ physics and engineering knowledge compared to anyone who has gone to grad school in physics. Generally my breadth and depth of knowledge is about right for the kind of work that I do, I think.
But last week I was offered a consulting job that might be better done by someone with more conventional stats knowledge than I have. The job involves gene expression in different types of tumors, so it’s “biostatistics” by definition, but the specific questions of interest aren’t specialized biostats ones (there’s no analysis of microarray data, for instance). I’m comfortable doing the work, but I’m not the ideal person for the job. I was very clear about that both in writing and on the phone, but the company wanted to hire me anyway: they need a few questions answered very quickly, and their staff is so overworked at the moment that they would rather have me — I was suggested or at least mentioned by a friend who works at the company — than have one of their people spend hours trying to track down someone else who can do the work right away, even if that person is better.
I said sure, but then had to decide how much to charge. I’ve only ever done five small consulting jobs, and I’ve charged as little as $80/hour (working for some ecologists who didn’t have any money) and as much as $250/hour (consortium of insurance companies).
Picking a number out of the air, I’m charging $150/hour. Upon reflection, this feels low to me. Of course one way to think of it is: would I rather have spent three hours last night working on this project for $450, or would I have preferred doing whatever else I would have done instead but not making any money? (My wife is out of town and I hadn’t made plans, so I probably just would have read or watched TV). By that standard I am charging a fair rate, I was happy enough working on this last night. But I also have to put in some time this weekend, when I might feel differently: I’ll probably be giving up something more enjoyable this weekend. Still, overall I think that if I focus just on my own satisfaction in a limited sense, then $150/hour is OK.
On the other hand, I think that from the company’s perspective, at least in this particular instance, they are getting a fantastic deal. Having spoken with the people they’ve had looking at the data up to now, I am definitely much better at this than they are!
So if the company is thinking “boy, this is absolutely fantastic, that we were able to get this so quickly and for so little money”, while I’m thinking “Eh, OK, this isn’t too bad and I’m getting enough money to pay for a year of cell phone service [or whatever]“, then I feel like I should have asked for more (or should in the future).
I know there are people out there who charge much more. But on the other hand, some universities offer stats consulting for $80-$100/hour, although this is surely not the free-market rate.
For the future it would be good to have a better idea of how to set a rate.