Teach It Forward: Sharing Industry Experience as an Adjunct Professor

Becoming an adjunct professor while working full time requires dedication and careful planning, but it can be more than worth the effort.

By Sarvenaz Myslicki, SWE Editorial Board

Entering into the workforce can be a daunting experience for students with limited real-world experience, especially if they do not have access to courses that teach industry skills. After witnessing firsthand the steep learning curve that new hires face, I was inspired to craft a course that prepares students for software engineering roles in large enterprises. The positive reception and rapid growth of the course confirmed that there is a clear demand for more industry-specific and career-oriented education. By sharing the steps behind my journey into adjunct teaching, my hope is that other industry professionals with a desire to pay it forward and share their own experiences will feel empowered to do the same.

Check with your employer
If you plan to continue your full-time industry role while teaching, be sure to check your company’s policies for taking on additional employment. Some may require that you sign a conflict of interest form or otherwise disclose your activities. You should plan to participate in your teaching activities only outside of your company’s regular working hours.

Choose your university
A great place to start is your alma mater, especially if you have maintained faculty connections or stayed involved after graduation. For example, I first learned about the option to teach as an adjunct while serving on the industry advisory board for my university’s computer science department. If you live far from your alma mater and are not able to teach virtually, consider universities in your local area instead.

Verify your qualifications
Most universities require a master’s degree to teach as an adjunct professor or lecturer, so do a quick check to determine the requirements. Teaching also requires specific skills that may be different from the skills you have attained throughout your career. Be sure to carefully consider your comfort with public speaking, organizing or developing curriculum, leading a classroom, and handling student concerns.

CREDIT: Sorbetto

Identify your topic(s)
Note your industry experiences, technical knowledge, and other applicable skills. Cross-check this list with recent industry trends and common skill gaps you see in the new hires who join your company. Based on the university you select, research what is already taught in its standard curriculum. Your goal should be to teach beneficial topics that are not already covered.

Connect with faculty
Once you have narrowed the topic(s) where you can add value, you can formally express your interest. The best place to start is a prior connection, but this is not required to make an introduction. If you are not familiar with anyone at the university, consider sending a copy of your qualifications and topic proposals to the chair of the department that aligns most closely with your industry. They will have a good sense of whether there is sufficient student demand, budget, and administrative support for your course.

Pitch your course
Once your faculty contact has confirmed their interest for one or more of your topics, it is time to create an overview of your proposed course. This can include learning outcomes, a high-level schedule, and even filling out the university’s standard syllabus template. The feedback you receive in this step is crucial to your course’s success, so be ready to rehearse your proposal several times and ask for input from multiple faculty members.

When your course is accepted

Once your course is accepted, the real work begins! Ideally, you will have several weeks if not months prior to the launch of the course. You should plan your course in detail and always aim to be at least two to three weeks ahead when finalizing your lectures and assignments. Invest time upfront to create a centralized repository of all lectures, assignments, and associated resources, and map them all onto the university’s official school calendar. Finally, give yourself extra time to practice delivering your content, at least until lecturing starts to feel more natural to you.

Involve your network
As long as the university approves, reach out to members of your network who can contribute to your course as guest lecturers. Not only will this give students insight into different perspectives and a variety of career paths, but it will also allow the guest lecturers to make an impact and gain teaching experience with a much smaller time commitment.

Teach (and learn)
Now for the fun part: teaching! On top of the educational content, create ways to connect with your students. You will likely need to learn how to use custom software and tools to interact with them, input grades, and conduct other course management activities. Be sure to learn how these work before the semester begins so that it doesn’t interfere with your ability to successfully engage with your class. Expect to be flexible with your teaching style, and be prepared to accommodate a diverse set of students and learning styles.

The university will likely have a course feedback process, but do not hesitate to add your own methods of gathering student feedback as you go. Some options include a survey at the beginning of the semester to gather student expectations, ongoing or midsemester feedback requests, and a closing survey where students can review the topics and assignments in depth. Armed with all this great feedback, you should plan to reevaluate your course every semester and make relevant changes to both your content and assignments.

Becoming an adjunct professor while working full time requires dedication and careful planning, but it can be exceptionally fulfilling. For those who may not be ready to take on such a large commitment, consider giving back to students in other ways. Some options include guest lecturing, serving on an advisory board, becoming involved with university student groups, and participating in university mentoring programs. Whichever option you choose, know that you will have a meaningful effect on the students that will reach far beyond the classroom.

Sarvenaz Myslicki (she/her) has been an avid SWE member for more than a decade. She has held leadership positions at the section and Society levels and currently serves as a member of the senate and immediate past chair of the editorial board. A vice president of engineering for American Express and an adjunct professor at the University of Florida, Myslicki holds a B.S. and an M.S. in computer science, as well as an executive MBA.