Here’s an aviation job that might be the best of the lot: Becoming a college professor in a field you already love.
At this stage of the career game, you get to sleep in your own bed, and spend long holidays with your kids. You may look forward to the kind of job security that comes with a tenured faculty position and an office with your name on the door.
In many colleges and universities, unlike other academic disciplines, you may not be required to publish or perish, though writing academic papers can enhance your resume. You’ll be surrounded by people who share your passion for flying.
Most particularly, you will enjoy a special kind of pride, when your students go out into the world, successfully armed with the self-confidence and both practical and theoretical knowledge you helped instill.
That’s the good news. On the other hand, these plum jobs aren’t going begging.
There’s a lot of competition for each slot, maybe 50 to 100 applicants for each of the scores of openings each year around the country. To get your foot in almost any academic door, you need to have a lot of real-world experience — airlines, military, technical expertise.
The broader and deeper your aviation skills, naturally, the more attractive your application will be. Most universities require a degree in the relevant field, at least a Master’s degree, ideally in aviation sciences, and preferably, working on a PhD. You may be expected to help “pay your own salary” through grantsmanship.
And then, maybe most important of all, the people doing the hiring are looking for that vital passion for teaching, for interacting with the students, for mentoring, boosting, and badgering, if necessary, to ensure that each student achieves his or her potential.
There are more than a hundred universities, colleges, and technical or community colleges offering accredited aviation programs, ranging from a two-year technical certificate with FAA license-eligibility, through bachelor’s degrees in various aviation specialties, to degrees all the way to PhDs and post-doctoral fellowships. They run the gamut from large established and prestigious programs with a thousand or more students and world-wide name recognition, to start-up programs at small state university branches and community colleges with a handful of faculty members who regard their small student bodies as close-knit family, and take a personal interest in interacting with each one.
The various academic programs vary with each institution. Most include, of course, the professional pilot course of study, where students earn flight ratings, private pilot, commercial, instrument, multiengine, and instructor tickets, expecting to spend several years as flight instructors, often at their alma mater, to amass the hours they need for the ATP rating, and that first job as first officer for a regional air carrier.
Other students seek technical certification as aerospace engineers, human factors and physiology researchers, mechanics, unmanned aircraft experts, air traffic control specialists, and airport operations managers, dispatchers and business management people.
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University alone offers 60 or 70 different major fields of study, all of them aviation-oriented.
At Embry-Riddle, Dr. Tim Brady loves his job as Interim Chancellor. He’s a former military pilot who prepared for his retirement by entering a doctoral program in education while still in the Air Force.
“You get to stay close to the airplane,” he says. “That’s important, once the flying bug has bitten.”
His program’s professional regard is as high as the school’s tuition, and, says Brady, all of the students are focused and motivated.
“I’ve taught at two other universities, and those universities had a broader application,” he says. “About half of the students had no thought as to what they wanted to do.”
The advantage of the 6,000 students at the aviation-focused university, he points out, is that the faculty members don’t have to spend a lot of time helping them figure out what they want to do with their training. Most are already sure of that.
Ken Polovitz, Assistant Dean for Student Services at the University of North Dakota, says his aerospace faculty members come from many different former careers before they wind up in front of a class. Some were airline pilots, more came up through general aviation as flight instructors or corporate pilots, earning an advanced degree or two along the way, and some are ex-military pilots.
“All are teaching what they were doing in the industry,” he notes.
Part of the job in academia is to help prepare students for the real world of aviation, Polovitz explains, and to “facilitate openings in the job market, working with industry for placements for our graduates.”
While replacing CFIs who have been pirated by the regional air carriers can be a challenge, Polovitz is quick to assure that “we’ve never said ‘please don’t come steal all our flight instructors.’”
That just comes with the territory.
At the other end of the collegiate spectrum are the small college programs, a number of them new to the aviation training programs. One such school is Elizabeth City State University, a historically-black institution in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.
ECSU’s aviation sciences program was established to lure promising students to this beautiful, but economically depressed part of the state, and to prepare them for jobs in growing technical fields. Thanks to a Golden Leaf Grant, the school boasts million-dollar classrooms with sophisticated air-traffic control training equipment and RedBird flight simulators, as well as a small fleet of training aircraft.
A subset of the UNC branch campus’s Department of Technology, the flight training program takes students through all of the pilot certificates. The university also offers degrees to students with concentrations in avionics, aviation management, and air traffic control.
The newest program trains students in the design and operation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems, better known as drones, a field that Dr. Kuldeep Rawat, department chairman, thinks is going to be the next very big thing in aerospace engineering.
It’s the only four-year program of its kind in the state of North Carolina, according to ECSU Assistant Professor and former Navy pilot Orestes Gooden, and is one of only two in the country to offer a collaboration on a direct commissioning and flight training program with the U.S. Coast Guard.
The faculty and students are on a first-name basis, and professors give out their personal cell phone numbers to the students on the first day of class.
“It feels like family,” says Air Traffic Control lecturer Robin Mangham, of her aviation students. “I’m like their mom.”
She pushes them when they need it, cheers heartily when things go well, and is as proud as their own mom when they go out in the world and distinguish themselves.
Not all students, points out Liberty University Dean James Molloy, are on campus. His college, in addition to its burgeoning Lynchburg, Virginia, flight training program, has a thriving distance learning program.
Many students are employed full-time elsewhere, and are completing their coursework online or by tele-conferencing. It’s an increasingly popular option for pilots seeking a career change at some future time, one that can be pursued while on a military deployment, or living far from the university’s brick-and-mortar school.
Embry-Riddle’s faculty teach not only at the school’s campuses in Arizona and Florida, and online, but in the university’s third world-wide campus, with course offerings and students in 130 other locations in Europe, Asia, and the United States.
The popularity of off-campus education has naturally created an increasing demand for faculty members who are intrigued by the idea of teaching core aviation courses in nontraditional settings and really enjoy getting to know their students through email and online live interaction.
The job openings are posted on hiring boards, by published advertising, and most particularly, by word of mouth. It helps to know somebody who knows somebody.
One good way to become known in academia is to hire on with one of the aviation universities as a flight instructor or a flight manager. The turnover in the flight schools is substantial as regional carriers raid the ranks for pilots as soon as they’ve built up enough hours for their ATP rating, and becoming an airport manager or corporate flight department executive requires demonstrated administrative experience. After all, you have to start somewhere. Both jobs also may afford enough unscheduled time to work hard on an advanced degree, to gain teaching experience as an adjunct instructor, and to become an expert in aviation subspecialties that will eventually prove valuable to a prospective academic employer.
The take-away is that while all interesting aviation jobs require preparation, not all of them involve jockeying a regional jet between two snowy northeastern cities on Christmas Eve, while waiting for a call from the legacy carriers. Some of the best jobs are situated on beautiful campuses, with superb equipment, motivated students, and offer three paid weeks off at Christmas.
Does Grad School sound appealing yet?