The Work of a Consultant: Guest Post by Sarah Erdman


When I talk to museum professionals, especially those just establishing themselves
in the field, there is often a romanticized view of consulting work. You get to focus
on your passions, you keep things fresh, you have flexibility. And you can make a
living. All of these can be true, and working as an independent professional can be a
wonderful fit for many. However, I think it does all of us a disservice if we gloss over
the unique challenges independent professionals face, whether they remain for
many years or see themselves returning to employee status in the future

“Consultant” and “Founder” is a title that I’ve held for four years, starting when I left
my full time job to stay home with my baby. I was lucky I had that choice, the
position I left would have meant long hours away from home, and an uneven
schedule that I didn’t want. However, I also knew that I had professional passions I
wanted to nurture. The best (and most fiscally reasonable) way to balance giving up
a full time income was to become a consultant.

That makes it seem so simple, but of course it is more complicated than that. I was
lucky that my professional networks kicked in at the right moment, and I landed a
fulfilling project that helped me jumpstart. There was also the fact that we could
depend on my spouse’s income. It also doesn’t address the long stretches where I
had no projects to work on or the project I lost when I became pregnant again.
That is my story, but I knew that other independent professionals had a different
experience. I created a survey that I shared online to get feedback from others on
the benefits, challenges and motivations for getting into consulting.

The results came in fast and furious, and people were eager to share the many
benefits of being an independent professional. You have independence and
flexibility in your schedule, pay, location and projects. It can help bridge the gap if
there is a lack of full time work or give you a chance to collaborate with
organizations you are interested in. You can also focus your work on your passions.
Along with the benefits, the survey provided a clear­eyed look at the challenges.
Freedom and the flexibility is often the main draw of independent work, but it is
exhausting to maintain. Balancing multiple projects sometimes results in a “feast or
famine” scenario where you are either overwhelmed with work or trying to keep
busy. You may be constantly on the hunt for projects or trying to prove your worth
on just one so when it’s time for a contract renewal you feel secure.

Sick days don’t exist…or parental/caregiver leave. Those are just times when you
aren’t working and aren’t getting paid. If you are the primary breadwinner it may
not feel stable. I’ve also experienced a different feeling as the trailing partner, I feel
like I need to pick up all the slack at home to compensate for my lower paycheck.
Within projects it can be hard to feel part of the workplace social aspect. Maybe you
aren’t on­site, maybe you are in at odd times or move from project to project. The boost you get from colleagues can be vital to mental wellbeing at work, and is often
missing from contract work.

That seems like a long list of negatives, but it is not meant as a complaint. Instead, it
is meant as a reminder of the challenges that come with all those benefits. If you are
considering contract work it is important to think about how it will affect all aspects
of your life including personal and long­term professional. If you are already an
independent professional, it is good to remember that the challenges you face are
unique to this type of work, and it is ok to acknowledge them, and look for solutions
that work for you..

The number of independent museum is professionals is growing. At the 2015
American Alliance of Museums conference 18% of attendees identified as
consultants, the largest group represented (Museum Magazine July/August 2015),
but it isn’t something that is frequently talked about or well understood by people
entering the field. For every person who does it by choice, there are others who
consult because jobs don’t exist or they aren’t able to take a full time position and
meet other responsibilities.

As contractors or potential contractors, we need to know our rights so we can
protect ourselves legally and financially. As independent contractors, we must speak
up when we need support from our professional networks, so that we are informed
and make sure potential employers are also informed. We also need to acknowledge
specific challenges we face in the work/social environment, and in our personal
lives. One of the points that survey respondents made again and again was not to
undersell your talents or the value of your time just because you believe in the cause or have a passion for your work. Your expertise deserves to be acknowledged and
your work fully compensated.

If you are a museum leader, you need to make sure that you know the legal
definition of “contractor,” and also think about why the position you’ve advertised
should be filled by a contractor not a staff person.. Keep your oversight expectations
in mind, (Are you a hands on or hands off manager?) and the scheduling needs of the
organization. Also, don’t forget the social aspect of work. Do you want your
contractors to participate in the daily life of the museum? Is it a requirement or a
choice? Remember, you are bringing in a consultant because they have expertise
and can provide you with a service. Respect their contribution and skills.
Including independent professionals in museum work can be a huge benefit to both sides. The contractor does work they are interested in, on a schedule that meets
their needs, while the museum gets some outside expertise and completes a project
that might otherwise get left behind. However, it isn’t a perfect fairy­tale fix, and it
doesn’t look the same as a staff position. If we acknowledge that, and keep it in mind
going forward everyone will be better off.

Employee vs. Independent Contractor: Who Am I?

The IRS is the final arbiter of whether someone is an “employee” or an “independent contractor.” There are lots of resources on their website , but the details can be a little confusing. In general, if you provide a service to an organization, you are
probably an independent contractor. However, if the organization controls what will
be done and how it will be done then you are an employee. They have three
guidelines that you should assess to determine what your relationship with the
organization is.

1. Behavioral : Does the company control or have the right to control what the
worker does and how the worker does his or her job?
2. Financial : Are the business aspects of the worker’s job controlled by the
payer? (These include things like how worker is paid, whether expenses are
reimbursed, who provides tools/supplies, etc.)
3. Type of Relationship : Are there written contracts or employee type benefits
(i.e. pension plan, insurance, vacation pay, etc.)? Will the relationship continue and
is the work performed a key aspect of the business?

