12/21 — Moving from Academia to the Business World? Anticipating cultural differences

Notes from the Field / December 2020

David L. Nickel

David L. Nickel

College and university faculty positions are in jeopardy today. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, public and private institutions were facing enrolment challenges from declining numbers of traditional-age students, increasing tuition costs, state budget reductions, and widespread concerns about the burdens of student debts. Many were relying on the higher tuitions received by international students, particularly students from China and other Asian countries. However, this source of income is drying up due to federal immigration restrictions and student concerns about their safety in the United States (Kelchen, p. 26). With online education expanding and gaining prominence, faculty can reach much larger numbers of students online than in physical classrooms, thus reducing the numbers of faculty required for teaching courses.

News outlets highlight reports of university and college institutions shedding staff and beginning to dip into the sacrosanct realms of tenured professors (Smith, p. 26). University of Akron administrators cited the COVID pandemic and a projected shortfall of $65 million as factors in their July 2020 decision to cut 81 staff and 97 faculty, including several tenured professors. They pointed to the clause in contracts of tenured faculty permitting job termination in the event of financial emergencies (Sainato, p. 3). The City University of New York also acted in July to reduce faculty and staff, notifying around 2,800 adjunct faculty and part-time staff that they would be laid off because of state and city cuts in funding.

These reductions of both full and part-time faculty positions may force many faculty to seek employment with business and government agencies — a transition in work worlds that may lead to a form of culture shock for these newcomers to the business world form. What are the changes in culture that faculty entering the business world might anticipate?  

Having worked for 20 years as a faculty member and administrator in university environments as well as 20 years in management development in business, I am intrigued by this question. Based on my own experience, I offer the following insights into differences in culture and the challenges a faculty member may experience on entering the new world of business.  

Reduced Prestige

As an unfamiliar individual entering a business environment with a doctorate and perhaps years of past academic experience, the faculty member is likely to be viewed with askance by an entrenched staff. Business staff are more attuned to the potential contributions of a new employee to the company’s goals with the view, ‘What can you do for us?’. Highly valued company employees may not have educational credentials comparable to those of the entering faculty member and may, in fact, be supervising this new person on the block. New employees must start from the beginning and prove their worth to the organization and to the group.  This will involve assuming the role of a learner and gradually gaining the expertise to be able to effectively perform new tasks and responsibilities.

Both within the business environment and in the ‘outside’ world, the faculty member is now perceived with a more equal status. Being no longer addressed as ‘Doctor’ he may feel that perceptions of his intellectual prowess have dropped by half! Faculty may even find themselves working along former students but without the previous higher level of power and influence. They will likely find that working for a company, no matter how well known, does not have the automatic prestige among people in the local community that is spontaneously attributed to college and university faculty.

Less Flexibility

Faculty members long accustomed to determining their own work schedules now find themselves with a structured work schedule with designated start and end times and the expectation of being physically on site during these times. Working outside structured times may be disallowed. Employees may be encouraged to take vacation days – an unheard-of practice in university settings where 24-7 year-round work is expected, especially during the years of earning tenure. 

Independence in controlling work pace may be replaced by deadlines, interim reports, and final reports of specific project deliverables with designated target dates. The work pace with a company is often faster than the less structured time frames of academia. The previously experienced necessity of bringing in grant monies emphasized for faculty may no longer be of concern with the company now providing resources. Freedom to experiment and to pursue personal research interests is replaced by the need to solve real problems and to work toward goals that will benefit the company. Achievement of these company objectives may be accomplished through the activities of project management and the supervision of company employees rather than through one’s own direct efforts. Skills of persuasion, strategizing, and offering solutions replace abilities to critique. 

Ambiguity of Hierarchy

While a detailed organizational chart may be provided, it is important for the newly employed faculty member to assess the informal structure of power within the organization. Key ‘go to’ staff may be identified as those with special skills or knowledge of job requirements within the organization who are willing to offer significant assistance and insights to any new employee attempting to avert pitfalls in relationships or actions. Patterns of communication between individuals within the organization may be unclear but the identification and cultivation of relationships with key people are essential.

