Thursday, May 08, 2008


Ask the Administrator: Can the Prodigal Daughter Return?

A lucky correspondent writes:

I'm doing a broad, interdisciplinary Social Science
degree. While I've been in a cave researching and
writing my dissertation the method that I use and the
community that I work with have become The Next Big
Thing. I've been approached by a private company who
want me to do some consulting work for them (yes
please!) and my contact there said that if she had her
way they'd hire me to do this full time, and that I'm
in great demand and can basically write my own ticket.
All of this is news to me, and kind of a shock, but it
is nice to know that once I finish I'll be employable

But here's the thing, academe is my dream job. I'd
like a tt track job somewhere, I love teaching and
researching, even service work, and I'm pretty good at
them, too. But the market sucks right now and my
research field and my teachable areas are a not a
tight fit, so I look weird on paper. I'm no fool, when
I graduate I'm taking a private sector job if one is
on offer that beats an adjunct's pay (and what doesn't
these days?), but will it screw my chances at getting
a tt job later? I plan on applying for everything
going while I work, and the private sector work would
essentially be designing and doing research, but given
the biases against some kinds of private sector work
in the social sciences, could I be working myself out
of the possibility of a tt job? Just to clarify,
teaching experience is not an issue, I have about 10
years under my belt.

Thanks for any advice anyone can offer,
Suddenly Popular in the Private Sector

This is the good kind of problem to have.

I'm not sure which stratum of higher ed you're looking at, so I'll just speak to the sector I know and ask my wise and worldly readers to fill in the gaps for the research universities and SLAC's.

Assuming a generally glutted market, you really have two possible ways to stand out. One is to come out of the tip-toppiest program with dual book contracts and references from God herself. I'll assume that if that described your situation, you wouldn't have written. The other is to make yourself different. Corporate experience can do that.

In the cc world, as I've observed it, corporate experience is not a negative. If anything, it's a plus, in that it suggests that you know how to meet deadlines, how to work in teams, and how to advise students to succeed in the corporate world (having done it yourself). These are not small things. When a substantial number of students are first-generation college, the professor's job goes beyond just teaching the class. It also involves advising, which officially includes course selection but unofficially often goes well beyond that. The folks who've never worked outside the hothouse of academe don't have the same corporate experiences to call upon when helping students understand how certain kinds of workplaces operate.

Corporate experience can also bring contacts, exposure to current industry trends, and a backdrop against which to appreciate the genuine freedoms of academia. It can also greatly improve your bargaining position, since you'd have the economic luxury of being able to turn down lousy offers. Folks who can ply their wares in multiple markets can command better deals than folks who can't.

Other than a certain brittle, defensive snobbishness based on insecurity, I'm not sure what the principled objection would be. “How dare she make a living?” “How dare she soil herself by dealing with the real world? We social scientists ignore the real world!” Well, actually, they kinda do, but that's another post.

Unless I'm missing something really huge, from my vantage point, putting the corporate arrow in your quiver can only help. Go for it!

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – especially those at other strata of higher ed – how does this look from your vantage point?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Not sure what "interdisciplinary social science" and "spelunking" disciplines involve exactly . . . but from a R1 business school perspective (YMMV):

In our department we have two separate programs. In Logistics and Supply Chain Management, 3 out of 4 faculty have *extensive* "corporate experience" (as in full time career; getting the Ph.D. was a secondary thing). The remaining faculty member is the classic BS-MS-PhD professional student; we hired her in spite of this lack of relevant industry experience.

On the other hand, the Marketing faculty have very little industry experience (two out of 13 worked briefly in sales and as a reserve military officer, respectively; the rest are all professional students).

So, Your Mileage May Vary depending on the nature of your discipline. Some TT disciplines prize industry experience. Others don't.

Honestly, I have no idea whether "industry experience" would be considered a benefit- or evidence of "selling out" in your discipline.

