Teaching in a Business School

For twelve years I taught political science at Washington University in St. Louis. This is my second and last year of teaching International Business at George Washington University before going back to political science. I am joining the Government Department at the University of Texas in Fall 2016.

A few of my friends have asked me about the differences in teaching at a professional school and teaching in the arts and sciences. This is a difficult comparison but my general message is that business school teaching is pretty tough. But there are rewards.

Teaching Loads

When I started my first job at Washington University in 2002 we had a 2-2 teaching load (four courses per year). After a study of the teaching loads at peer political science programs WashU shifted to a 2-1 teaching load.

In business schools, some faculty teach 2-2 (or higher teaching loads) but most “research active” faculty teach a three course load. Unlike most political science departments, faculty sometimes teach all three courses in a single semester and this can be the same class repeated three times. Faculty can teach three sections of “Introduction to International Business” or “Global Strategy” in a semester and not teach the following semester.

Sounds like a good deal? Keep reading.

Variety of Classes

In my previous job in political science, courses were either semester long undergrad lectures or semester long Ph.D. seminars. At Washington University most of us taught one large undergrad lecture, one smaller upper division undergrad class, and one either an undergrad seminar or Ph.D. class.

In business schools, there are a much larger variety of potential classes types, but the variety of topics you can teach is smaller is more limited. Does that make sense?  Let me explain.

Some business schools don’t have any undergraduate majors, while others (like GW) have a large undergraduate population. Ph.D. programs in business schools tend to be very small and many departments only offer one Ph.D. seminar across the whole department. For most business school faculty, you are teaching MBA students and most of these classes are the “core” classes. For me this would be teaching “global strategy” or “international management”.

But business schools have plenty of master’s classes that range from the regular daytime MBA, evening MBA, online MBA, accelerated MBA, executive MBA as well as numerous specialized masters programs. These programs come in different forms, ranging from a regular 15 week course, 7 week courses, to anything else you can imagine.  But these are different forms of similar core courses.

I found selecting my courses to be especially daunting given this variety of potential courses, students, and schedules. In my two years at GW I taught one 7 week MBA course, an large introduction to globalization (200+ students), an advanced undergrad course (50 students) and a Ph.D. course. If I stuck around there was a one week DC focused course, consulting abroad, as well as some weekend courses I would consider.

Course Choice

Unlike many social science departments, professional schools have much more rigid curricula and thus provide a much smaller number of courses. Similar to law schools that require every student to take courses such as Contracts and Civil Procedure, business schools have a large number of required courses that require staffing. This means that many faculty have very few choices on which courses they will offer, and in many cases faculty are hired  to teach a specific course. We currently have a position at GW that is essentially to help teach one of our core MBA classes (Global Perspectives).

Thus while there are many different course formats, most of these are variants of core courses and not electives.

On-Load vs Off-Load

What I found especially striking in the business school was the constant need for additional courses. Faculty were expected to fulfill their teaching obligations (three courses a year for research active faculty) and often had the opportunity to teach additional courses “off load” for additional pay. For many business schools these additional courses pay an additional 1/12 of your base salary for a 3 credit course.

I was under the impression that many business school faculty engage in consulting for additional income. After joining the business school it is clear that additional teaching, including more specialized certificate programs and executive education is that way that faculty can earn an extra income and provide a service to the school.  But this comes at a cost to your research time.

Evaluation and Teaching Quality

Before moving to my new job in a business school I asked a few other faculty that made a similar transitions about their experience. Despite what sounded like a comparable teaching experience, most of the faculty reported that they spent more time prepping courses and more overall energy in teaching at a business school.

I came from a department with great teachers (political science at WashU has some fantastic teachers who are even better researchers) and I generally had very strong course evaluations. I thought this tough transition wouldn’t apply to me.

Two years later I find that I am still spending considerably more time and energy teaching than I did in my previous job. Why?

First, there is considerably more pressure to be a “good teacher” in a business school. Like I said, my previous job had lots of great teachers, but in my current job we review other syllabi, talk about course evaluations, and have lots of opportunities to receive additional training as a teacher. Some of the teaching opportunities, such as executive education, are only open to some of the best teachers.

Much of this is based on teaching evaluations. I am very mixed on using this criteria for evaluating teaching given the many biases in course evaluations and the weak correlation between ratings and learning. But my point is factual. Evaluations matter.

Second, and more importantly, I find that teaching in a business school is less closely engaged with my research than in political science. When teaching political science courses I assign academic research on the topic, discuss research design, data quality, and the link between theory and evidence.

We do some of this in my management courses, but there is more focus on practical decisions by managers and more focus on cases. I read dozens of cases before I assign a single case in my classes.  It is fun to learn new materials and it is exciting teaching, but it has very little synergy with the research part of my job.

This isn’t meant as a complaint.  Teaching is a larger part of your job in a business school and the goal conflict between teaching and research is much starker than my own experience in political science.

Thinking about a job in a business school?

Lots of students and colleagues have asked me about jobs in business schools. Do I like it? Would your recommend it to others?

This is a complicated question. It’s a very different world that consists of different criteria for research quality, a very different service and administrative role in the job, and substantially different teaching.

The focus of this blog post is only on teaching.  For non-academics this may not make sense.  The public perception of professor is solely as a teacher.  But for the academics reading this blog we all know the very brutal job market and high tenure standards make research an extremely important part of our jobs. And service to your department, university, and professional become more important the longer you are in the job.

In my opinion, teaching in a business school comprises a larger percentage of your job (as does school service) than a position in political science. This leaves less time for research (or sleep).

But the teaching definitely has its rewards and good teaching leads to additional professional opportunities. I was lucky at GW to teach undergrads, MBAs, and Ph.D. students. I really love teaching undergrad students, especially when much of the teaching is focused on a liberal arts education that has a learning for the sake of learning component. Ph.D. classes are also extremely engaging, where there is such a close relationship between teaching and research.

I also found that my limited exposure to MBA teaching was very positive as well. I love living in the world of ideas. But many of us academics have taken to blogging or writing op-ed pieces as a way to start engaging in policy debates. MBA teaching engages you in a different form of policy debate. You have the opportunity to help educate managers in their decisions. Some of these managers are in the public sector (especially in DC) but many of them are in private firms.  If you want to make a real world impact, the MBA classroom could be for you.

But this exciting opportunity comes at a cost. I found that my job in a business school tilted my time and energy much farther away from research than my years in political science. We all have different ideals on how we spend our professional time.  I guess I am voting with my feet.