For many solo PR pros, the idea of becoming an adjunct instructor at a local college or university can be appealing.
“Being an educator keeps me on my toes and forces me to know the latest trends, tips and techniques for working in communications,” says Kristie Aylett, APR, Fellow PRSA and agency principal with The KARD Group PR/Marketing. “It gives me additional credibility among my peers and clients.”
Teaching at the college level can also be incredibly rewarding. “I have to say that I find students much more interesting these days than clients. They haven't lost that enthusiasm for the future that so many clients have lost in the need to get the job done, day after day,” explains Debra Bethard-Caplick, MS, MBA, APR and founding partner of Quicksilver Edge Strategic Communications.
It can also be a lot of work, and adjuncts may find themselves donning multiple hats. “Be prepared to play counselor, cheerleader, parents and taskmaster. Students can need a lot of offline support to get through the work,” says Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, APR, Fellow PRSA and owner of the Falcon Valley Group.
3 solo PR pros on becoming an adjunct instructor
If you're interested in becoming an adjunct instructor, the good news is, there's lots of opportunities for you.
“With more programs moving online, opportunities to teach no longer have to be limited to your local university,” explains Kristie. “In addition, instructors who can teach specialty courses are in high demand. Courses may be as broad as Principles of PR or PR Campaigns, or as focused as Working with Influencers, Crisis Communications or Nonprofit PR.”
We checked in with Kristie, Debra and Gayle to learn more about how they became adjuncts, why they enjoy teaching and their best advice for fellow solo PR pros interested in stepping into the classroom.
Where do you teach? How long have you been an adjunct for and what class(es) do you teach?
Kristie Aylett (KA): I teach undergraduate PR classes at Tulane University and a class for independent educational consultants starting their own business as part of a certificate program at the University of California at Irvine.
My first adjunct position was at Texas Christian University, teaching PR Writing. I started in the fall of 2000 and taught there for about three years.
After I moved to Mississippi, I started teaching at Tulane’s Biloxi campus in 2006. When that campus closed, I started teaching online. I now teach a variety of PR courses, usually just one course a semester.
I started teaching at UCI in 2011, with a five-week, online course focused on using social media for business development. That has evolved into a broader course, PR and Marketing for the IECs. I teach it twice a year.
Debra Bethard-Caplick (DBC): Adjunct Instructor, Loyola University School of Communications since January 2020
Courses taught: Principles of Public Relations, Public Relations Writing, Communications Ethics, Media Relations, Campaigns (graduate program)
DePaul University College of Communications, 2011 – 2022
Courses taught: Introduction to Public Relations, Public Relations and Advertising Writing, Health Communications, Non-profit Communications, Special Topics: Bateman PR Campaigns
Gayle Lynn Falkenthal (GF): I currently teach at National University, San Diego’s largest private nonprofit university. It was originally founded in 1971 to serve active-duty military and veterans. It now educates students from across the U.S. and around the world with over 185,000 alumni. I've taught at NU since 2011. I teach upper-division strategic communication planning and tactics, mobile app development, social media management, integrated marketing, and media literacy. I have also taught similar courses at San Diego State University.
Tell us the story of how you became an adjunct.
KA: In mid-August of 2000, I received a phone call from the PR program director in the TCU School of Communications, which is now the Schieffer College of Communications. As a TCU alum with 10 years of PR experience, my APR and a fairly fresh master’s degree, I now met the qualifications to be a part-time instructor. They had an immediate need for someone to teach a night class once a week to 15 Ad/PR students, and I took a deep breath and said yes. The syllabus, textbook and assignments were already in place, and I dove in. Fun fact: a student from that first class now teaches it!
DBC: I tease my students when talking about networking that I got my first teaching job at a bar, which is semi-true. I was attending a social event hosted by the Chicago PRSA chapter, and one of the other attendees was a soon-to-retire professor at DePaul who was talking about how hard it was to find someone to take over the writing classes she taught, because it's so much work to grade the assignments. I said I would, and she put me in touch with the assistant dean, I went in and interviewed, and got the job.
GF: I was recruited to teach first at San Diego State University after earning my master's degree in mass communication. Several years later, I was recruited by a former journalist colleague who was the department chair at National University.
Why do you enjoy teaching? How does it complement what you do in your business?
KA: I love introducing students to public relations and seeing them comprehend the true scope of the profession, beyond what they may have seen on TV programs or movies. I want them to develop their skills, understand the diverse practice areas, and be prepared to have a successful career of their own.
Being a PR educator, even on a part-time basis, has become a defining factor of my work. It’s opened up opportunities and expanded my network. It’s also provided a nice supplemental income.
The level of support adjuncts receive varies by institution. Some offer additional benefits, tuition waivers, etc. while others offer only a paycheck (plus library access, subscriptions, or other tools you may be able to use in your classroom). Thanks to my adjunct status, I have complimentary subscriptions to the New York Times, Washington Post, Harvard Business Review, and Wall St. Journal. I also have a Muck Ruck for Educators account, Adobe and other tools available to educators.
DBC: I've always organized workshops and seminars, so you could say teaching comes naturally to me. Plus it's fun to introduce them to some of the stranger things about the profession. I especially like the introductory classes, because I essentially get to tell stories about things I've experienced in my career.
