FEd Summer 2002 Newsletter - The Transition from Industry to the Academy

Summer 2002



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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 energy.

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 investment.


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 academic environments.

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, for instance.

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 office.

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 steve_turley@byu.edu