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?

Teaching, Research, and the Future of the University

There are many things I’d like to see change in the future of higher education in America. However, the topic that is nearest and dearest to my heart is that of research-teaching balance. There’s no question that American research universities have been emphasizing research more and more in their hiring and tenure decisions in recent decades. In some places, professors can even get tenure with a less-than-satisfactory teaching record, as long as their publication and grant records are stellar. However, the pendulum, which has swung so far toward research, may finally be starting to swing back toward a more balanced view of research and undergraduate teaching. This is a shift that I would like to see continue.

Many universities have had non-tenure track teaching faculty for a long time. However, these positions have traditionally been badly-paid part-time jobs, or full-time positions with no opportunity for advancement. Some schools, including Virginia Tech, are now putting into place teaching faculty tracks, which have levels equivalent to the assistant, associate, and full professors of the tenure track. These faculty are generally required to keep up-to-date on the latest research that relates to their classes as well as educational research. They are also encouraged, though not required, to contribute to educational research. Their advancement is tied only to their teaching.

This system has many advantages. The tenure-track faculty are freed from teaching the introductory levels and instead can focus on their research and the upper level classes that are more related to their interests. Meanwhile, the lower level undergraduates get professors that are more excited to teach them and more current on the latest educational research which, at that level, is probably more relevant than discipline-specific research. Finally, the tenure-track faculty have access to a new resource in their teaching-track colleagues. If they have teaching-related questions, they can direct them to the experts, which would improve the quality of education at the upper levels as well.

For too long, many universities have prioritized research above all else. Now that that’s begun to change, I hope to see schools place value on all parts of their mission: research, service, and teaching.

The Strange Case of Dr. Potti

The case of Dr. Anil Potti is probably one of the most high-profile research integrity cases recently (it even made it onto 60 Minutes!). In 2006, when Dr. Potti was an Associate Professor at the medical school at Duke University, he claimed to have found a way to customize cancer treatments based on specific genetic markers. The clinical trials were halted for a time when others were unable to replicate the results of his original studies. However, outside reviewers found no evidence of misconduct, so the trials were allowed to continue. Then questions arose about an inconsistency in Dr. Potti’s resume, and it was revealed that one of his medical students had raised concerns about the research. In response to the controversy, Dr. Potti resigned his position at Duke in 2010.

This year, finally, the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) made a ruling about Dr. Potti’s case, and it was found that he had grossly falsified data in his grant applications and published papers. For example, in one grant he claimed that 6 out of 33 people in a trial responded to a treatment. However, that trial had only 4 people enrolled total. In another paper, he changed the result for more than half of the samples reported. At least 9 published papers have been retracted, and the total could be as many as 27 (I had trouble finding an accurate number). Duke has also settled with the families of eight of Dr. Potti’s former patients, who sued the school.

Yet, in all of this, Dr. Potti has never admitted wrongdoing and, instead, entered into a Voluntary Settlement Agreement with ORI. For five years, he is required to be supervised when working on research funded by the US Public Health Services (PHS) and cannot serve as an advisor to PHS. However, he has not done PHS-funded research since 2010 and states that he has no intention of doing it again. So, essentially, this “punishment” means absolutely nothing to him. Yes, there is now a black mark of research misconduct on his record, but he retains his medical license and, as of right now, his job as a practicing oncologist. Could ORI have done more? Probably not. They have no power over anything except their own funding. However, maybe this kind of gross misconduct should affect his medical license, since he was acting, not just as a researcher, but also as a medical doctor when conducting these trials.

Industrial Engineering Ethics

Industrial Engineering is an incredibly diverse field, including everything from cognitive ergonomics, which incorporates a large amount of psychology and computer science, to manufacturing processes to supply chain optimization. It would be difficult to create a specific code of ethics that could cover all these different areas, so instead the Institute of Industrial Engineers (IIE) chose to endorse a more general code of ethics from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), which is reproduced below.

First and foremost among the Fundamental Canons is “Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public in the performance of their professional duties.” In some areas of industrial engineering, the potential to affect the safety of the public is obvious. If a manufacturing engineer cuts corners on materials for tires, they could blow out and roll the car (as Firestone tires did in the 1990s). If a human factors engineer makes the heads-up display in a car too large or busy, distracted drivers could get in accidents. In optimization, my field, the connection to the wellbeing of the public is often less obvious, but it’s still there. In my previous job in workforce development, I used simulation models to help plan the hiring, training, and “reductions in force” for half of the 20,000 employees of a very large shipyard. If I manipulated my data, maybe at the request of a manager with a particular point to prove, it could cause the shipyard to hire more people than they actually needed, which could lead to lost profits for the shipyard and layoffs for the employees. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find an engineering job that doesn’t have the potential to negatively affect the lives of others.

