Advice on making the leap from industry to liberal arts college

A Facebook friend commented on my last post:

How would someone from industry even apply? What are the priorities for hiring committees? People in industry generally haven’t been pumping out the publications.

I think a blog post about how to frame your application package would be very valuable.

I can’t answer this question from the perspective of a candidate: I went straight from undergrad to grad school, and from grad school to a faculty position. (Advice for PhD students from that perspective can be found in this handbook.) However, I have served on search committees at two different liberal arts colleges over the last ten years, so I can offer advice from the perspective of a search committee member.

Search committees are looking for candidates with the potential to succeed at their institutions. Liberal arts colleges have small enough faculties that we aim to hire candidates who we believe can earn tenure. In general, departments and institutions invest a lot in developing assistant professors.

Search committees are also looking for candidates who will bring something new to the department and the institution. Here, your industry experience is not a liability but a great advantage. Many liberal arts faculty, like me, are career academics with no industry experience.

Even at a liberal arts college, we care about preparing students for careers beyond the academy. One of the things I found attractive about my new colleague John Stratton is his industry experience, which gives him insight into the values of industry that I lack. How would   you teach courses differently from the courses you took as an undergraduate based on what you’ve learned in industry? Might you emphasize different skills, teach using different methods, or motivate content with real-world applications? How would you advise students about courses, internships, or co-curricular opportunities on the basis of your industry experience?

Industry experience may also give you a distinct perspective on diversity—something that liberal arts colleges increasingly want to see addressed in the application package. Have you learned about real-world problems that will get different students excited about CS? Have you had to work with diverse colleagues or (better yet) help them work more effectively together? Perhaps you’ve gained experience with the challenges faced by people who don’t look like the stereotypical computing professional. Or perhaps you can share first-hand lessons with your students about the value of diversity—whether these lessons come from successes or failures. Many liberal arts colleges recognize that attracting and supporting diverse students is something we need to do better at, so we really value new perspectives.

My friend asked about research, and specifically publications. The truth is, if you write an excellent research statement, I might not even notice that none of your publications are recent. (If you have no publications at all, I would notice that. But most good PhD advisor in CS will make sure their students have a few publications before graduating.)

I care about your past record of success only insofar as it demonstrates future potential.

What constitutes an excellent research statement for a liberal arts college?

  • I can understand it even though I am almost certainly not in your research area. In fact, your research statement probably will not be read by anyone in your research area. Administrators and external members of the search committee should be able to understand your research statement as well. (In this context, “external” means external to the department, not to the institution.) It’s concise and to the point, not more than three pages. Being able to explain your research clearly, succinctly, and persuasively to colleagues outside CS is crucial to obtaining institutional research funding and to making your tenure case, as the committees that make these decisions will be constituted by faculty from across the college.
  • I can envision undergraduates getting excited about your research. I may even start speculating on which of my undergraduates would be excited by your research. Ideally, your research will be exciting to students with diverse interests, not just those who conform to the stereotype of the field. It’s not enough to show your passion for your research; rather you must show why others should care.
  • Your research agenda seems feasible to pursue at a liberal arts college, where resources are relatively limited. In particular, time is a limited resource: We just can’t get as much done in a year as our colleagues at research universities, because our focus during the academic term is on teaching and we don’t have graduate students.¹ Because I’m aware of the limitations of research at a liberal arts college, I don’t necessarily expect you to continue your Ph.D. or industry research, but I do like to see some plausible ideas about where your research might go in the future. If you don’t have a fully developed research agenda, I’m looking for evidence that suggests you can develop one. In short, you’ve shown some adaptability. I can imagine you launching a research program at my institution and continuing to pursue a scholarly agenda over five, ten, twenty years as your career evolves, the field changes, and new opportunities arise. Your experience adapting to the needs of industry could be a strength over candidates coming directly from grad school.
  • Ideally, you’ve given some thought to how you might take advantage of potential relationships or other opportunities at my institution or in the surrounding community. This shows you’ve done your homework. It can also be a way to demonstrate your adaptability.
  • You have put some thought into how you will include undergraduates in your research. You might have some projects that are suitable for undergraduate researchers to carry out under your supervision, whether these are closely integrated with your main research agenda or more of a side project. (We recognize that some research problems more than others lend themselves to direct contributions by undergraduates.) You might need a research assistant to help with data collection or administration. (These kinds of opportunities are great for getting first and second year students involved in research, which can help with retention in the major.) Or you might have ideas about how your teaching will inform your research (and vice versa).

Jeff Werner of SUNY Cortland shared more good advice about research statements for liberal arts colleges in a presentation at Cornell University. Check out the “Recommended Resource” and “Uploads.”

All that said, the question my friend should have asked is not about research but about teaching. Liberal arts colleges are focused on undergraduate education.

