After spending the first half of his career in corporate marketing communications, public relations and consulting, the author became a university professor. Finding his way there and maneuvering through his new world has been a journey of trial and error. He now talks with many other marketing professionals who contemplate making a similar career move. Here are his thoughts.
The first 25 years of my career were spent in corporate marketing communications, public relations and consulting roles. It’s what I did during the day – usually very long days. It paid the bills, I knew it well, it was comfortable, and those are just a few of reasons it was hard to envision not always doing it. When I’d attend retirement receptions for co-workers who had done it for longer than I, they’d make a little speech while their spouse and adult children stood dutifully next to the cake and I’d think “yep, that’ll be me someday.”
But on the side, I was moonlighting. I’d started teaching college classes.
I loved interacting with and getting to know the students. They’d ask challenging questions and keep me on my toes. Sometimes, they’d ask for career advice. Once in a while, I’d see a light bulb go on – a kid who didn’t grasp something finally got it – and that was more fulfilling than any reward I ever got in my day job.
And so it was that I began purposely steering my career in an academic direction. I taught a little more often. I served on an advisory committee for another nearby university. I also began scheduling coffee with nearly every professor I knew so that I could pick his or her brain about how to transition into teaching. Several scoffed at me for even trying, mostly because I didn’t have a Ph.D. and wasn’t trained to be an academic.
Finally, in January 2012 I landed my dream job: Assistant Professor and Director for a new program at a major university. It was a great fit and still is, but it’s also been more learning and longer hours than I ever thought imaginable. I realize now that although I knew how to teach, I didn’t really know much about academia. Sometimes I still feel like a fish out of water. But the satisfaction is incredible, and making the switch was the best career move I ever made.
I now meet many other mid-career marketing professionals who contemplate a similar transition. What follows are some things I wish I had understood better a few years ago.
Feel the Passion
First and foremost, those who think about teaching really should have a passion for it. It’s hard work – I’ve never worked so many hours per week in my life – and it’s likely you’ll take a pay cut to do it. Once in a while I talk to people whose motivation to teach appears to be finding a safe haven from corporate downsizings or who want summers off. They’d be surprised that teaching often offers neither.
If you’re not sure how you’d do, or wonder about the passion, give it a try. I’ve found it’s not too difficult for marketing professionals to land a stint teaching a college class as a part-time adjunct instructor. If you like it and do well the first semester, you can leverage the experience and try again the next. (And if you’re not sure what “adjunct” means – and few outside of academics do – read on.)
Marketing professionals seeking to break into academic should look for these positions:
Adjunct – An adjunct is someone hired to teach for a short term period (contracted for a semester or year). Many adjuncts teach perhaps multiple courses, frequently at multiple institutions. Adjuncts often work outside academia.
Instructor, Lecturer –The focus of an instructor or lecturer (different title, but similar roles) is typically on teaching a full load. This is not a “tenure-track” position, so there is no expectation for research output.
Assistant Professor – This is a “tenure-track” faculty member who teaches and is also expected to do scholarly research and publish. The tenure process usually takes 5-7 years. If tenure is granted it leads to promotion to associate and perhaps eventually full professorships. If tenure isn’t achieved the job often ends.
Although tenure-track positions are historically the gold standard for joining the ranks of academia, there are fewer of these positions available today as institutions rely more heavily on adjuncts, instructors and lecturers. Studies show that at many schools, part-timers and instructors/lecturers (those without tenure or hope of getting it) comprise about half the faculty.
Visiting Professor, Professor in Residence – The title varies, but this is usually a non-tenured position. The position may lead to a permanent appointment, but often is designed to fill short-term curriculum gaps.
Clinical Professor, Professor of Practice – Primarily for professionals with extensive skills and experience. The focus is on teaching, engagement with the industry and perhaps professional productivity, but without the research expectations that tenure or tenure-track entails.
Some people think academics don’t work too hard and have easy schedules. That’s a myth. I work more now than I ever did in my former life.
A general rule, I spend about eight to ten hours per week, per course, planning, preparing lectures, answering questions outside of class, creating assignments and grading. Additionally, I spend about three hours per week actually teaching each class.
Full-time adjuncts and instructors usually teach at least four courses per semester. Do the math: Eight hours (minimum) of prep plus three hours of teaching multiplied by four courses, and that’s more than a 40-hour week. Add in other things like meetings and advising students and the workweek can easily top 50 hours.
Tenure and tenure-track faculty teach fewer courses because of the need to do research and publish. Still, they are busy. A small study at Boise State University last year found faculty at the assistant professor level and above work an average of 61 hours per week, with about 10 of those hours typically occurring on the weekend. Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows faculty there spend about 50-70 hours per week teaching, supporting students and conducting research.
And there’s pressure to teach even more. Proposals in several states have called for public university faculty to take on greater teaching loads.
Suffice it to say, no matter the rank, academics already work long hours.
