Tech Industry Really Needs Professors and Teaching Talent

When it comes to talent, the field of computer science is blessed—and cursed.

The number of students majoring in computer science has gone up over the past several years, but the number of professors needed to teach them is falling short. People who would make fantastic teachers are instead heading to private industry, drawn by the prospect of lucrative contracts, stock options, and even perks such as gourmet office cafeterias.

It’s understandable that talented faculty would want to follow the money, but the net effect on the tech talent pipeline is like a farmer eating his seed corn, as today’s meal comes at the expense of next year’s harvest. Fewer talented teachers could potentially constrict the flow of talent to the nation’s tech firms.

What is a school to do?

Yes, Things Are Getting Worse

For every five positions currently available among computer science faculty, only one gets filled, noted Stanford’s Dr. Eric Roberts, Charles Simyoni professor of computer science, emeritus. Roberts contributed to a recent study (PDF) that analyzes the current shortage, comparing it to other times in recent history when faculty hiring fell short.

Even at Stanford, the imbalance has become so bad that two percent of the faculty (i.e., those in the CS department) have ended up teaching 20 percent of the students (i.e., all the CS majors), Roberts noted. Lecturers, who are traditionally way down on the academic totem pole, are “treated well because they are essential,” he stressed.

The end result of this squeeze is insane workweeks for many faculty members, who are paid a fraction of what they might pull down at a large tech firm for comparable hours and stress. And it seems unlikely that relief is coming anytime soon: It takes five years to mint a Ph.D in computer science, and schools such as Stanford need more faculty now.

Possible solutions include a program that takes Ph.Ds in other disciplines and runs them through a yearlong course in computer science, which gives them a Master’s degree. That qualifies them to teach CS courses, Roberts explained, and sets them up in a department where the prospect for tenure is greater. “We need more of those,” he added. “Universities are in a bind. Market forces will not solve this problem.”

Bending to the Wind

“I am going to make the best of it by bending with the wind.” said Dr. Andrew Moore, dean of the school of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). Private industry is hungry to hire CS faculty, and some professors are eager to earn multiples of their academic salaries.

When Moore says that no school can resist this trend, he speaks from experience. Formerly a professor at CMU, Moore left academia for an eight-year stint at Google, starting as the director of the company’s Pittsburgh office. By the time he left the firm, he was VP for engineering at Google Commerce.

In order to “bend to the wind,” Moore is offering CS professors a leave of absence to work in private industry, just as he once did. Fortunately, CMU can adjust its enrollment, keeping the number of incoming students relative to faculty. “Shrinking the program is not an option,” he added.

CMU also “hires ahead”: Rather than waiting for a faculty vacancy, the school tries to hire professors with an eye toward maintaining a 5-10 percent surplus. That allows the administration to fill vacancies created when professors take detours to private companies.

Then comes another challenge: bringing faculty members back into the academic fold. Moore suggests that a higher purpose drives that return; if an academic wants to “change the world,” in his words, then CMU offers an environment where that can happen. Want to work on an algorithm that can save hundreds of lives? Sequence a genome for a life-threatening cancer? “This is a currency that is stronger than money,” Moore said.

Money Isn’t Everything

In academia, it is a given that the number of adjuncts far outnumber full-time faculty (1.3 million adjuncts vs. roughly 500,000 on tenure track); in computer science, roughly 10 percent of Ph.D graduates land in tenure-track positions, while close to 60 percent go to industry (PDF).

Yet even with the availability of those much-coveted tenure positions, colleges can have a hard time finding enough people to actually teach. Dr. Craig Wills, who heads the computer science department at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), conducted a survey to find out how many schools had such hiring problems. Of the 155 who responded to his survey, “forty percent of the institutions reported back they were less than successful,” Wills said. (He qualified “less than successful” as unable to fill all positions offered.)

“Tenure track hires are the most valuable commodity any institution has,” Wills stressed. Compounding the shortage of faculty is the student pipeline. Graduates go into industry, not graduate school, further draining the hiring pool for CS faculty.

As with Moore, Wills insists that the freedom to research and explore will convince professors to stay in place: “Especially in tenure-track positions where there is more freedom to do what you want, not what the company wants.”

WPI is looking for “Ph.Ds in industry [who] are looking to go back to being Ph.Ds,” Wills added. Plus, there’s the future to consider: Although the tech industry (and the economy) are doing well at the moment, any sort of downturn may drive tech pros back into the relatively stable arms of academia: “That tenure-track position is more constant in the long run.” he said.

For schools, another potential approach is to increase class sizes, although such an effort demands additional teaching assistants to handle labs, testing, and office hours. The creation of a hiring pipeline for teaching professors and adjuncts can take quite a bit of time (and money), which is often difficult for professors and deans to schedule and negotiate.

Although the economic collapses of 2000 and 2008 boosted computer faculty hiring, schools can’t wait for another downturn; school administrations must actively find professors now, or risk repeating a mistake from the 1980s, when colleges and universities were forced to cut CS enrollment because of a lack of available faculty. That’s a bad scenario for today’s tech industry, which needs all the talent it can gather.