Collegiality and Teamwork

Unlike the academic world where faculty generally work independently in conducting their activities of teaching and research, business settings emphasize teamwork. Organizational goals are explicit, and employees work together to achieve group performance targets. Team-building exercises and activities may be part of the employee training program. Recognitions tend to be team based rather than reflective of individual successes. Credit for accomplishments is shared by the group. Organizational collegiality may be promoted by periodic get-togethers and social events. Work relationships among employees are long-term and may last for many years with the group development of a sense of family. 

Intellectual Property Protections

Faculty accustomed to the necessity of promoting knowledge of their work through publications and professional presentations may find this area of focus no longer relevant. While they may continue to conduct research and have interest in publishing, they may be stymied by the intellectual property restrictions of a given business or industry. It will be important to quickly ascertain the limits of publicly distributed information and data rather than risk inadvertently releasing such information. Findings of analysis and research efforts may be restricted to certain individuals or groups of individuals within the organization. However, faculty may find that the findings of research and analysis within business settings are quickly and directly applied to real-world problems. This can be extremely rewarding to faculty with past experiences of sending their research analyses into a sea of publications with no visible application of findings and results.

Stability

Academic faculty long accustomed to the ebullient environment of young enthusiastic students and the dynamic flow of colleagues in and out of the university may find a need to adjust to a more static business environment. The skills and expertise of long-term employees are generally valued by businesses more than the potentials of new workers. Promotions may be filled within the organization rather than by bringing in individuals from the outside. Opportunities for upward movement to higher positions either on site or within related branches may be available in the business setting. Generally, there is a broader range of possible professional roles within business organizations than is found in colleges and universities.

Finances

Long-term stability within the business organization may well translate to greater financial rewards over the years of employment, even though the faculty member may be hired at a lower rate at entry. A recent study of salaries of over 5,300 scientists found that scientists in business and industry had salaries around one-third higher than those of college and university faculty in comparable scientific areas (Madhusoodanan, p. 1). The financial stability of tenured professors at an older age is in contrast, however, with uncertainties that may be faced by older age employees of companies in the business world.

Summary

In summary, while the experiencing of the loss of a strenuously achieved faculty position is always disheartening, positions in business and industry have much to offer the displaced faculty member in terms of a challenging and rewarding experience. It’s a new world but with the right attitude it can be a good one!

References 

Kelchen, Robert. “July is the Cruelest Month: Layoffs, Declaration of Financial Exigency, and Closures are Imminent.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, vol.66, no.34, July 24,2020, pp. 26-27.

Madhusoodanan, Jyoti. “2014 Life Sciences Salary Survey“. The Scientist, 31 October 2020, https://www.the-scientist.com/features/2014-life-siences-salary-survey-36509. Accessed 14 December 2020.

Sainato, Michael. “Outrage as coronovirus prompts US univrsities and colleges to shed staff. “The Guardian, 12 August 2020, https://www.the guardian.com/us-news/2020/aug/12/us-universities-colleges-job-losses-coronovirus.

Smith, Dean  O. “How University Finances Work in a Crisis.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, vol. 66, no. 35, August 7, 2020, pp 26-27. Accessed 14 December 2020.


David L. Nickel, PhD, worked for over three decades in leadership and teaching positions in the academic and business sectors. In the academic sector, he worked for several years with the Fisher College of Business at The Ohio State University as Faculty Coordinator and Lecturer in the Fisher College of Business Industry Clusters program. He also taught short-term programs in China in association with Ohio State. He has taught numerous undergraduate business and MBA courses in central Ohio colleges and universities, focusing on leadership, management, change processes, and organizational development.  In the business sector, he served for 20 years as a manager and senior trainer of the leadership and management programs for senior, middle and front-line managers for the Goodyear and Lockheed Martin Corporations.

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