Any profession that requires specialized training, like engineering, comes with the responsibility to use that training to protect the safety and welfare of the public. Note that this is not the same thing as “to benefit the public.” From an ethical standpoint, there is nothing wrong with using your training purely for selfish reasons, as long as, in doing so, you don’t hurt anyone (it may be morally wrong, but not ethically).


Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology Canon of Ethics:

The Fundamental Principles
Engineers uphold and advance the integrity, honor and dignity of the engineering profession by:

  1. Using their knowledge and skill for the enhancement of human welfare;
  2. Being honest and impartial, and serving with fidelity the public, their employers and clients;
  3. Striving to increase the competence and prestige of the engineering profession; and
  4. Supporting the professional and technical societies of their disciplines.

The Fundamental Canons

  1. Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public in the performance of their professional duties
  2. Engineers shall perform services only in the areas of their competence.
  3. Engineers shall issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.
  4. Engineers shall act in professional matters for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees, and shall avoid conflicts of interest.
  5. Engineers shall build their professional reputation on the merit of their services and shall not compete unfairly with others.
  6. Engineers shall associate only with reputable persons or organizations.
  7. Engineers shall continue their professional development throughout their careers and shall provide opportunities for the professional development of those engineers under their supervision.

Culture Shock in New Teachers

In the talk from Tim Wise, he mentioned that he finds it ridiculous that a white teacher can go to work in a black school without knowing anything about the students he or she will be teaching. While I agree with this, I really don’t think race is the driving factor here. Yes, there would be great culture shock for a white middle-class suburban teacher stepping into a poor black urban school for the first time. However, wouldn’t the culture shock be just as great if that teacher were stepping into a poor rural school in Appalachia, where most of the students are white? Or, taking poverty out of it entirely, what about someone from the northeast working in a school in Louisiana or southern California? I would argue that it’s a good idea, no matter the circumstances, for a teacher to be familiar with and preferably have experienced the conditions their students live in.

That being said, it’s not really possible to mandate that people can only become teachers in the area where they grew up. So how can new teachers get to experience how their students live? Maybe parents could be encouraged to invite a new teacher to their house for a meal, or offer to take them on a tour of the town. Maybe a teacher could even arrive a couple weeks early for their first school year and stay with local families, who could be compensated for the time, food, and effort by the school board. Thoughts? How could this work? Would it even be worthwhile?

Mentoring for New Professors

I recently ran across the website of Dr. Richard Felder while searching for something else entirely, and I’m very happy I did. Dr. Felder is a professor emeritus of Chemical Engineering at NC State University and director of the National Effective Teaching Institute, who has spent the last 46 years researching engineering education.   He has written over 200 papers on the subject, as well as a quarterly column called “Random Thoughts” for the Chemical Engineering Education journal. If you ever have a chance to read some of his Random Thoughts, I highly recommend them.

One Thought in particular caught my attention – “Teaching Teachers to Teach: The Case for Mentoring.” In this article, he makes the point that every profession, from medicine to sports, requires training to develop skill, because people cannot gain it simply through intuition. However, as we’ve discussed in class, college professors are often expected to do just that. They learn through trial and error what works and what doesn’t, and take years to develop into successful teachers (or not). (Note that this article was written in 1993 and things have not noticeably improved since then.) Instead of this horribly inefficient system, he suggests that every new professor co-teach their first two classes with an experienced professor known to be an excellent teacher. In the first, the mentor would take on the bulk of the preparation and teaching while the mentee attends classes, after which the two would have in-depth discussions of what happened. Gradually more of the responsibilities would be shifted to the new professor, until finally in the second semester the mentor acts only as a “consultant.” The mentor, meanwhile, would receive additional compensation to recognize the fact that mentoring takes more time and effort than teaching the class alone.

On the whole, I really like this idea. In fact, I would even extend it into graduate school, since many people begin teaching that early. I taught a course last summer, and I would have really appreciated a mentor who could help me create my syllabus, assignments, and lectures and critique my teaching style. There were times when I was struggling to engage my students, but I didn’t feel comfortable asking a professor to observe my class and give me suggestions. It would have been wonderful to have a mentor to help me out.

