Making a leap from postgraduate study to industry is typical, and many professionals have also spent some time as a postgraduate researcher. However, academia desperately needs people who are willing to move in the other direction. If you are re-entering the academic world after a career outside, here are a few things that you need to know.
University life is different now.
Time was, the typical UK university student was under 25, male, and studied full-time (other than perhaps holding a job during the holidays). Most lived on campus or in shared student flats, and it wasn’t that long ago that they could rely on a student grant to pay the rent and cover the cost of a few beers at the Student Union on Friday.
Today’s students are significantly different. They are more diverse in every way: age, gender, race, national origin and socioeconomic background. Even on undergraduate courses, you are much more likely now to have some students who have taken a roundabout route to university, entering after earning preliminary qualifications on the job, or well after the age of 30. Today’s students are more likely to have children and work (sometimes full-time). Disability is no longer a barrier to entry.
Students are also under heavy financial pressure, with £9000 per year tuition fees and high costs for living expenses. Knowing that you are borrowing a massive amount of money just to be at university, and today’s rough job market, makes some students quite mercenary about getting that 2:1 or 1st.
Indeed, if there’s anything you can count on your new colleagues to complain about when it comes to today’s students, it’s that many have an attitude that they are customers buying a product, and expecting “value for money”—sometimes without quite understanding that education isn't something a lecturer can just hand you.
Universities have also changed.
Outside of Oxford and Cambridge, you’re unlikely to be given much small-group time with your students, especially undergraduates. Teaching groups are getting larger, and there is a great deal of pressure on staff to produce visible results. This includes pass and progression rates, marks/degree class levels, and research outputs. You are also likely to encounter expectations to bring in outside funding from research grants, sponsorships and “entrepreneurial” projects, such as overseas programmes.
Links with industry are now crucial.
These trends are part of the reason you have been recruited. So, make the most of it by maintaining strong connections with former colleagues in industry. Bring industry contacts into the classroom as guest speakers, ask them for opinions on curriculum development, and think about ways your research can help them answer or anticipate problems.
The expertise you have developed will gain you respect from students. You can help by signposting them to information sources that people working in the field they aspire to actually use, and informing them about the real world of work.
Be sure to listen, too: today’s students are not all after an easy degree, they are an often-untapped reservoir of ideas. Their questions and challenges about industry priorities and practices can be a catalyst for research and much-needed change.