Rarely does a week go by when I’m not approached by somebody asking me “how do I become an instructor?” Often the people asking are senior executives with much to offer the next generation of industry professionals. The problem they face is that the higher education sector is a labyrinth to navigate filled with bottlenecks, roadblocks, dead-ends and wrong ways. They come to me seeking a road map to guide them around these obstacles and help them move from a career spent at the coalface of the corporate world to the (not so) greener pastures of academia. They often don’t know where to begin their journey or what questions to ask.

After countless coaching and mentoring sessions at university coffee houses or being approached in the foyers of conferences and networking events, I’ve helped guide dozens of practitioners on becoming university lecturers and instructors. Some have thrived and gone on to impressive academic careers. Others, perhaps wisely, decided that this path wasn’t for them. That they had fantasized and glamorised the lifestyle of a lecturer into something it is not.

Below is a summary of the take home messages from these sessions and an outline of the key steps to turning your years of industry experience into a career as a university lecturer.

Be realistic about your expectations

Don’t be swayed by the ‘TED Talk factor’ – a vision of you mesmerising young minds with your Steve Jobs like charisma and presentation skills. The presenters you see on TED.com speak for only 20 minutes, have rehearsed the same talk dozens of times, and generally only focus on (usually humorous) anecdotes and case studies. Lecturers speak for 2 hours (or more) at a time, can deliver up to 100 different lectures per year, and need to conceptualise (yes, using theories) topics for their students and show relationships between different ideas. It’s a lot more involved than a TED Talk and most lectures don’t end with standing ovations (but rather a rush for the nearest coffee house).

For many of you, it may have been decades since you were last in a classroom. Take the time to visit a campus or pop into a lecture. Can you imagine yourself in the role? Think of a teacher who inspired you during your college days. What was it about them that made an impact? You cannot hope to inspire someone with your teaching until it has been done to you.

Who do you want to teach?

The classroom dynamics, style of teaching and student motivation varies greatly depending on the course level. Registered training organisations offer vocational diplomas for specific trades with a focus on practical skills; undergraduate courses (with a mixture of theory and practice) are mostly taken by students who are straight out of high school and may not have chosen a profession yet; and postgraduate and executive education courses are tailored for more mature candidates who already have significant work experience.

Understand the different roles and pay

What’s your availability? How much do you want to take on? Will you accept a pay cut? (Nobody ever got rich teaching).

University faculty can be categorised into three groups:

Permanent / continuing positions: Associate Lecturer ($70,000 plus), Lecturer ($90,000 plus), Senior Lecturer ($110,000 plus), Associate Professor ($130,000 plus), Professor ($160,000 plus). Staff can work between 40 and 70 hours per week, receive 4 to 6 weeks (not 3 months!) annual leave and may be involved in teaching, research and/or administration.

Sessional (casual) positions: Usually only work a few days per week during semester (26 weeks per year); Sessionals tend to focus mostly on teaching and marking. A standard lecture (1 hour of delivery and 2 hours of associated working time) pays $180 plus; a tutorial (1 hour of delivery and 2 hours of associated working time) pays $130 plus; Marking and meeting rate is $43 plus per hour.

Adjunct (honorary) appointments: Receive a title only and will only be called upon for occasional guest talks and/or supervising research students.

Upgrade your qualifications

It’s been said that those who can do and those who can’t teach. I can tell you from observing and reviewing dozens of staff that the best practitioners don’t always make the best teachers (and vice versa).

Any type of career change will usually involve further study and professional development.

Many universities will require lecturers to have or be completing a PhD (free for Australian citizens) in an area related to their discipline and a graduate certificate in university teaching (usually free for staff) which covers curriculum and assessment design, presentation and delivery techniques.

If possible obtain the school handbook, policies and procedures, and familiarise yourself with their learning management system (LMS) – most teaching these days takes a blended approach – a mix of online and face-to-face learning.

Start with small steps

Meet with subject and course coordinators (easier to access) or department heads and deans (harder to access). Discuss with them your areas of expertise (breadth and depth) and which subjects you’d be comfortable teaching. Be flexible and willing to take on subjects outside your comfort zone. Be prepared to also discuss research and publishing opportunities (not just in trade magazines but also scholarly journals) – universities are funded based on their research output.

Think about how you will add value to your chosen institution. Schools are always looking for guest speakers, examiners or ‘clients’ for student projects, internship providers or practitioners to sit on course review or advisory panels. You could also help organize scholarships and prizes or joint research programs between industry and universities or invite academic staff to join industry boards and committees, or to dinners and events. Make it a practice to attend university functions and become an official seat filler (schools are always looking for business leaders to attend their events). The goal is to stay-in-credit and be top-of-mind when teaching opportunities become available.

Finally, don’t put all your eggs in one basket – establish relationships with several institutions. Unlike the corporate world, the higher education sector has a collaborative culture and people regularly work at several institutions simultaneously or move around.

I’ve worked for several universities and have advised many others. My decision to become a lecturer has been one of the most rewarding of my life (but one which shouldn’t be taken lightly).

– Phillip Cenere

CEO, Chancellor Institute