Above all, we look for evidence of the potential to develop into an excellent teacher. Here as in research, a record of past success can serve as evidence of future potential, but it is not the only kind of evidence.

If you weren’t educated at a liberal arts college yourself, you might want to start by observing some classes. This will help you understand what you are getting into. If an industry colleague (or a grad student) approached me and said they were exploring career options, I would be pretty open to a request to observe a few of my classes and discuss them afterwards.

If you gained teaching experience in grad school, you should certainly include it in your CV and write about it in your teaching statement. Regardless, more recent teaching experience will demonstrate a passion for teaching and provide fodder for writing your teaching statement. How can you gain teaching experience while working in industry?

Here are some ideas, roughly in order from most to least effort:

  • Look for opportunities to teach a course as an adjunct at a local college or university. Some departments hire adjuncts routinely, although that seems to be less common at liberal arts colleges. Sometimes, with advance planning, special funding is available to bring in an expert to teach just one course in their area of expertise. And sometimes, the need for an adjunct arises without much warning.² Since adjunct opportunities are often unadvertised, contact department chairs to indicate your availability. You may need to be persistent to stay on a chair’s radar, especially if your course would be something extra on top of the usual curriculum. Of course, this assumes you are not already overwhelmed with responsibilities and your work day is flexible.
  • Look for colleagues in your research area at local colleges or universities. Find out what courses they are teaching and offer to guest lecture or teach a module. If you already have a relationship and your workplace permits it, you might even offer to co-teach, which will give you a substantial teaching engagement without having to take sole responsibility for the entire course. (I once worked with someone who successfully transitioned from industry to academia by unofficially co-teaching a course.)
  • Look for volunteer opportunities to teach computer science in local schools, clubs, museums, and so on. Teaching children, teenagers, and laypeople counts as teaching experience. You might also volunteer with an organization like MentorNet for experience mentoring college students.
  • Many community colleges have extension, enrichment, or continuing education programs aimed at older adults. These courses are typically less intense than regular college courses and may require fewer qualifications to teach. They are often offered in the evenings or on weekends. (Someday I would like to take advantage of this setting to teach Don Norman’s Design of Everyday Things, a seminal book in my field that is very accessible.)
  • Offer a tutorial or workshop that teaches some particular skill or concept for a local tech group or at a conference in your field. Unlike a research talk, it’s often acceptable to offer the same tutorial several times at different venues, which will give you the opportunity to refine your teaching and reflect on how you improved.
  • Do you have an avocation such as judo, knitting, or beekeeping? You may already be looking for opportunities to teach these skills in your local community. Even if you are not teaching computer science, you are still teaching!
  • Finally, think creatively about your experiences and opportunities in the workplace. Teaching can be found in unexpected places. Even if you haven’t led a formal training session, you may have shared new skills, mentored a new colleague, supervised an intern, or educated clients about technical issues.

These kinds of experiences are valuable to list on your CV, but we are also looking for how you think about teaching. How do you characterize excellent teaching? What do you want students to learn and do in your classroom?³ How do you want to develop as a teacher? Your teaching experiences provide a source of evidence to support the assertions you make in your teaching statement. Think about what you learned through these experiences and how it might apply to teaching undergraduates.

Finally, consider taking a one- or two-year leave of absence from industry to explore academia through a visiting faculty position. Search committees are much more willing to take risks on term faculty, not only because these positions are less of an investment but because we desperately need to get the courses taught. If it works out, you have a foot in the door: liberal arts experience plus industry experience is a very attractive combination. And, if it doesn’t work out, there will still be jobs in industry.

Have you made the leap from industry to a liberal arts college? What advice helped you to gain teaching experience or prepare your application materials? Please share your thoughts as a comment on this post so that other readers can benefit.

¹ Writing about how you much you want to advise Ph.D. students is one of the few red flags that will automatically drop you out of my top candidate list. It shows you have done no research about my institution and don’t really know what you are getting into. And if you are deeply passionate about mentoring Ph.D. students, you won’t be happy working at a liberal arts college where you won’t have that opportunity. But that doesn’t mean you can’t write about your prior experience working with masters students or new Ph.D. students. Senior undergrads aren’t that different from new graduate students. In your teaching statement, include a section on mentoring new researchers, and show what you learned from your experiences.

² Whether adjuncts teach on a regular or emergency basis, often they are teaching an introductory course. Don’t pooh-pooh this opportunity. It’s valuable experience for a liberal arts college candidate, because all faculty are expected to teach at the introductory level. Indicating that you don’t want to teach intro is a second red flag.

³ The third red flag is a teaching statement that portrays teaching entirely as transmission of information from teacher to student, e.g., through lecturing. Columbia University offers some good advice for writing a winning teaching statement.


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