Tuesday, August 23, 2016

How to transition from industry to academia for an inorganic chemist?

From the inbox, an interesting question from someone we'll call TG: 
I'm hoping that either you or your readers have some insight into how best to go about transitioning from industry to academia. I have a sort of unusual background ([CJ's redaction: some post-college industry experience], then an inorganic PhD in a strong but not top 5 department, then a polymer/nano postdoc, then back to industry) and after about [redacted (less than 5)] years in R&D with a large international company I've realized that the only part of my job I find rewarding is mentoring interns and junior scientists and that I'd rather be working on fundamental rather than applied questions. 
I was a bit too headstrong (or something like that) and rushed through both grad school and my postdoc [redacted] so while I have [enough] first author papers that seem to check all the quality boxes, I realize I'm publication light overall and didn't take many opportunities to build a network. Do my (filed) patent applications count for anything? Is applying for inorganic positions with my background a fool's errand? Any advice or insight is appreciated.
Part of this question is going to be "does TG want to be a professor at a Ph.D.-producing institution, or do they want to teach at a small college?" I think that TG's background would probably fit both (especially since TG has been productive in industry). Further communication with TG indicates they would like a research university position, as they have less teaching experience. (PUI profs - is lack of instructor experience important?)

Over the years, my observation is that academics are fairly open to odd backgrounds, as long as the "quality boxes" have been checked. Writing a good set of documents (cover letter, research proposals, teaching philosophies, etc.) will be key to explaining your interest in the transition, I'd think.

Readers, your thoughts? 


  1. Jerome Robinson (now at Brown) did exactly this thing:


    perhaps he could offer some perspective

  2. I teach at a public PUI, and have served on several hiring committees. Not having teaching experience would be a major smudge on the CV of anyone applying to my department. To my knowledge, my department has only hired one tenure-track faculty member without teaching experience at the time of appointment, and that was a search in a very narrow specialty in which there were few applicants. The good news is that teaching experience is fairly easy to get, if you don't mind working a precarious schedule with low pay for a couple of years. If TG is serious about teaching, s/he should keep the industry job for now and apply for lecturer pool/part-time adjunct positions at nearby universities and community colleges. I did this while working as a full-time postdoc, and it was a very hectic couple of years but landed me a TT position despite a relatively sparse publication record.

    If TG prefers research universities, I'll defer comment since I don't know so much what they want.

  3. I think TG's best bet would be an industrially-oriented program, such as the coatings institutes at Missouri-Rolla, Eastern Michigan, and North Dakota State.

    My own program was in top 5-10 or so, and I only know a handful of people who ended up in professor jobs at big, PhD-granting schools. What TG is trying to do is a hell of a lot harder than trying to find an industry job.

  4. Eastern Michigan has a guy who is pretty near retirement at the Coatings Research Institute. Might be worth checking out. Especially if "TG" can secure themselves some start-up funding.

  5. like KT said, this is an even more difficult undertaking than finding an industry job, & we all know what that is like.

    agreed that TG would likely have a better shot at a smaller college with a program specifically focused on producing graduates for industry. they will likely value his industry experience much more highly. from there, he could continue to build the academic component of his CV & improve his network, contacts, etc that he mentioned was weak.

  6. Babu at Ohio State went this route as well. Knowing him personally, he did not have an issue in transitioning but maybe he is just an exceptional instance and was also hired some 20 years ago...

  7. Thanks for replying, everyone. I realize this is going to be uphill, but I do appreciate the input.



  8. Adam Coleson at Boise State University seems to have done the same thing. Just typing some search parameters into google, there seem to be a few folks with very similar backgrounds. Maybe the reader should start building the network now?


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20