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.