Professionals Turned Professors

When I was applying to PhD programs, going on campus visits and speaking to professors, I often heard something like, “You worked in industry for a few years? That’s great! There are big advantages to getting real-world experience before going to grad school.” At the time, I assumed that those people meant that, having had a “real job” in industry, I had a better idea of what I wanted to do than those who came straight from undergrad. Or that the “years of experience” on my resume would help me get an industry job with my PhD if I wanted one. Most likely, that is what they meant. However, I was wondering lately, are there other advantages?

This semester is my third time as the GTA teaching the labs for the Intro to Industrial and Systems Engineering course. One of the labs is spent discussing what ISE is, the four main areas of the field, and what types of jobs are available. I’ve found that, as someone who’s worked as an industrial engineer, I can draw on my personal experience during that discussion to talk about what I did and what I’ve seen others do. I can also answer a lot of their questions about internships and career options in a way most of the professors can’t, because they never had a typical non-research industry job. Later in the semester, when I’m teaching advanced Matlab and Excel skills and the students are complaining that they’ll never use them, I can talk about how I’ve actually used both programs in my job. And I do feel like the students respond positively to my “real-world” stories.

I also wonder if people who once worked in industry tend to teach differently than those who have always been in academia. Do they focus more on the practical over the theoretical? Do they tend to assign more projects that mimic things you might do in a job? Are there no differences at all and I’m just over-thinking it?