Thoughts on Tim Wise

This week, instead of holding class, we were asked to go to Tim Wise’s talk, “Dear White America.” As he predicted, some of it was hard to hear, but I agreed with much of what he had to say. It’s true that, as a white person, I can hear about the experiences of black people in this country, but I will never truly understand them, since I will never live them. It’s also true that I receive advantages that I rarely notice, simply because of my race. There is no question that, as a country, we still have a lot of work to do when it comes to race relations.

However, I would be interested to hear many of the statistics he was quoting broken down, not by race, but by the income level of the person’s parents (that is, the poverty level they lived in as children). In the area where I grew up (Rhode Island/Massachusetts), the majority of the lower-income families were white, of Portuguese, Irish, and Italian descent, mostly. Though I never studied it closely (mostly because I was a child), I believe that they faced some of the same disadvantages in terms of unemployment and access to education and healthcare as the black and Hispanic communities that Mr. Wise discussed. That is not to say that they did not also have some of the intrinsic advantages of being white, or that there were no race relation problems in the area. I just think that it would be interesting to compare those sets of statistics (by race and by poverty level) side by side and look for the correlations.

Thoughts on open access journals

When I first heard about open access scholarly journals, I was intrigued by the idea. Smaller companies and non-profits, who may not have the funding for journal subscriptions, can read about advancements in their field. An average person who reads a news piece about an interesting study can see the original article as well. A high school teacher can read the latest study about technology in the classroom. There are clear advantages to open access.

My fear, which I think was shared by many others, is that the world of scholarly articles would become like that of self-published novels: there is some very good work out there, but you have to sift through a lot of bad writing to find it. Luckily, that seems to have been largely avoided. I am sure that there are journals out there that will publish anything you send them as long as you also send them money, but most of the open access journals I’ve come across treat prestige and impact as seriously as do traditional journals.

One example in my field is the American Journal of Operations Research (AJOR), which is published by Scientific Research Publishing (SCIRP), a company that puts out more than 200 different open access journals. The company’s main office is in China, but it is an American company incorporated (like many others with this business model) in Delaware. On its website, AJOR gives a very specific list of topics in its scope, all of which fall in three main categories: Operations Research and Optimization Theory and Research Technical Approaches, Manufacturing and Service Operations Research, and Interfaces with Other Disciplines. They have a peer review process that seems just as rigorous as that of a traditional journal, though it’s hard to tell just by looking at the website.

The AJOR website is part of the larger SCIRP site, which has an entire page devoted to the definition and history of the open access movement, and another discussing SCIRP’s policies with regards to open access. All SCIRP journals are “gold” open access, meaning that the author pays a fee to have their work published, but there is no charge for anyone to view the article (they charge a subscription fee only if someone wants to receive paper copies of a journal). In most cases, I’m sure that the publication fee comes out of the research funding budget, and therefore is not going to prevent someone from publishing their work. However, it could problematic in situations, like mine and that of many other graduate students, where the research is not funded. As journals like this become more common, perhaps universities should set up “publication funds” for those who want to publish in an open access journal but can’t afford the fee.

Uninterested Professors?

Everyone who has been to college has, at some point, taken a class from a professor who didn’t seem to care.  Probably, some of them did care deeply about the class, but didn’t know how to express it (in which case more teacher training would definitely help).  However, that’s not true for all.  A friend of mine has TAed for a professor who said outright that he had no interest in teaching an intro class, but that doing so was the price he paid for doing his research and teaching graduate classes.

I do understand this sentiment.  Unlike some countries, where teaching intro-level classes is considered an honor, in America intro classes often seem to be taught by grad students, non-tenure-track faculty, and faculty who are new to the department and “paying their dues.”  If a professor’s research interests lie in quantum physics, teaching basic projectile motion may seem like time that could be better spent advancing the knowledge of the field and teaching more advanced concepts to more advanced students.  Let those with no research teach the intro classes.  I don’t even necessarily disagree with that – I strongly support hiring teaching faculty, whose focus and attention is solely on teaching and not research.

That being said, even if the professor isn’t interested in the class, the students should never know that.  That professor may be teaching a couple hundred students that semester, but that student will only have one Intro to Physics professor.  To some, who will never take another physics class, that one professor is the face of the subject.  If that face is uninterested and just “going through the motions,” then what is the student going to think?  On the other hand, if the professor is passionate about sharing the subject with his/her students, it may convince the student to be interested, too.  People’s lives are changed by passionate professors, and ideally, that’s the face every student should see.

