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Breaking Into Academia

March 2, 2008

Are you in the industry? Are you considering entering academia? Ian Schreiber (Teaching Design) hosted a roundtable at GDC for precisely this purpose. He was kind enough to provide me the notes so that I might post them here.

GDC 2008 Roundtable: “Breaking In to Academia” (moderated by Ian Schreiber)

Introduction: The purpose of this two-roundtable series was to begin a dialogue between schools and industry veterans who are interested in teaching. Both sessions had about a 50/50 mix between developers and academics, with the occasional person who crossed over in one direction or the other. If one thing was clear, it’s that there is significant demand for industry experience on the academic side, and significant interest in teaching on the industry side… but many people on both sides don’t know where to begin.

Open Questions: These are the concerns that those in the industry raised. Schools wishing to recruit should take special note of these, as they are likely the largest barriers to recruitment.

  • Accreditation – Most people in industry do not have a terminal degree (Ph.D. or MFA). Is getting one required, even to teach a single course as an adjunct?
  • Skill at teaching – For someone who has never taught a course before, doing so can be intimidating. How do you know if you’re any good at it?
  • Staying connected – The industry changes quickly. Is it possible to keep up with the latest trends and technology if you teach full time? Is it important to do so?
  • Day in the life – Aside from lecturing, what other tasks are required as part of the job? What are the differences between academia and industry that one should be prepared for?
  • Value of experience – Are there skills that students need that can only be provided by someone with industry experience?
  • Getting started – If you’re currently working in industry but would like to start teaching, where do you begin your search?

The answer to just about any question is, “it varies.” Every school is different. Even within a school, there are distinctions between adjunct (part-time) and full-time positions. Industry veterans interested in seeking a teaching position should talk to many schools in their area, not just one, as they will find wildly different situations at each.

Accreditation: The industry doesn’t care about degrees or accreditation; we just care if you can make a great game. Schools are very different.

State schools tend to be the most restrictive in terms of requiring a degree, because they are forced to keep a certain mix of faculty to stay accredited. Vocational schools (community colleges, art institutes, colleges of art and design, game-specific schools, etc.) tend to be more accommodating, where you can substitute industry experience for formal education, as long as their sum exceeds a certain threshold. Even at the more restrictive schools, sometimes they are able to get creative with their requirements (such as offering a position provisionally, with the understanding that the professor will earn an advanced degree within a certain time after they start teaching).

Skill at teaching: This is a problem for everyone, not just industry veterans. Many schools operate on the (flawed) assumption that if you have a Ph.D. in your field, it automatically qualifies you to teach. Many professors have no formal training in education. Some schools have a “Center for Teaching Excellence” on campus that provides resources for new teachers.

Staying connected: Yes, this is important. Luckily, there are many ways to do so:

  • Teach by doing – become involved with student game projects to keep your own development skills sharp.
  • Freelance/contract work, especially during vacation time (the academic year is typically 30 weeks, which leaves 22 weeks each year to do this).
  • Keep in touch with students who graduate and enter industry. For current students who get industry internships and return to school, use them as a resource.
  • Get involved in creative research projects (such as the experimental gameplay project at CMU).
  • Bring in guest speakers from industry. If your school is not located near any game studios, there still may be the occasional developer who has family nearby and would be glad to give a guest lecture the next time they’re on vacation.
  • Use your sabbatical year to work in industry full time.
  • Teaching and development don’t have to be either/or. It is possible to straddle both, working part-time in one or both.

Day in the life: Here are some things that professional developers should be aware of, good and bad:

  • Most people get paid less to teach than they do to make games. This can be mitigated if you use your 22 weeks of vacation to do contract work.
    • Generally, adjuncts make less money for their time than full-time faculty. However, a couple of schools mentioned that they pay their adjuncts more, from the understanding that most adjuncts have a separate full-time job and every hour they spend teaching is essentially overtime.
  • For people who love to teach, most report that their “quality of life” increases when they leave the industry. They may put in just as many hours, but they’re happier.
  • Teaching offers a certain kind of immediate and direct satisfaction that comes from building personal relationships with students and watching them develop, which is not present when developing a small part of a large game.
  • To a large extent, you are your own boss as a teacher. You can choose the content of your courses, how to teach them, and how much work you put into them. You can also choose what other things you want to do outside of teaching (curriculum building, committees, etc.). Aside from class time itself, you can work from home, which is a nice benefit.
  • The culture of academia is very different from industry culture. Expect some culture shock.
  • If you want to teach, you’ll need passion and patience.

