How to reinvent yourself as a business school academic
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Rupert Merson fell into lecturing at London Business School after a colleague bottled out of giving a talk. “He said he had double booked with a client meeting, but I think he had lost his nerve,” Mr Merson, who at the time was a partner at accounting firm BDO, says. “He knew I was a sucker for getting up in front of an audience.”
The topic was financing start-ups, something Mr Merson felt confident explaining to a class of MBA students given his experience advising clients and was invited back as a guest speaker several times. A couple of years later he was approached to jointly teach a course on managing growth.
Mr Merson revelled in the lecturing role so after being made redundant from BDO and starting his own advisory firm, he became an adjunct associate professor — a purely teaching role —of strategy and entrepreneurship. He has an office on the top floor of the main LBS campus building, close to Regent’s Park.
Top business schools’ faculty departments are full of people who have spent their lives in academia, but many want to hire executives. About one in five of the 162 faculty staff at LBS are adjunct professors or executive fellows, employed on short-term contracts that are updated annually. They bring real-world experience to subjects such as marketing and corporate finance.
Academia can be nerve-racking for former executives, as Mr Merson’s colleague discovered. But teaching degree students can also prove rewarding — if not financially then as a way to broaden a career.
Good adjunct professors are just as hard to find as talented, full-time core faculty members, although the pool of potential candidates is bigger in London than other places, according to Madan Pillutla, deputy dean of faculty at LBS.
All LBS adjunct professors serve an “apprenticeship” with a full-time faculty member, learning how to share real-life experiences within a course framework. The relationship is symbiotic, because full-time faculty learn from hearing how business problems are addressed in boardrooms, says Prof Pillutla.
The proportion of staff with industry backgrounds on the teaching roster at Lancaster University Management School has doubled since 2010 from nine to 18. Angus Laing, Lancaster’s dean, is hiring more. In two years, he wants one in 10 of his 250 course tutors to be former corporate executives. Partners from professional services firms, company heads and entrepreneurs who have just sold their ventures bring practical experience to the classroom, says Prof Laing.
“Students expect us to have a blend of both cutting-edge intellectual rigour and industry experience,” he says.
For schools, it is also cheaper than luring experienced academics from rival institutions. Salaries for such teaching staff are usually significantly lower than those of tenured professors, whose pay is boosted by the publication of academic research.
But there is often an opportunity to pick up extra income, with Mr Merson combining his second career with freelance advisory work. “Clients have become subjects for the case studies I teach, students sometimes turn into clients,” he says.
The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, the professional body for MBA providers, has taught hundreds of executives hoping to become full-time professors on its Bridge course, including former vice-presidents and partners from Coca-Cola, BP and Ernst & Young (now EY).
The five-day programme, run at UCLA Anderson School of Management in Los Angeles and Cass Business School in London, gives participants instructional practitioner status for 786 AACSB-accredited schools worldwide. AACSB turns down about a fifth of applicants each year either because they lack a masters degree or sufficient industry experience.
Simon Wilde spent two decades in investment banking and was a senior managing director at Macquarie Capital but decided to enter academia while studying for a masters in finance at London School of Economics in 2011.
He admits standing in front of a class of 200 students for the first time was daunting but wanted an end to long office hours.
“I’d often presented to clients, boards and conferences but I felt a particularly individual and heavy responsibility. I held the future of this group of young people in my hands.
“This was megalomaniac nonsense, of course, but nevertheless quite a different pressure from what I’d been used to.”
Mr Wilde juggles part-time roles including teaching at the University of Bath — where he is also studying for a PhD in accounting and finance — lecturing at London’s Imperial College, and working two days a week for Macquarie.
He admits he cannot help thinking of students as “customers”, especially given that they all pay thousands of pounds a year to attend UK universities.
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