The Transition from Industry to the Academy
R. Steven Turley
You may be considering leaving industrial or government employment
for an academic job. If so, my experience and those of colleagues who
have made similar transitions might prove helpful. I will specifically
focus on three aspects of the process: preparing for the switch, marketing
yourself, and adapting to the academic culture.
The first step in preparing for an academic job is to make sure that
is what you want to do. Some of my considerations were:
Salary: My academic salary is significantly lower than what
I was getting in industry. This is generally true for others as well.
Colleagues: In my case, there is a stronger sense of collegiality
in my academic department than I had with my industrial co-workers.
Others have reported that their academic departments were more political
than non-academic settings.
Research: I have less time and fewer resources for research
than I did in industry. On the other hand, I have more independence
in the projects I pursue and have fewer impediments in sharing the
results of my research with others.
Students: My relationships with students, both in the classroom
and in mentoring settings, bring me a fulfillment not readily available
in industry. On the other hand, they exact a cost in both time and
Culture: I found a richer intellectual environment in academia
than industry. I am involved in broader discussions within and outside
of physics than was usually the case in industry. Another significant
difference is that academic policies are more often determined by
faculty committees than by administrators. Corporate policies were
generally specified by managers.
Complexity: My academic assignment has many more facets than
my corporate position.
The two main criteria that will be used to evaluate you in the academic
job market are your potential as a teacher and a scholar. There are
a number of things you can do to accumulate evidence and experience
that will impress faculty hiring committees.
There is no substitute for any teaching experience you can acquire.
Be creative in looking for opportunities to teach in corporate training
seminars, short courses at professional meetings, and adjunct opportunities
at local colleges. Student and peer evaluations of your teaching will
be particularly valuable. Become conversant with physics education
literature and best teaching practices.
To the extent you can, direct your industrial research in areas of
interest in the academic community. Academic hiring committees will
be the most impressed by publications in general physics journals and
with success in obtaining external funding for your research. Patents,
internal reports, and contract reports are usually less valued. Even
if you need to publish papers on your own time, it is well worth the
When you apply for an academic position, it helps to do some extra
marketing to successfully compete with applicants from academic settings.
It often helps to translate industrial experiences into equivalent
academic ones. For instance, you could relate experience running training
seminars to classroom teaching. Bringing copies of reports written
for managers or clients provides additional evidence of scholarship.
It is wise to go out of your way to make personal and professional
connections with academic colleagues. They can help you locate employment
opportunities, serve as references, clue you in on what various departments
are like, and let you know what different schools are looking for.
Use your contacts to help you understand the culture in the various
As is the case with looking for industrial positions, it is very helpful
to know as much as you can about places you would like to teach. Be
prepared to explain ways that you can make a unique contribution to
help meet their departmental and institutional objectives.
Once you get your first job, you will need to make some adjustments
to adapt to an academic setting. These may include adding teaching
to your professional responsibilities, changing the focus of what you
are doing, balancing more complicated time commitments, adapting to
cultural differences, and looking for different rewards for your efforts.
Look for mentors to help you master the complicated process of effective
teaching. Team teaching a course with an experienced colleague can
be particularly helpful. Stay current with physics education and become
involved in institutional opportunities to learn about improving your
teaching. The American Association of Physics Teachers and the APS
Forum on Education both provide excellent opportunities at conferences,
Well-designed student and peer evaluations can also be valuable tools
to improve your teaching. Your school probably has some sort of mechanism
already in place. My favorite tool is the IDEAS survey available through
Kansas State University. It provides specific constructive suggestions
on research-based teaching techniques. Non-evaluative feedback from
your own surveys may be the most useful instruments for you to use.
You can ask "dangerous" questions without fear of repercussions, tailor
the survey to meet your specific needs and objectives, and discover
needed changes before it's too late to have an impact on the current
course. I have also had good experiences with trained student observers
from our campus faculty development center and getting informal feedback
from students as I visit with them before and after class or in my
You may encounter a difference in focus between your academic assignments
and those you had in industry. I had to make a shift from a product-centered
to a student-centered focus. Generally, teaching should be a critical
part of what you do rather than a distraction from your research. If
you regard it as an opportunity rather than a "load" it will be more
enjoyable and more fulfilling. Mentoring opportunities with students
should be treated in the same say. Look for joy in your opportunity
to assist students making the transition to professional physicists
rather than being annoyed that they take time away from other things.
Another attitude that is usually more pervasive in academic than corporate
cultures is an emphasis on making a difference in our local or global
community. To fit into this culture, find something you are passionate
about and look for ways to have a significant impact. Some ideas to
consider are particular social and political issues, assisting involvement
of traditionally under-involved groups, improving K-12 education, and
being a role model in the community (for at-risk youth, for instance).
Being involved in the community puts a human face on our discipline
and shows them why what we do matters.
You will probably find yourself with more flexible time, but with
a more complicated time commitment in academic assignments than industrial
ones. For new faculty, there is often pressure to sacrifice time in
other areas that are important to you (such as family, hobbies, or
service) to meet school expectations. In the long run, these sacrifices
usually lead to tension and unhappiness. I participated in a helpful
exercise at a conference for department chairs in 2001 where we were
each asked to write down an ordered list of the things that were most
important to us. We then compared that list to where we spent our resources
(time, energy, and money). Conflicts between what we value and what
we do produce stress.
In dealing with the various time demands, it is helpful to keep in
mind the relative importance of various time investments to your institution.
For instance, at my school, excellent classroom teaching gets a lot
more credit than the development of new courses (and is a lot less
risky). Citizenship efforts that directly enhance the undergraduate
experience are more highly valued than community outreach efforts.
Experienced faculty, especially those involved in tenure and promotion
committees, can clue you in on the focus that will bring the highest
return at your school.
Having gone through the process of preparation for a change, successfully
marketing yourself to get a position, and adapting to an academic environment
you may find it helpful occasionally to remind yourself why you made
the change. In my case, I made a conscious decision to sacrifice some
financial remuneration for more independence in research, departmental
collegiality, relationships with students, teaching opportunities,
and the university culture. When things are tight financially, it is
helpful to remind myself of why I made the trade-offs I did.
If you are considering the move to academia, now may be a good time
to start getting ready. At my institution as well as others (see Denise
K Magner, "The Imminent Surge in Retirements", The Chronicle of
Higher Education, March 17, 2000; Rachel Ivie, Katie Stowe, Roman
Czujko, "2000 Physics Academic Workforce Report," AIP Pub. Number R-392.4,
March 2001) faculty retirements are increasing while PhD enrollments
are decreasing. With good preparation, marketing, and adaptation this
could be an opportune time to make this transition.
R. Steven Turley is Professor and Chair of the Department of Physics
and Astronomy at Brigham Young University, PO Box 24679, Provo, UT,
84602-4679. He can be reached at email@example.com