As far as the number of hours worked, this varies greatly. It depends on several factors:

  • Number of courses. More courses = more time.
  • Nature of the courses. Lab or studio (project-based) courses require less work per credit hour than lecture-based courses.
  • Whether you’ve taught the course before. The first time requires a lot of extra preparation, especially if you’re new to teaching in general.
  • Part-time or full-time. Obviously, it’s easiest to start by just giving a single guest lecture in someone else’s class, and it’s easier to start with one class than a full load.

Other things that may consume your time, other than class time:

  • Being a member or chair of a committee
  • Building a curriculum
  • Talking with students outside of class (they tend to be fascinated with someone who’s actually been in the industry, especially if you’re the only such faculty)
  • Designing your courses with many milestones along the way, to allow for iterative changes during a semester. This makes your classes better, but is a bit more work.
  • Selecting textbooks for classes. This is often required long before the class actually starts, and you need to take some time to familiarize yourself with the text.
  • Forming and cultivating industry partnerships (advisory boards, guest speakers, internships, etc.)
  • Collaborating with other schools or even other departments within your school. This can be very difficult; many schools have huge walls between departments (even more so than the one between your programmers and artists on your dev team). Breaking down these barriers takes a lot of time and patience.
  • Gathering resources (such as getting new technology in a computer lab). Finding these resources is especially challenging for adjuncts. Even if you’re full-time, by the time you go through the approval process and get IT to install everything, the next version of that software is now available; you’re always behind the tech curve. One solution is to do it yourself, getting the resources to build and staff your own lab under your control… but this is hard to set up and takes time.
  • Generally, your total hours worked is much greater than the total number of class hours. (As a rule of thumb, take any figure of expected hours the school gives you and multiply by 2.)
  • Your work is extremely open-ended. You can always find ten ways to spend an extra hour, whether it be setting up a new research project, improving a class or building relationships outside of your department.

Value of experience:

  • You can give anecdotes from your personal experience to illustrate a point in your lesson. Students love them, and they can really assist in learning by showing students how a topic is really used in the field.
    • However, the perspective at some schools is that the only thing some adjuncts do is tell “war stories” – you do need to tie your anecdotes to lessons in a relevant way.
  • You are experienced in industry best practice, and are familiar with the latest technology.
  • You know the important “soft skills” beyond the technical: teamwork, documentation, communication, interdisciplinary collaboration.
  • Your experience is directly useful in interdisciplinary project-based (“capstone”) courses… especially if you’ve been a producer, since the teacher of a capstone class is essentially the executive producer of the project.
  • If you’re not used to leading a team or assigning individual grades on a team-based project, one participant recommended the book “Tools for Teams” from the University of Phoenix Press.

Getting started:

  • If you want to start with giving a single guest lecture, contact a local teacher who runs a course in your area of interest.
  • Some colleges offer night classes, which may be easier if you’re still working in industry. However, it’s easier to find work if you can teach during the day.
  • The squeaky wheel gets the grease. Go out to schools and ask if you can teach a class; they probably won’t come to you (mainly because they don’t know how).
  • Talk to several schools, not just one. You will find more differences than similarities.
  • Talk to departments within a school about expanding their curriculum or creating a new program, if they have interest in building a game program but haven’t started yet.
  • You don’t have to leave the industry to get involved with teachers and students!
    • Get involved with the internship program at your company. If there isn’t one, start one, and form partnerships with local schools.
    • Approach local schools that have game development programs, and offer to be on their industry advisory board.
    • Seek out local game classes, or student game development clubs. Offer to be a guest speaker.

Other random stuff:

  • There is more demand from schools than supply from industry. If you’re a developer looking to teach, you are very much in demand. This has some corollaries:
    • In theory, your role within the industry should matter. Six months of QA is not the same as ten years of game design experience if you’re being hired to teach a game design class. In reality, many schools don’t know enough about the industry to judge competency; this is something schools need to be aware of.
  • In the long term, it’s easy to get comfortable. You’ve taught your classes before, and there is the temptation to just keep doing what you’ve been doing because it’s easy. Don’t do this. Spend your extra time improving in other ways.
  • A neat perk of being a teacher is that you can get free books; all you have to do is tell the publisher that you’re considering it for a class textbook. (If you’re part-time, you may have difficulties since some publishers will only send books to a school address and not your home; ask your department for assistance.)

Further Resources:

IGDA Game_Edu mailing list:

IGDA Education forums:

Shameless plug for Ian’s blog on the intersection of teaching and game design:

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Malcolm Ryan permalink
    March 2, 2008 7:18 pm

    Hmm. Time to replace the locks.


  1. Balthazar Auger » Blog Archive » GDC 08 - A Post-Mortem

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