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Programs Teaching at a University in Subject Other than PhD Dissertation

  1. Jan 20, 2012 #1
    Hello everyone,
    I love reading the posts on PF. I enjoy hearing the experiences and thoughts from engineers, scientists, hobbyists, etc. who love science.

    I have a question regarding academia: does anyone know how easy or difficult it is to become a professor in a department outside of said candidate's PhD subject of study?

    For instance, I had a professor at the University of Utah in the Mechanical Engineering department who technically earned his PhD in Physics, but earned an undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering (and he's been teaching for 50 years up to the fall semester of 2011!). There is another with a Physics BA, and a Materials Science PhD in the same department. Another has a BS in ME and then earned a Civil Engineering MS and PhD.

    Is this a common occurrence, or did these people just get really lucky and were able to teach what they love and happen to know a bit about?

    Just wanted to hear everyone's opinions and experiences. Thanks.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 20, 2012 #2

    Simon Bridge

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    It's quite common - at the top end the degrees can end up being just so many letters after your name. There can be a lot of overlap in the courses described and colleges allow cross-crediting. I have taught college level in electrical engineering, computational engineering, computer science, english literature and medicine. On top of which, staff usually get a discount on courses ... so over time they can accumulate additional paper qualifications. As you work in a college, you also gain reputation there which can affect the kinds of positions you hold more than your CV does. It all gets terribly political.
  4. Jan 20, 2012 #3
    There are actually a few things to think about here.

    First, what is the nature of their research? Outside of certain areas which tend to be capable of very easy pigeonholing, an increasing amount of research could easily find a suitable home in a number of departments. This is why many universities have faculty cross-appointed to one extent or another (the exact nature of which will depend on more details than can be easily summed in a short sentence or two), and often have interdisciplinary programs that cut across departments, schools, and colleges. Just as an example - I did my graduate work in (bio)physical chemistry in a chemistry department. One of the postdocs I befriended there just started a position as a biochemistry professor at a medical school, with a cross appointment at a neuroscience institute of some sort. He could just have easily fit into a typical chemistry department or modern biological sciences department given the nature of his work.

    Second, how many of the courses did these faculty teach over the years? Were there certain courses that escaped them for whatever reason, or did they really teach every course in the catalog? I'm not an engineer, but at least in the fields with which I'm more familiar, there seems to be a fair bit of specialization, at least in the coarse-grained sense (e.g., the physical chemists don't teach synthetic chemistry courses, and the organometallic chemists aren't running people through the course in ultrafast spectroscopy).

    Related to the first point, there's also the element of individual fit and university culture. You might find out that, at the same school, department X is somewhat toxic, but department Y is more agreeable. You apply to department Y since either one could reasonably accommodate your research. There are a million variations on this theme, both of this sort and of others.
  5. Jan 20, 2012 #4
    Wow! That's quite an impressive list of subjects you've taught, Simon. May I ask what you studied and what experience you've had to be able to teach such a wide variety of courses? Were you an engineer that continued on to medical school?

    If I were someday to be interested in teaching, should I start try becoming an adjunct member at a community college (which is the only teaching job I'd be able to get if I have a Masters degree at that point)?

    Edit: Sorry; I'm not trying to diverge the subject of the topic. If PM's are more suited for side discussions, I will do so in the future.

    Mike H: you posted just as I replied to Simon Bridge's post so I was unable to address yours. If I understood correctly, your experience and observation has been that it's easier to gain "wiggle room" over the years in what subjects a professor may teach due to interests, research, and gaining reputation (as noted by Simon in his response).

    Would industrial experience also come into play? For example, a professor worked as an engineer in industry for several years, and then earned a PhD in another subject (say, a somewhat-related science, such as Chemistry or Physics). Would he/she be able to teach engineering courses due to the educational and industrial background in the subject? Or do you think said person would be unable to teach outside of physics?

    Last edited: Jan 20, 2012
  6. Jan 21, 2012 #5
    I find it hard to generalize since every school is different (and while I've been around, there have been plenty of people on this site who have been around far more than I have). But I would agree that, in principle, as one's duration at a university increases, the likelihood of them teaching more classes also increases. Of course, the longer one is around at a university, it is not uncommon to obtain enough clout (and grant money) to wiggle one's way out of having to teach. ;)

    My main point about research is really more about the fact that a great deal of research does not, in fact, fit neatly into departmental classifications. In addition to my aforementioned former labmate, there are others who are faculty in chemistry/chemical physics programs as well as bioengineering departments and pharmacology departments. All from the same lab, and they're all still doing work that broadly relates to one another. Your Ph.D. could say "physics" while your competitors' say "mechanical engineering" or "chemistry" or "polymer science" - you can all be competing for the same grants, publishing in the same journals, doing the same sorts of experiments, using the same types of equipment and instrumentation, and all hoping to scoop the other. So depending on the state of the academic job market the year someone was hired, you could have a Ph.D. polymer scientist end up as a faculty member in a bioengineering department, while a chemistry PhD ends up as a med school professor.

    Industrial experience could certainly be a factor, presuming it was relevant. Although I might have a different scenario than what you may be thinking. For example, my one quantum prof in grad school had worked in industry for over two decades before coming to academia, and was something of a pioneer in his particular area. Occasionally, he'd teach a graduate seminar in that particular area that would also be attended by students from a couple of other departments. It was a cross-listed course that served as a suitable elective for those graduate programs. This falls under the sort of thing that Simon Bridge was referring to in his post, and is very common in my experience. But he wasn't, for example, running over to the materials science program and teaching intro to solid mechanics for undergraduates since his fall semester felt a bit light, which is more the sort of scenario you're envisioning, or so it seems to me.

    The reality is that teaching well can be very difficult, especially if you haven't taught the class before. Even if - to continue my above example - said quantum prof did, let's say, end up teaching an intro thermo class over in materials science (which he would be certainly capable of doing) - he'd ask for (and get, I have no doubt about it) adequate notice, speak with the faculty who had taught the class previously and inquire about any material they could share, and so on. He wouldn't just walk in and figure, "I have a solid handle on my thermodynamics, let's just do this."

    Of course, one could just get rid of all that silly departmental politics and just teach just about everything right from the start - see here. :)
  7. Jan 21, 2012 #6
    One of my engineering mechanics professors received his bachelors, masters and doctorate in physics. I imagine it's not too common, but I can't say that it's particularly uncommon either. I think it depends on the subject being taught. Dynamics, after all, is nothing more than physics.
  8. Jan 21, 2012 #7
    Thanks for the input, everyone. I'm currently studying Mechanical Engineering, but my passion has always been for Physics. I honestly took the cheap/traitor/pragmatic route of studying Engineering instead of Physics, always hoping that someday I could get a graduate degree in Nuclear Physics, or in a subject that uses a lot of math & physics (e.g. Nuclear Engineering). If there were an Engineering Physics degree at my university, I probably would have done that.
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