You should probably be asking senior mentors in your specific field . . .
From the perspective of somebody at a regional, primarily teaching 4-year:

The way to keep yourself in the game is to make sure you show consistent commitment to your field and to teaching. The corporate job in itself wouldn't hurt you with us, but not teaching anything for 2-5 years would. I'd say that it would be smart thinking to adjunct at least one course a year while you'd do the corporate job. Also, keep going to conferences and keep producing research! If 2-5 years out all you've got is an old dissertation, we wouldn't hire you. We'd think, "how will this person manage to get tenure here?" and move on to the next candidate. So plan to present your work at least one conference a year (also helps with networking, which helps with academic job-getting) and try to get a solid article a year out when you're not working in academe.

That'd be my advice at any rate. I'm not, however, in your field (or even close to it) so results may vary depending.
To completely oversimplify matters, in the current job market it seems like a bird in the hand is worth more than two in the bush.
First, Dean Dad: interesting blog. I am going to recommend it to my administrators.

My background is a little different since I am an engineer (in Canada at that), but in my opinion experience can only help. She may want to keep her hand in at teaching and make sure she retains contacts with her academic acquaintance, but taking a job for a year two can only help.

Heck, I shifted a career or two before I ended up back in the halls.

Good Luck
A few corrections to the original letter, which might help the writer focus on the issues.

but it is nice to know that once I finish I'll be employable somewhere. Correction: It is nice to know that I am employable somewhere right now.

Now if you have no student loans and are making enough on an RA to save money, you can afford to wait. If you can make more money as private contractor than you can sitting in your cave, and if you are actually "writing your diss" so you are within a year of finishing, why not pursue this job? Right now.

But the [academic] market sucks right now Correction: the market is pretty good right now in many fields, but is unlikely to get better.

The optimism implied by "right now" is not justified. You can look through my "jobs" series to see the physics data on supply and demand, where excellent information has existed over decades. Odds for getting any academic job in physics are 1/5 for recent PhD grads, increasing to 1/3 over a career, but they are only 1/20 for jobs that most people think of as being a professor (a school like the one where you are earning your PhD). And those are good odds compared to some times in the not so distant past.

Now if your area really is The Next Big Thing, ignore that advice about a real job to pay off loans and get a life, and see if you can get an academic job while your thesis topic is hot. It just might stay hot enough for long enough to make it relatively easy to get a job in the next year and earn tenure within the next seven.

Just remember one thing: The order is not "teaching research and service". It is generally "reseach and grants and service, and teaching" at an R1. You ignore this at your peril.
Long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away, I stepped out of higher education (for 4 years) to work in local government (in a high-ish level economic development planning position). Things may have changed, but on finishing my dissertation and deciding that local government was not where I wanted to be, I discovered that those 4 years (and the things I'd published during that time) counted, essentially, for nothing.

In disciplines, like some business fields, like many health/human services fields, at least sometimes in education, non-academic experience was then, and continues to be a plus.

In your "standard" liberal arts disciplines, my impression is not so much. In the sciences, also, I think, not so much.

Your mileage may vary.
Finally one I can answer from experience :-)

I was hired to teach at a community college because of my engineering experience. Real world skills and experience counted for more than theory, because I was teaching the kids practical skills.

When I decided I'd rather teach high school, again I was hired because of my real-world experience. (Had to go back to university for an B.Ed. as well, but I don't think I'd have been hired without the experience.)
If you want to teach, you must know how people think and learn. See the new book on "Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better".
I've seen some fascinating opportunities for ethnographic and other qualitative social science work out in the business world. I know my skills in these areas gave me a good transition to industry, and it was my industry experience that made me valuable to the University where I now teach.

If my dream job had been to teach Victorian literature, that probably wouldn't have worked [although I think there are meaningful parallels to be drawn!], but in the rhetoric/tech comm and consumer behavior worlds, industry experience sets you ahead of candidates without such credentials.

[When I left my non-tt job to go into industry, there was a shockwave through the grad school: no one thought someone with an English background _had_ a market value].

Do not underestimate the value of being able to pay off your loans, get a nicer place to live, and be able to teach a course or courses of your choosing on a part-time basis.

Good luck, whatever you decide!
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