Once, during a session on the use of music and visuals in creating TV commercials and PSAs, we were examining a TV commercial that used Jimmy Buffet's “Margaritaville” for the music. A student asked me to explain what a “pop top” was (blew out my flip flop/stepped on a pop top/cut my heel/had to cruise on back home). So I went online and pulled up an image of the original pull tab from a soda can from the 1970s to show the class. The student studied the picture for several moments, then said, “That looks a lot more efficient that what we have now.” The class was horrified when I described the chains we used to make out of them, and the dresses, curtains and other assorted creative uses for them. It's moments like these that make teaching fun.
As for complementing my business, it helps me see the world through their eyes, so I can communicate from their perspective, instead of older person to younger person.
GF: I've been a trainer in multiple professional roles over the years, and also trained hundreds of American Red Cross volunteers. I find teaching both personally challenging and a way to keep my own professional skills up to date by necessity. This remains true for me. I push myself to stay ahead of trends for my students and it benefits my clients (and vice versa). I might otherwise rest on my laurels too much without this motivation.
What advice would you give to a fellow solo PR pro interested in becoming an adjunct? Any particular steps they should take?
KA: Know the requirements needed for your preferred university, such as a master’s degree or higher, graduate level coursework, APR or other credentials.
Understand that a 3-hour course may require 10 or more hours of your time each week.
Some institutions specify the textbook, syllabus, and assignments so that courses are consistent from instructor to instructor and from term to term. Others allow you to choose your textbook and develop assignments for your class.
Next time an educator asks you to be a guest speaker, take the time to develop a lesson and don’t just talk about your career journey or day-to-day work. For example, walk the students through how you applied the four-step process to a campaign, offer specific tips for how you handle media relations, or give them a behind-the-scenes look at the process you use to manage social media or create content.
Ask the instructor where you fit into the syllabi and course calendar. Suggest pre-work, a classroom activity or discussion. Approach the opportunity as a learning experience for yourself to fine-tune your approach to teaching. War stories may be interesting for an hour, but they won’t get you through a semester.
DBC: Do it because you want to pass on valuable skills and experiences, not because you're doing it for the paycheck. It's very time-consuming, and can be emotionally draining.
Don't expect it to be like when you were a student, because it's a whole different world inside these classrooms now. I find myself feeling envious of the experiences these students get to have as a regular part of their studies, like working on real campaigns, with real clients. Makes me (almost) want to go back to school.
You'll also find yourself dealing with the extremes of life in a way you haven't before from the major to the trivial. I've had students cry on my shoulder a couple of times when a beloved grandparent passed during the school year. One student shuttled back and forth between Chicago and another nearby city weekly because their only sibling was seriously injured and in the hospital, and their parents lived on the West Coast. I've had students email me a photo of the smashed in bumper of their car when they were in a fender bender and had to miss class, but I will never forget the student who texted me the photo of his car that he'd just spent two hours shoveling out by hand, immediately after the city snowplow buried it up to the roof. That was an excused absence.
Also, unless you are a big name in the PR or journalism world, or have a PhD, don't expect to be able to transition to a full time teaching position. That's not likely to happen. But for all the time and energy involved, it's a rewarding experience…most of the time, when you're not swearing over their punctuation and grammar issues.
GF: Working as an adjunct instructor can provide career development. By teaching strategic planning repeatedly, I'm extremely confident in my skillset. It's also an income stream. But it can be an enormous drain on your time. You will not come close to replacing your regular solo income. I can make more in one billable hour than in six hours of teaching. You're going to spend a lot of nights/weekends grading, or talking a student through their work.
Seek advice from your own former professors or from colleagues who are academics. They may be able to offer referrals to start the hiring process. Most universities require a master's degree. Some programs prefer Accreditation in Public Relations. However, at the community college level, you may qualify through a bachelor's degree, demonstrated work experience, and by taking a handful of required education courses (as in California).
Ask a LOT of questions about your role as an adjunct. Your dean and supervising instructors are likely carrying a heavy load and might be limited in their ability to help you. Once you say yes, don't be surprised if you're thrown into the deep end of the pool. Be sure you are comfortable both with classroom and online teaching technology. All courses rely on tech tools for assignments and grading.
Resources for adjunct instructors
Think you're ready to dive in? Here are some more resources to check out.
“The PRSA College of Fellows and Educators Academy worked together to develop the Adjunct Resource Guide as a free resource for PR practitioners who are potential and current part-time educators,” explains Kristie, who served as one of the co-editors on the guide.
The guide answers common questions about being a part-time faculty member and teaching the next generation of PR professionals. Chapters include planning your course, guidelines for common courses, ideas for the classroom and tips for teaching undergraduates, as well as teaching graduate students.
As co-chair of the Educational Initiatives committee of the PRSA College of Fellows, Kristie says another resource adjuncts can check out is the Lessons for PR Leaders video series on the PRSA College of Fellows YouTube channel. It currently has videos from 12 Fellows that educators can use in their classes to supplement their lessons.
We'd love to hear from you. Are you an adjunct professor or have desires to explore teaching? Let us know in the comments or chat with us on social media!
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