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?

3 thoughts on “Professionals Turned Professors”

  1. I had the same situation to you. I worked for one and half years before entering to VT. I believe practical ways to teach the students are more effective. I think the students should know about the impacts of their knowledge on the world. It helps them to be more interested in their career in the future.

  2. This is a great point. I’m a huge fan of taking time off to work in industry before going back to grad school. I took three years off, and I think it was one of the best. I’m not sure about differences in teaching, but I do feel as if working gave me a perspective that I don’t think I had coming out of undergrad. Not only does it contribute to the application of my research (and works to bridge the research-practitioner gap), I feel I matured in that I am better able to situate graduate studies and academia in society. Kudos to those who go straight, though. That’s a lot of school without a break!
    As for teaching, I know in my previous position I was able to practice speaking in front of large groups of people, including big dogs in the company, so it improved my public speaking skills. I think that certainly helped.

  3. I ask about teaching differently partly because, when I taught a databasing class over the summer, I tried to base their project on a database I actually built in my job. Same type of data, same type of requirements, just with a lot fewer errors in the data. I think the project I would have given them if I had never worked in industry would have been much different. I also feel like I wouldn’t be able to respond to the complaints of “Why do we have to learn this? We’ll never need this!” nearly as well. (I understand the complaints. I made them myself. Then I ended up building databases while working in a job that had nothing to do with databases, simply because I was the only one who knew how.)

    Partly this post is coming from my essay, which is about the debate over the link (or lack thereof) between teaching and research. Some people argue that a good college teacher must also be an active researcher. However, many of the arguments they make could also be applied to former industry professionals in fields like engineering. I’m curious if anyone’s ever really looked into that, from an education research standpoint.

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