Mission Statements: Notre Dame and Virginia Tech

At first glance, there are obvious differences between the mission statements of Notre Dame, where I earned my bachelors degree, and Virginia Tech, where I am currently a PhD student. Notre Dame’s is almost a full page long, while Virginia Tech’s is a single paragraph. Also, the language of Notre Dame’s mission statement is very religious, with frequent mentions of the school’s Catholic nature, but Virginia Tech, as a public (and therefore secular) school, has a non-religious mission statement.

I believe that these differences can be explained largely by the history and nature of the two schools. Notre Dame, a small private university in Indiana, has had a very specific mission since its founding in 1842: to bring a uniquely Catholic perspective to higher education. The mission statement is so long because it specifies all the different areas of life affected by this perspective and how they are affected, from academics to student life. Some of this is to refute some common fears about Catholic institutions: that research would be restricted or non-Catholics would be unwelcome. Some is to point out what makes a Catholic university, and particularly Notre Dame, unique: the commitment to fostering a sense of community in the school and to fighting “poverty, injustice, and oppression.”

In contrast, Virginia Tech’s mission statement is short and relatively vague. Virginia Tech, a large public land-grant institution in Virginia, was founded in 1872 as an agricultural and mechanical college. It now has seven different colleges, from engineering to liberal arts. With such a wide array of fields being taught, the vague language of the mission statement makes sense: it must apply equally to every college, regardless of their individual policies and philosophies. It speaks of the primary goal of the university as “the discovery and dissemination of new knowledge,” which can apply to any academic research or teaching.

Despite all the differences between these two mission statements, there is one big similarity: the importance of service. At Notre Dame, this is largely due to the teachings of the Catholic Church, while at Virginia Tech, it is a result of the large military presence on campus. Both schools, however, state that they want to prepare their students, not just for personal growth, but for “social and community development,” to serve the world as a whole.


University of Notre Dame Mission Statement:

The University of Notre Dame is a Catholic academic community of higher learning, animated from its origins by the Congregation of Holy Cross. The University is dedicated to the pursuit and sharing of truth for its own sake. As a Catholic university, one of its distinctive goals is to provide a forum where, through free inquiry and open discussion, the various lines of Catholic thought may intersect with all the forms of knowledge found in the arts, sciences, professions, and every other area of human scholarship and creativity.

The intellectual interchange essential to a university requires, and is enriched by, the presence and voices of diverse scholars and students. The Catholic identity of the University depends upon, and is nurtured by, the continuing presence of a predominant number of Catholic intellectuals. This ideal has been consistently maintained by the University leadership throughout its history. What the University asks of all its scholars and students, however, is not a particular creedal affiliation, but a respect for the objectives of Notre Dame and a willingness to enter into the conversation that gives it life and character. Therefore, the University insists upon academic freedom that makes open discussion and inquiry possible.

The University prides itself on being an environment of teaching and learning that fosters the development in its students of those disciplined habits of mind, body, and spirit that characterize educated, skilled, and free human beings. In addition, the University seeks to cultivate in its students not only an appreciation for the great achievements of human beings but also a disciplined sensibility to the poverty, injustice and oppression that burden the lives of so many. The aim is to create a sense of human solidarity and concern for the common good that will bear fruit as learning becomes service to justice.

Notre Dame also has a responsibility to advance knowledge in a search for truth through original inquiry and publication. This responsibility engages the faculty and students in all areas of the University, but particularly in graduate and professional education and research. The University is committed to constructive and critical engagement with the whole of human culture.

The University encourages a way of living consonant with a Christian community and manifest in prayer, liturgy and service. Residential life endeavors to develop that sense of community and of responsibility that prepares students for subsequent leadership in building a society that is at once more human and more divine.

Notre Dame’s character as a Catholic academic community presupposes that no genuine search for the truth in the human or the cosmic order is alien to the life of faith. The University welcomes all areas of scholarly activity as consonant with its mission, subject to appropriate critical refinement. There is, however, a special obligation and opportunity, specifically as a Catholic university, to pursue the religious dimensions of all human learning. Only thus can Catholic intellectual life in all disciplines be animated and fostered and a proper community of scholarly religious discourse be established.

In all dimensions of the University, Notre Dame pursues its objectives through the formation of an authentic human community graced by the Spirit of Christ.

Virginia Tech Mission Statement:

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) is a public land-grant university serving the Commonwealth of Virginia, the nation, and the world community. The discovery and dissemination of new knowledge are central to its mission. Through its focus on teaching and learning, research and discovery, and outreach and engagement, the university creates, conveys, and applies knowledge to expand personal growth and opportunity, advance social and community development, foster economic competitiveness, and improve the quality of life.