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I'm an engineer with a M.S. and 20+ years of industry experience. I always wanted to teach but I left grad school for industry to help pay the bills. I have no regrets, but I do have a very strong desire to go back into academia. I remember my first real engineering class was taught by a adjunct who had a full time industry job. I really appreciated the advice he gave about being an engineer in the real world. I'd like to return that favor to future engineers by being an adjunct.

I'd like to start by establishing a presence at local community colleges. I'd love the opportunity to do some volunteer work, collaborate, substitute or sit on an advisory board. I'd offer a unique perspective still being connected to industry, but with a strong interest in academia. What would be realistic? What position should I contact at the community college and how should that conversation start?

Country United States

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    Please indicate the country. At least one answer assumes it's the USA, but it should be part of the question or its tags. Requirements for a teaching position can vary depending on the country. – vsz Jul 9 '18 at 6:21
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    @vsz Do community colleges exist and are they called that outside the US? – Nicole Hamilton Jul 9 '18 at 10:37
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    @NicoleHamilton : good point, but please not that those unfamiliar with the US education system might not recognize the community college, and why should we make them guess? It costs nothing to add a country tag. – vsz Jul 9 '18 at 11:36
  • Adjunct work is, relatively speaking, not in extremely high demand (on the part of teachers). Likely an email to the department chair is all it takes. – Daniel R. Collins Jul 9 '18 at 18:36
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    @nicolehamilton: On the Wikipedia page of Community College, there are (as of July 10, 2018), seven countries listed (which are all different). This question certainly needs a country tag. – Udank Jul 9 '18 at 19:36
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All you need to teach undergrad courses at the university level here in the US is a masters, which you have. You can't be tenure track (a professor) without the PhD, but you can be a lecturer. And you can certainly be a part-time adjunct or affiliate.

Contact the department chairs in the engineering departments of these local schools. Ask to meet to discuss their current or possible needs for adjunct or affiliate faculty and any advice they might offer. Without previous classroom experience, your first assignment won't be a big lecture class. But you might start (as I did, about 6 years ago) as a lab instructor or as a faculty adviser for a team of students working on their senior project. As you gain more experience and begin to figure your way around how a university works and how a class is run, you can ask for more interesting assignments.

Good luck. I've really enjoyed the transition from industry to academia. I love working with my students and my colleagues. I think you will, too.

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    Although rare, there are faculty in STEM fields without a PhD. In other fields they aren't required at all (an MFA is a terminal degree in art). – Austin Henley Jul 8 '18 at 17:49
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    @AustinHenley I just knew someone would nitpick that. Check my edit history on this. I had that in, then took it out as just too detailish to be helpful to an engineer, not an MFA, wanting to get started. I'm FT faculty at UMich in CS without a PhD, so yes, it happens. (But I'm a lecturer, not TT.) – Nicole Hamilton Jul 8 '18 at 17:50
  • I understand, and your answer fits perfectly for the OP. I just wanted to point it out to make it more generalizable (funny enough, my PhD advisor went the other direction, from art to CS!) – Austin Henley Jul 8 '18 at 17:55
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    Or if you teach to the AS level you don't even need a degree - the key is the course must not go up to a 4 year degree. Just finishing my BS in software dev, been teaching Linux Admin courses for 10 years as an adjunct.... – ivanivan Jul 9 '18 at 14:08
  • Can you explain "MFA", "FT", "UMich" (probably some university) and AS, please? – Udank Jul 9 '18 at 20:11
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I would suggest that as first steps you contact a faculty member (or two) in a department for which you have an interest. You can find the scheduled office hours from the administration and you may be able to find an email address there or even online. First talk to one or two faculty, expressing your interest. In particular you can offer to speak to the students about your specialty and/or your background, both educational and professional. Some places have dedicated times for such speakers. Otherwise a faculty member may just invite you to a class.

First establish that sort of relationship and if it works out, offer to do more.

You can also offer to supply needed educational resources to an instructor. This could be anything from computer code to surplus but still relevant equipment - even just manuals for equipment might be appreciated.

I think this bottom-up way is a better approach than one that starts with the administration. You will need to establish an inherent trust in your skills rather than just being imposed from above.

Having met a few faculty and working with students you will naturally be introduced to other faculty and administration. Take advantage of these opportunities. Eventually, the administration will come to trust you, if you are doing good things, and might seek out your advice more generally.

One thing you may be able to do that would be appreciated in a lot of places is to serve as a "talent agency" for finding speakers from your profession, or mentors for specific students. Be careful, of course, to bring in only people that can be trusted to do a good job. Setting up short term internships or even "take a student to work day" situations might work out. I think a lot of students are looking for opportunities to explore what their life would be like if they choose a certain profession. High School and Junior/Community College students are likely very interested in this as they are not yet committed to a particular path.

