Working as an adjunct college or technical school instructor is a great way to supplement your consulting income and make good networking contacts. You also get to enjoy a feeling of achievement in helping someone learn from your years of experience in the IT industry.
I've worked as an adjunct for the last five years and want to share tips and insight I’ve learned on how to move into this educational forum. Keep in mind that these tips will also work well if you want to move into other teaching venues, such as business teaching.
Learning about the role
The first step is to understand the role and responsibilities of an adjunct instructor. We are professionals, usually with five or more years of experience, who teach one or more college classes during a school term. An adjunct serves a unique role—he or she instructs on topics that can’t be taught by the school’s full-time instructors.
In IT terms, you can think of adjuncts as teacher consultants. Each school in the United States has different requirements for adjuncts. In broad terms, at an accredited teaching institution, you must have a four-year degree and usually a master's degree. The latter is typically required at larger, accredited universities. Community colleges and private universities can make exceptions to this rule. I've even seen accredited universities do this on a limited basis when they are hurting for instructors.
The need for adjunct instructors has increased because of supply and demand. With the economy in a recession, more individuals are either going back to school or staying in school longer, increasing the number of students enrolled per school term.
In the education community, especially in the IT area, there is a shortage of PhDs. Students in computer science and IT programs have opted to join companies after getting their four-year degrees instead of pursuing advanced degrees. Universities sometimes have students who can teach undergraduate classes, but they usually aren’t mature enough to teach their peers. This is where the tenured IT professional can easily step in as an adjunct instructor.
How to get hired
To pursue a job as an adjunct, begin by researching the types of schools you might want to teach in and the job opportunities within your area.
Log onto the school’s Web site and check out the course catalog. If the school isn’t online, call and request a catalog.
The school’s PhDs likely don’t want to teach the general IT or tech courses, so this class segment offers the largest opportunity for adjuncts.
In reviewing the technical programs, read over the courses in the Business Information and Computer Science departments. Note which languages and IT skills are taught and at what level. You can usually tell pretty quickly if the educational facility is a Microsoft school or a Linux school—and you can quickly determine whether your background matches the educational programs.
Also check out the introductory courses, such as Intro to Computers or Intro to MIS. Make note of which courses are required for all students and which are only for IT majors. This will give you an idea of where teachers are needed.
Also look for the beginning programming classes, like Intro to C or Visual Basic. There are even beginning COBOL classes. The university where I teach doesn’t have a COBOL instructor on staff, but it is required to teach a COBOL class each semester because it’s a requirement for some degree programs.
You may even want to look into other departments, such as sociology or psychology; some offer either beginning programming classes or IT-related courses that all students have to take. I know of an instructor who teaches History of the Computer for a history department at a state university.
Marketing yourself for the role
Next, you must create a good e-mail introduction letter, a formal cover letter, and a teaching resume.
The first communication tool you’ll likely use is an introductory e-mail. This is a sales tool to get the attention of a decision maker, who then will look at your experience. Make the e-mail short and concisely explain the teaching role you’re interested in. Highlight what you know about the college (which you learned during all that catalog perusing) and how your skills, experience, or expertise fill the students’ academic needs.
For example, if the school offers an Intro C class, point out your five years of C development experience. If you've held IT management jobs, point out that project management experience and how it ties into the Intro to Business Information Systems class. Don’t make the mistake of talking about your PASCAL experience if PASCAL isn’t taught in the school.
Once you’ve written a succinct e-mail introduction, attach a specific cover letter that provides more details of your skills, which will pique the reader’s interest and move them to review your resume.
In my cover letters, I list my experience in a summary format. If you're an expert in VB, C, C++, and Linux, list this along with the years of experience in each. Only list your skills that are close to what is needed at the school. Include your education and any certifications you have.
Conclude your cover with an invitation to meet in person to discuss any position that the school will need taught in the IT arena for the upcoming semester. This sends the impression that you're flexible and willing to work where needed.
Then, attach an education-focused resume crafted to get the attention of school leaders and hiring managers. You can use your IT resume as a foundation and then revise it a bit to bring forth any teaching/instruction experience you’ve had and highlight the specific technology that the school program requires.
Obviously, the resume’s career objective summary should state that you’re looking for an adjunct position and offer a quick sentence about your teaching experience.
For example, I taught karate 15 years ago and included this tidbit in the last line of a summary on a resume I sent to IBM in Dublin, Ireland. The resume was forwarded to several people until a training manager saw it, noted my karate background, and called me. He was a karate student and was interested to see what style of martial arts I used to teach. This five-minute conversation turned into a long-term relationship with IBM during which I served as an adjunct instructor. The point here is that you shouldn’t undervalue any teaching experience—no matter how minor.
Whom to contact
A college or university is typically structured with a PhD leading the teaching load for a specific department. These PhDs usually report to a head of the department. This individual usually trades some teaching responsibilities in exchange for managing the department.
These department heads ensure that courses are covered by instructors and all typically report to the dean of the schools. Deans are responsible for the courses taught in an entire school.
In reviewing the Web site and catalog of a school, you should be able to find out who’s in charge of the departments and the dean’s name, as well as their e-mail or contact information.
If you have management responsibility, and are willing to teach in different departments, the dean of the school is the best person to reach out to.
If you only want to teach in the Computer Science or Information Technology department, send your e-mail and related documents to the heads of those departments. I've found that it is best to send it to either one or the other, but not both.
Since most of my experience is in IT, I normally send my package to the head of the IT department. If they have anything available, they'll let you know pretty quickly. I prefer to teach only IT-related courses. If I don’t get a response, or if I get a negative response, I then send my package to the dean of the school.
When to start the job hunt
Keep in mind that the school work environment is very different from the traditional business—colleges live and die based on enrollment.
There is nothing worse for a school dean or department manager than learning they have enough students to create two extra intro classes in IT but only five students for a SQL class. The first thing they’ll want to do is hire someone for those new needed classes so you must make sure your resume material is in their hands at the right time.
That’s why you need to learn the last days of class registration and most importantly, when the last day is to pay the university fees. The cutoff day for payment of fees is when the heads of the departments really know what the class size will be.
Your e-mail package needs to get in front of the heads of the departments about two to three weeks prior to those dates.
Don’t just send your package anytime—especially in the middle of a semester. It will likely just be shoved into a file or a pile. You want it in their hands just as they're determining their teaching needs—if you don’t hear right away, they’re likely still mapping out what courses they’ll have the next semester. If they know right away that they won’t need you for the next semester, they’re usually very good about getting back to you right away.