Creating On-Ramps to Academe

Colleges and universities looking to diversify STEM faculty should consider talented women in industry, government or private research, write Coleen Carrigan and Eve Riskin.

May 19, 2016

One common strategy for increasing diversity in STEM departments is to hire talented women away from other universities. But this zero-sum approach fails to increase the number of female STEM professors nationwide. It also ignores another universe of potentially stellar female faculty: women who left academe after getting their doctorates to pursue science or engineering careers in industry, government or private research.

Many of those women have the skills to become successful tenure-track professors and dynamic educators: impressive research accomplishments, experience making products and insider knowledge that prepares students to succeed in today's workplaces. Indeed, some well-known, highly successful faculty members across the nation were hired directly from research labs or industry. They include Ayanna Howard, professor and Linda J. and Mark C. Smith Chair in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology; Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College; and Martha Pollack, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of Michigan. But the pathway from their industry or government careers back into academe is often far from clear.

In research published in the Journal of Technology Transfer, we conducted in-depth interviews with 10 women who have recently transitioned into university faculty positions after working as corporate scientists or government researchers. Our interviews covered the challenges and rewards involved in finding an academic home, the tools and support that made it easier, how the skills they acquired outside of academe helped or hindered them, and what they now realize they bring to the table.

All of the interviewees transitioned to academic employment after participating in On-Ramps Into Academia workshops, which were held from 2009 to 2012 by the University of Washington's ADVANCE Center for Institutional Change and funded by the National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE program. The workshops offered living proof that a decision to pursue a nonacademic career need not be a one-way street out of an academe.

Almost all workshop speakers were female faculty members who had started their careers in industry or research labs and had successfully transitioned to higher education. They provided encouragement and served as role models to the participants and demonstrated that a transition to academe was possible. As one interviewee put it, “Having successful women … sit you down and say, ‘No, no, no, you have a great résumé, you might want to change these couple of things, but you’re a really good fit and this is why’ -- I don’t think there’s a substitute for that. … It was huge. It made me feel like I can do this.”

The data from our interviews showed that the personalized advice and practical tools the women received at the workshop helped them translate their skills and experiences for academic search committees. We also learned that the major rewards sought by our participants were the ability to leverage their nonacademic career skills to effect change in higher education, the desire for intellectual freedom and open knowledge-sharing practices, and the interest in working with students.

Three Core Barriers

Our data also revealed three core barriers that can influence the viability of transitioning to academe, particularly for women. First, the participants found it difficult to communicate the value of their nonacademic career experiences in the academic context. Indeed, one interviewee stated, “It’s a hard step, and the credentials are so different. You’ve got to figure out how you fit in.” Through the UW workshops, however, they found mentors to offer advice on résumés, assure them that having their name on patents would count in the academic evaluation process and even provide guidance on salary negotiation.

Those mentors also helped would-be on-rampers craft strategies to remedy gaps in credentials, which led some interviewees to take teaching jobs or apply for postdoctoral research positions before putting themselves on the academic job market. As one participant stated, “I did 3.5 years in industry, and even though it wasn’t a terribly long time, I did feel that I was out of the loop. Mostly with regard to keeping up with the current technology and the current literature … for me it was a really good way to get back into it because it allowed me the time to get myself reimmersed into my field before I got into this [faculty] position.”

Second, participants were concerned about the financial impact of entering higher education, and several participants did accept a lower salary at their faculty job, sometimes significantly lower. One participant said, “So taking a step down when you start in a new field … it’s something that it’s not easy.”

Third, because all participants had unfortunately experienced gender discrimination as students, they were concerned about returning to this environment. Participants reported that on-ramps helped them dispel some of these concerns. In the words of one participant: “It was just really inspirational and motivational to be in a room with so many great, intelligent, powerful women. I really, really enjoyed it, and I remember leaving just feeling excited and uplifted.”

Our findings support the efficacy of women mentoring other women in pursuit of nontraditional career paths and working collectively to end systemic barriers to women’s full participation in STEM. Further, attention to gender in on-ramping highlighted issues that span the personal and the professional: wage, family and labor issues. The fact that participants were willing to work through both professional and personal difficulties to on-ramp suggests a strong desire to produce STEM knowledge in the academy specifically.

Many Rewards

Once the women landed faculty positions, though, they expressed high levels of confidence in their abilities, value and contributions, especially in educating the next generation of computer scientists, engineers and scientists. Because the majority of students who graduate with bachelor’s degrees go into industry, on-rampers bring a labor-force perspective that can provide tangible benefits to students. Sharing what knowledge and skill sets are valued in the workplace and how innovation happens added valuable dimensions to their research and teaching. Indeed, one participant summarized the impact of her career experiences on the classroom: “I think everything, practically, every single session I teach, that within a minute or two, I can link it to real life.”

Another reward of on-ramping was the opportunity to pursue independent research agendas and participate in a community that publicly debates, considers, rejects and reframes new knowledge. Finally, some participants were especially enriched by the opportunity to mentor students, especially female graduate students. One faculty member, who was inspired by her first women-centered professional activity at On-Ramps Into Academia, said, “Men and women, but especially the young women, look up to me. … They can relate to me, and they see that if she can do this, well, I can do this.”

Achieving gender parity in the faculty ranks of STEM fields will require innovative methods like forging nontraditional career paths and ongoing feminist professional communities. On-Ramps Into Academia brings to light to a new potential pool of faculty applicants. A more diverse professoriate can help recruit and educate the next generation of diverse Ph.D. students. This new method of faculty recruitment is also part of a growing trend of academic-industry partnerships and the proliferation of knowledge transfers between them.


Coleen Carrigan is an assistant professor of anthropology and science, technology and society at California Polytechnic State University and a former University of Washington ADVANCE postdoctoral scholar. Eve Riskin is an electrical engineering professor and associate dean for diversity and access at the University of Washington College of Engineering. The views expressed here are their own.

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