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6 Responses to “Tech Industry Really Needs Professors and Teaching Talent”

  1. I looked into teaching at the university I attended. They had placed an ad on the state-run job board looking for math and science staff. The ad gave what seemed to be exact requirements of what was needed for initial documentation, and when one could expect a callback. I also saw that the contact person was one of my own past professors for a few classes.

    When I wasn’t contacted, I contacted the person, and all I got was a message that said openings in the department were rare and my application would be kept on file.

    Essentially, the ad on the state’s own job bank was bogus, and there was a major disconnect somewhere between the listed requirements to apply, and the contact person.

    Additionally: perhaps a state law is responsible for it, and is beyond the different universities, but as long as the schools require teachers to be teachers first, and experts in a field second, they are going to get poor quality experts. In other words, they need to get rid of the teaching certificate requirement. Or at least have the flexibility to waive the requirement.

  2. wageSlave

    Steve I think you hit something else. An unlisted prerequisite for a full time position. You haven’t paid your adjunct dues yet.

    The author is missing quite a bit about the higher education labor “market”. You cannot even call it a market. The price setters collude to fix prices with almost absolute cooperative adherence and the unions try to counter balance a little. Meanwhile the bean counting bureaucrats go to multiple conferences a year to discuss “cost saving devices”. Wink Wink nod nod. The teacher unions are divided in two separate unions: Full time faculty (very strong and very well paid) and adjunct faculty (weak, under employed, and poorly paid). Full time faculty can make up to $200,000 or $300,000 a year in some cases. And adjuncts make about half of what a good IT person makes in the private sector. Adjuncts are the under employed red headed step children of higher education and they are all waiting in line for a better opportunity.
    I would love to see a full time teacher leave to join “the higher paying private sector”. It could happen, but I’ve never seen it happen. Not once. Adjuncts leave if they can. Or, they sit around for years (sometimes lifetimes) waiting for a full time slot to open. When the bureaucrats complain they cannot find teachers they never differentiate full time from adjunct, but they are talking about mostly adjunct (part time) positions. There is a huge pool of adjuncts waiting to move into the stronger union to get the big bucks as a basis for their retirement. At least, in the California Community College districts. Full time positions fill and fill quickly as there is usually a line around the block waiting. There are regional differences in states not friendly to unions in general and the full time unions can be weak and not worth the effort. In those locations, I would expect to find shortages at the colluded price being paid.
    I interviewed a young lady recently, she went back to school and got a MA. She wanted to be a math teacher. That is until she started looking for work and found out what an adjunct is. She couldn’t afford the pay cut of a part time position. So, her degree has been sitting feral for the last four years. She want to be a STEM teacher in the worse kind of way but couldn’t afford it. Without five years’ experience as slave in the adjunct mines college grads do not have the work experience to become full time faculty. Most just give up and keep their full time jobs.
    And then there is tenured.

  3. Ariella Brown

    Having worked as an adjunct for about a decade, I’d have to agree. Of course, my field is English, which doesn’t necessarily open up lucrative opportunities in the business world. But as the same doesn’t hold for people with the skills most in demand at businesses. How poorly paid are adjunct? Back when I was teaching in NJIT, they opened up the possibility of working full time without the tenure track and tenure pay for adjuncts who held advanced degrees and had many years of teaching experience.. The pay offered was $25K. This was the 90s, so that amount bought more then than it does now, but it still was just on par with what secretaries were earning. Yet it was very much sought after because it was still better than what many adjuncts could cobble together running around from school to school to pick up the comp classes the full timers didn’t want.

  4. Dr. Doctor

    Here is one major issue… I have a Computer Engineering Ph.D., love to teach, have industry experience, and would LOVE to get a professor job. Well, EVERY college I apply to (including those who claim to be hurting for Ph.D. CE/CS professors) look at my resume and say “you don’t have enough papers published” (this was because when I went through the program, I thought I wanted to go industry, and later found out I loved teaching, so I did not put out too many papers).

    I think some of the blame for this shortage is on too high standards. I work at a university now (not teaching) and have been told we are short CS professors, but they turn down every one that does not have 50 papers published. Go figure.

  5. What a bunch of hooey. I personally wrote a note to Prof. Eric Roberts and offered to teach courses at Stanford. Of course I heard NOTHING from him. Probably because I didn’t have exactly the right kind of perfect academic CV.

    I’ve also experienced much of what people describe in the comments. I get plenty of offers to teach as an adjuct– at pay well below the poverty level. But when I suggest that they pay me at 1/2 the average salary of the full professors, well, that’s the end of the conversation.

    There are PLENTY of good computer scientists who will teach in schools. But the schools won’t pay them and then the flood the web with this kind of hooey for who knows what reason.

  6. I agree with all of the previously posted comments. I am currently a tenured (recently 2 years ago) Associate Professor in Computer Science at a smaller regional university. I have publications, grant funding, as well as high degree of success in training more undergraduate students than graduate students. I have tried applying for the many available positions only to learn I don’t have the “right pedigree.” Many of these institutions only care about a particular candidate. That is, is your PhD from a select few universities? Did you post-doc with the right set of people? etc. This article is such a farce. There is no shortage, rather the departments simply won’t hire those not from specific “pedigree” regardless of the success they enjoy. The departments simply do not want to admit it.