For independent contractors in museums, it is critical to look at the “type of
relationship” assessment. The IRS specifically details that if the person provides
services that are “key aspects of the business” then they are more likely to be
controlled by the organization and therefore are employees. Also, the permanency
of the relationship needs to be looked at. “If you hire a worker with the expectation
that the relationship will continue indefinitely, rather than for a specific project or
period, this is generally considered evidence that the intent was to create an
employer­/employee relationship.”

It really does matter whether you fit the legal definition of employee or independent
contractor because it changes the tax and compensation responsibilities of you and
your employer. If you aren’t sure, you can file IRS Form SS-­8, Determination of Worker
Status for Purposes of Federal Employment Taxes and Income Tax Withholding
(PDF) but it may take 6 months to get a determination. For additional help, you can
also see if there is a small business development center, state office or non­profit that provides guidance.


Sarah Erdman is a mom, museum professional and early childhood educator. Her research and professional practice explores how museums and educators can connect to make meaningful experiences for young children. She writes at

7 Comments on “The Work of a Consultant: Guest Post by Sarah Erdman”

  1. Kal says:

    I was an independent contractor prior to taking the job I have now which is a salaried employee position at a museum. While it was fun, lots of traveling and seeing amazing collections, it was really awful not getting paid in the event of being sick or when we got 12 feet of snow dumped on us…and everything was closed down for close to a month. I rely solely on myself for income, so that was rough. I made the decision to leave my position as an independent contractor right after the snow storm incident. I was afraid that if something else like that happened, I may not have enough money in the bank. I was also afraid that our flow of projects would dry up. Another bad thing about the contracting was the taxes….self employment tax, federal tax, and state income tax ate up a huge portion of my pay. When people ask me if they should pursue independent work, I always tell them…check on how much in taxes you’d have to pay and make sure the pay is worth it.

    Other than those hang ups, I met some amazing people through contracting and had a great time. I gained a ton of experience (experience which helped me get the job I have now) so there’s no regrets there.

    • I agree that figuring out the legal/accounting side can be very overwhelming. It is helpful to get a professional to walk you through it before you make a decision. Great connections and interesting people/projects are definitely one of the perks!- Sarah

  2. Cheryl Stoeber-Goff says:

    Thank you Sarah, for shedding light on what is often a romantic notion of being your own boss.
    Unfortunately, the museum profession is losing full time positions because Boards see the economy of using contractors, but as stated, rarely understand what that means. Also, not wanting to pay fair prices for one. However, opportunity awaits. I lived life as a consultant/contractor too, spending years, 25+, producing museum murals/graphics, designing/building exhibits and managing museum collections in what used to be called ‘free-lance’. All at a time, not unlike today. Imagine runaway inflation, out of college and no jobs. Sound familiar? the early 1980s… then stocks free fall, companies globalize and consolidate, massive layoffs…. the 1990s. I’m a full-time museum curator now for the last decade, but I’d also like to add some hard won wisdom for a new crop of .

    Treat the work as your own small business. No LLC required. You are CEO, CFO, Marketer, Employee, etc. Knowing the work ‘relationship’ is important. However, I found no matter who I worked with/for, as a ‘contractor/consultant’ we signed my contract and theirs too. Learn to negotiate well by understanding their side. Let them understand the project from your angle as well. Costs, timeframes, and how much/when you will be paid. Many museums have Hourly/Seasonal part-time employees on projects that are grant drive. Learn how to write a grant and yourself into it. I did all this while also juggling home finances, etc. who doesn’t? Know the limits of your budget, time and ability.

    Learn to separate work from home. Keeping a schedule is one of the hardest parts of this. My studio was at home and I was on the road a lot. I included the family and asked support, then explained the ‘rules’ to know when I was working. Even if you’re still living with parents, do the same.

    Most importantly: Know your work, do what you do well, produce quality results, deliver on time within budget (no excuses) communicate effectively (face to face/telephone stuff is important) and become a trusted ‘business professional’. Let your clients/customers know you want to do this and you enjoy helping them. Remember, you judge your mechanic or doctor for the quality of their work. After all, they’re independent professionals too. Have that same drive and commitment and there’s no telling what the future holds.

    • Those are really great words of wisdom! I think remembering that you (and your work) are a professional commodity, with all the rights and responsibilities that come along with it, is such an important thing to remember.

  3. Rachel L. says:

    Thanks for this post! I have a quick question – If one is submitting a contract for oneself to work as an independent contractor at, say, the Smithsonian– do you need to technically start your own independent consulting company? Is it enough to say you are self-employed even if you have not “started” a business? I have done some searching but keep finding some conflicting information.

    Thank you!

    • Cheryl Stoeber-Goff says:

      You are right, anyone can say they are a consultant. Often, the resume is what most organizations require with references. But it doesn’t hurt to ask what the requirements of the institution are regarding consultation work. Some see the job as a ‘part time limited’ position. I’ve had some organizations needing to see my state sales tax certificate (you are not a non profit), or required a business registration certificate. These can be easy to apply for as self employed. Make sure you have a separate bank account for your work and pay the applicable taxes. I painted murals backdrops for a while and was responsible for the materials and scaffolding rental. One museum hired me several times to design and build an exhibits. They decided to make me a ‘seasonal’ hire. hope this info helps.
      Good luck.

  4. […] special initiatives, and fill gaps in their staffs on a temporary basis. In July we published a guest post by Sarah Erdman on a consultant’s view from the outside. Today’s post looks at […]

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