“Summers off” is an oxymoron too. Most teaching contracts are for nine months, meaning the paycheck stops in May and resumes in August, so some faculty teach extra courses during summer to supplement their pay. Summer is also when tenured or tenure-track professors are expected to work on their research and writing. As I have learned, you might be off the payroll for a while but you’re rarely off the clock.
Sometimes the people who would make the excellent teachers – those who have excelled in their field, who are passionate about the prospect of giving back to their profession and who have a knack for connecting with and inspiring students – these are often people who were busy climbing the ladder, not piling on an advanced degree. In fact, a U.S. News report shows not all CEOs of Fortune 500 companies even have college degrees.
As a result, many people who would make great teachers are not qualified for the classroom because they don’t have enough formal education.
I am proof that you don’t always need a terminal degree (usually that’s a Ph.D. – I have a Master’s) to enter the ranks of academia, although preferences vary by institution, department and even the dean.
But I can say this: The more education you have, the more doors that will open. Without exception, a Master’s degree is almost always required even for adjunct positions. If you don't have one, get one. It’s unlikely you’ll hit the radar of a search committee without it.
How much money you will make depends on many things. It’s unlike public school teachers, where there are often state-mandated starting salaries and formulas for automatic pay increases based on seniority, additional education and the like.
But suffice it to say, no one teaches just for the money. I teach marketing communications in a school of journalism, and I’m making about half of what I made a decade ago in corporate marketing – but I’m about twice as happy too. Some of my students who recently graduated are interviewing for positions with pay ranges close to mine. Those who graduated just a couple years ago may already be making more than I do now. If I taught in a school of business I would likely make more.
The pay for adjunct positions is per class. Data published in 2012 by the Collation on the Academic Workforce found the median pay for an adjunct teaching a 3-credit hour course ranged from about $2,235 at 2-year colleges to $3,400 at 4-year research universities. I know some schools pay more than that, but not many.
For full-time faculty, pay rises with rank. Of course it depends on the field, the institution, geography and more. But a recent report from the American Association of University Professors indicates that on average, lecturers can generally expect to make about $54,000 to 69,000 annually; assistant professors, $64,000 to $79,000; associate professors, $77,000 to $94,000; and full professors, from $102,000 to $148,000. In general, those at private schools make the most.
The Hiring Process
If you’ve never taught before, test the waters by looking for an adjunct position teaching one class. Contact the dean or a department chair at a local college and let them know of your interest. I’ve found that for adjunct positions, HR staffers don't usually recruit, they just handle the paperwork.
A full-time position will be nearly impossible to land without at least some teaching experience. If you’ve got that, and are ready to jump on board, it’s the same as hunting for any job: network. Monitor help wanted ads in magazines such as Marketing News or on AMA.org and academic trade publications such as The Chronicle of Higher Education. Teaching is one arena where classified advertising is still very effective.
Expect a search committee of 3-6 individuals to screen applications, interview and make the hiring recommendation. Because multiple people are involved, the process can move slowly. Sometimes the recommendation on who to hire isn’t unanimous, so don’t start your new job assuming that everyone on your search team passionately advocated for you.
Most schools begin searching in fall or winter to fill full-time positions that start the following fall, although some full-time positions do start in January. Adjuncts are needed on an ongoing basis to fill semester, summer or intersession courses, so there’s a less defined hiring cycle. Course schedules are usually planned about 6 months in advance, but things do fall through and instructors may be needed at the last minute. That’s why it’s good to get to know deans and department chairs so if they’re scrambling to hire they will know you exist.
You’ll need to provide a college transcript, even if you’ve been out of college for decades and even if it’s just for an adjunct position teaching one class. It’s not about reviewing forgotten GPAs, it’s about the verification of credentials. Accrediting bodies look closely at the credentials of those doing the teaching.
Joining the Faculty
Working in academics is different from working in industry in some very significant ways. A few things I’ve learned:
Governance is shared. While on an organizational chart a department chair or dean is ultimately in charge, faculty vote on most decisions: committee service, strategic plans, courses offered and curriculum changes. Decisions are made slowly, but are well vetted.
Faculty have voices. This is also the only environment I’ve ever worked in where the rank-and-file (faculty) get to vote on the hiring and retention of the bosses (the deans and other leaders). While university administration ultimately make those decisions, the voices of faculty carry great weight.
Politics are politics. The politics are mostly normal, at least in my experience. Prior to being in academia, I’d heard horror stories. Maybe it’s because I spent more than two decades in the corporate world and saw it all, but university politics don’t seem that much different from other places I’ve worked.
Hierarchy matters. There’s more formality and hierarchy than I’ve had in my other jobs. Things like who gets to vote on what issues, what kinds of caps and regalia are worn at graduation ceremonies and even how people are addressed are important.
I’d make this career switch again in a heartbeat. I’m tenure-track, which means I have just a couple more years to prove myself. I hope it works. If not, my stint in academia might switch gears or be short-lived. But even if so, I’ll still know I experienced something more rewarding than I ever could have imagined when I started my professional career all those years ago. And maybe I’ll have done something that made a real difference.