However, that some kinds of volunteering is frowned upon if it is interpreted as denying someone else (younger) a paid position. Don't offer services that replace people, but only those that augment. So, your suggestion of winding up as an adjunct instructor (paid) is a good one. But the pay will be very low. Those who try to live on the salary paid to adjuncts have a very hard life.

  • This is an excellent answer. Let me add that it would be worthwhile to check whether a nearby community college has something like my department's annual "career day", where people working in industry talk to our students about the work they do and career prospects in their field. If such a thing exists in your area, see whether they'd like you to participate. (You might even be able to participate as an official representative of your employer.) – Andreas Blass Jul 8 '18 at 16:23
  • -1 While appreciating the time taken to write this, it is more convoluted than necessary for the real-world situation. Adjuncting is not super high-in-demand, and it may only take an email to the department chair. – Daniel R. Collins Jul 9 '18 at 17:09
  • @DanielR.Collins, fine, but that didn't seem to match the stated needs/desires of the OP, hence the indirect approach. – Buffy Jul 9 '18 at 17:26
  • Excellent answer indeed. I appreciate your warning about denying a paid position – David Jul 9 '18 at 22:42
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At a non-trivial number of departments at small colleges there is an ongoing need to have potential adjuncts on file. (My chair is endlessly asking new hires if their spouse might have the credentials and interest in taking an occasional class.)

In those cases it is generally enough to walk into the department head's office and introduce yourself (and think about which departments, you may be able to teach the introductory physics classes as well as classes with more engineering focus). They will tell you what credentials they need to check, and may want to have a mini-interview with some of the other faculty.

How many classes you'll actually get scheduled for is another matter. Until they know you, you'll be queued up behind people they have a developed relationship with.

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You seem to be in an excellent position to teach at a community college. A Master's plus job experience puts you in a strong position. A Ph.D. sometimes makes an applicant more competitive for the full-time positions, but so would lots of work experience or good teaching experience.

For instance, here is a handbook listing the educational/work requirements for California community colleges, by field. WARNING: pdf

Community colleges everywhere in the U.S. hire tenure track faculty with Master's degrees or other credentials, and hire many part time faculty (where they are teaching the community college course on the side). Community colleges often hire in a way similar to K-12 schools or general state government positions through state job boards. For a tenure track position you would need to find an open position posted, for a part-time adjunct position, you probably could go directly to the department and ask, or find it on the job board. I'd guess that this is to a large extent specific to what state you are in, as it involves the state government hiring process. Some ads may even run in local papers or the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Some generic advice I'll toss out:

You can meet the Dept. Chair (that is probably the best initial contact), ask to observe a class, or offer to teach a continuing education or non-credit elder (such as Osher Lifelong Learning) or personal enrichment classes. That let's you get some visibility. Any teaching experience is a huge plus for CC positions.

Look at the district's home page for a job board, there should be occasional part time adjunct 'pool' positions you could apply for.

In the same location (or a state-wide government job board) you might find a full-time tenure track position opening.

There is a possible danger spot: I've heard that some CCs have a 'prejudice' against hiring their adjunct into full time positions. I haven't observed that with CC faculty I know (who transitioned from adjunct to full-time just fine), but I've heard it happens in some places.

Here is a nice article on general community college teaching (comments are interesting, too) by Rob Jenkins in the Chronicle of Higher Education. And another one by him, about getting hired as a CC applicant.

  • Thank you for your answer. I have a lot to think about. I think I will be fine with part time work. I appreciate the links – David Jul 9 '18 at 22:44
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Did you consider doing a part-time PhD or PDEng? This may be a logical route to get into the academic system and to tie yourself to a department. From there, lecturing and/or supervising students is not a huge step. If you have a research idea you can approach a professor.

Another possibility may be to offer yourself as a guest lecturer. As MSc programmes prepare students for their future life, my department greatly appreciates guest lecturers from outside academia.

A third possibility may be the valorisation track. Universities often have valorisation programmes where academia and industry meet. This could be professional education or joint projects. You could join such a track or set up one yourself.

My personal experience is that many possibilities exist to get involved in academia if you take some initiative. You could approach a department in your field.

  • What is PDEng?? – Udank Jul 9 '18 at 20:12
  • Sorry for the two question marks, otherwise the comment would have been too short. – Udank Jul 9 '18 at 20:12
  • @Udank It is a professional doctorate in Engineering. More practically oriented with a duration of two years instead of four. It is a Dutch degree. In other countries there may be an equivalent. – user93911 Jul 9 '18 at 20:21
  • A PhD would take a decade to finish part time.. It is partially why I left school, I had too many bills.. thank you for your suggestions – David Jul 9 '18 at 22:38
  • @David That depends on your discipline and experience. I am doing a part time PhD and will finish in four years. I also give lectures and supervise master students. All besides my non-academic job. Personally I love the combination of both worlds. Do not under estimate your experience gained outside of academia. – user93911 Jul 10 '18 at 5:21

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