On 31 August 2015 when I entered to give my first lecture as a new faculty of the finance department in the University of Connecticut, I completed a personal journey transferring from industry to academia. Let me try to capture in a few sentences the main stages of this career change.
I completed my PhD in Mathematics in 1994 and started the tenuous path to try and find an academic position. After 4 years of post-doctoral positions in two different universities in the US, I accepted the fact that I would not be able to get an academic position in pure mathematics and left to pursue a career in industry.
However, the desire to find my place in the academic world never left me. During the long years I worked in industry in various positions, I kept in touch with the other side by pursuing an independent research programme in pure mathematics and teaching in colleges as an adjunct professor. Meanwhile, the EDHEC PhD in Finance programme opened; I seized the opportunity to apply and I got accepted in 2011.
I will not deny that part of the motivation of me pursuing this programme was to try and get an academic position in finance departments in the US. Having completed the programme relatively quickly I embarked on my search for an academic position.
At the time I had an executive position in a risk start-up. As a result, I was preparing the academic applications in parallel to my work.
From the beginning, it was clear that getting a research position in a respectable institution presented a formidable challenge. First you compete against new PhD graduates that are out of top schools. Naturally they evolve in an environment totally focused on building academic connections and on academic mainstream research agendas. This is not necessarily the case in our PhD programme since the executive students are practitioners and may want to work on issues that are more tuned to topics considered important by the financial industry. There are definitely differences in aim and focus between industry practitioners and academic researchers. For example, building a new financial model is just the first step of its implementation in an organisation. The model has to be integrated into the current infrastructure of the financial institution. These questions of industrial planning that are so important to any bank are absent from financial academic research, which is understandable. Thus a person that may complete his doctorate thesis on these questions will have a hard time to obtain a research position in any finance department. This is a bit of an extreme example, but it illustrates the difference in focus which stems from the fact that the populations are also very distinct in terms of age and industry experience.
You need to plan everything meticulously and with great care. First, if you aimed at a truly academic position the research questions in your thesis must be appealing to a broad swath of researchers in finance departments. Second, and most importantly, the papers should aim at being published in highly-rated academic journals like the Journal of Finance or the Review of Financial Studies.
But there are alternatives for people like me with an industry background. Recently, universities move to what they call clinical positions. These are positions where the research component is not as crucial, and where teaching abilities and an outreach program to industry practitioners are greatly valued. These positions are similar to contract positions in industry. They are not tenure track positions and are based on multi-year contracts. As a result these positions are very suitable for industry practitioners that have some teaching experience. As I had a former teaching experience in CUNY Queens I was able to secure a clinical position of this type with University of Connecticut.
The transfer to this new world proved easier than I anticipated. The environment surrounding university campuses is very friendly and accommodating for new faculty. The university makes a great effort to accommodate the need of the new faculty members who were not part of an academic environment for many years. The department made a special effort to address some of my specific needs when the transfer happened in order to make it as smooth as possible.
In the classroom, I believe it is a definite asset. I am able to bring my knowledge and industry experience to the students highlighting specific issues that they will not find in their textbooks. For example the microstructure of specific markets and the contemporary way that financial institutions manage their financial assets and set their targets. The students are very appreciative of these practical aspects as it eases their transfer to the contemporary workforce. It also provides ample opportunity for very lively discussions in class.
The higher education industry is in general a slower-pace environment than the financial industry. This represents a great advantage since you have more time to think about issues, but it may sometimes lead to some frustration as you may be used to greater expediency. In terms of job protection, it is also a more secure environment than the financial industry. Of course the compensation is not commensurate, but you are more able to define your own agenda.
There is no one-size-fits-all recipe to make a transfer from the industry to an academic career a success. As I see it, students will have a better chance to obtain clinical academic positions than a traditional tenure-track research position. Having former teaching experience will help to secure such a clinical professor job. However, if your goal is to compete for academic research positions, you need to think about it right from the beginning and try to build a solid and original research agenda, and try to get publications early. A post-doctoral position may also help in this regard.