The Rediscover State College Podcast

Teaching Full-time at Penn State without a PhD

Season 1 / Episode 2

Bill Zimmerman’s cool job in State College: Teaching full-time in the Penn State Bellisario College of Communications, without a PhD.

Bill wrote for his hometown paper, the Indiana Gazette, for several years right out of college. Although he enjoyed the experience, he was ready to move on from the hectic newsroom job.

Bill moved to State College to work at Penn State’s PR office, and quickly fell in love with the campus, the community, and – something he didn’t anticipate – teaching.

In this episode, Bill talks about how he was able to start teaching college classes, why teaching at the university level is a rewarding experience, and the benefits of being a lecturer.

Make sure you stick around through the end of the episode – we’ll enter our segment called “How to Do the Thing,” where Bill will give you three actionable steps you can take towards teaching at the university level without a PhD.

Brad Groznik: [00:00:00] This is the Rediscover State College Podcast. On this show, we talk to locals about how they were able to find their happy place in Happy Valley. I’m your host, Brad Gronik. Today we have Bill Zimmerman. Bill is a professor at Penn State’s Bellisario College of Communications, and he does not have a PhD.

We’ll talk about Bill’s journalism and PR background, as well as how he ended up finding his place at Penn State. All right, bill, thanks again for, for chatting with me today.

Bill Zimmerman: Yeah, thanks Brad. My pleasure. Uh, I did a podcast for about four years and this is, this is my first time getting behind the microphone since I stopped that podcast way back in December of 2021.

And I spoke with you for that back in the day. So this is, this is cool. The tables are turned. I’m excited that you’re on your, uh, your own podcasting adventure.

Brad Groznik: Yeah, I was a huge fan of Happy Valley Hustle. Uh, I got to. Have virtual coffee with so many of your podcast guests, like listening. So I, I [00:01:00] really enjoyed it.

And I am also selfishly excited that like, since I was on your podcast, you were gonna have to come on mine. So, uh,

Bill Zimmerman: yeah. That, that’s how the exchange works. Yeah. Some reciprocity, right? Yep, exactly. That is as the un unwritten role of podcasting.

Brad Groznik: So the reason I wanna have you on, we’d like to interview people who are living lives, that, that seem a little, uh, counterintuitive and one of the things that, that you’ve been able to do.

Is you’ve been, you’ve been able to become a Penn State professor, you know, by not working your way up through academia and, and, you know, getting your PhD and, and, and things like that. And you were able to find a way to, to teach for the university without all that. So could you tell us a little bit about like how that happened and how you were able to land where you are?

Bill Zimmerman: I love talking about my, my journey because I, I think there’s a, there’s a lot others can, can learn from it and, uh, you know, there’s lots of persistence and patience. And also, like you said, it kind of exploring, uh, different avenues that maybe other people wouldn’t have, wouldn’t have thought about. I [00:02:00] graduated from Indiana, university of Pennsylvania as a, as a journalism major and.

Uh, ended up working at the, uh, the Indiana Gazette, which was essentially my hometown paper for almost 10 years. And it was quite the journey. It was frustrating, and the pay was terrible. I, I learned a little, uh, about a lot of things, which was, was pretty cool. I, I enjoyed writing, I did layout design, editing.

Um, it was, those years went by really fast. It is fun to be part of gathering and distributing the news, but it, it really wore me down. And I also wasn’t great at sending out resumes, writing cover letters, trying to find, uh, other jobs either. I kind of just complained a lot and didn’t take much action in, in changing my situation.

But, uh, eventually I got hired at Penn State to work in their public relations office. I just kind of got to a breaking point in my career. I took the G R E, I was just, I needed a change and I also got really [00:03:00] better at sending cover letters out like crazy. I. Got hired by Penn State to work in their PR office doing work that was very similar to what I was doing at the newspaper.

It was writing and editing for the, for the Penn State News website. And I just absolutely loved working on a college campus. The, the atmosphere is fantastic. I mean, campuses in general are just pretty places and there’s just a really good energy of all these people gathered in one spot, you know, trying to improve themselves.

So, pretty quickly, I was, I was hooked. I drank the Kool-Aid, whatever you wanna say. And I have decided, hey, I’m getting a master’s degree. This is, things are going well. The opportunity to have a tuition discount from my employer was just too good to pass up. Not exactly sure what I’m gonna major in, but I, I want to get my degree because I.

I’d be foolish not to given the situation I’m in. And I ended up getting a degree in higher education. Took about three and a half years. My department was really, uh, generous in [00:04:00] helping me leave for the day to go to a class if I needed to. So it, it really worked out really well and I got in that program because it seemed like it was good job security for to keep me in higher ed.

You know, people would go into academic advising, lobbying. You know, uh, fundraising, there was lots of interesting avenues if I decided to leave, you know, higher ed communications. And, but during that same time, I had a chance to teach a journalism class as an adjunct. In the College of Communications, there’s a class called news Writing and reporting that almost every major takes and there are way the, the demand, uh, exceeds the number of full-time faculty who could teach that course.

So they look to people in the community and on the campus with journalism backgrounds who can teach it. So I knew of some of my coworkers in strategic communications who had, who had taught it in the past, reached out to the department head, gave them my, my resume. And before I knew it, I had an assignment for the upcoming fall to teach.

And I really, uh, and I, and I have to commend the, the higher [00:05:00] education program at Penn State. They were really flexible. I ended up taking a three credit internship around me teaching for a semester. So that worked out really well. And I, I took a college teaching course and really, I just, I, I started to feel like teaching was a calling during the, I taught two semesters as an adjunct in news writing and reporting.

I just really enjoyed it and it, it felt creative. It felt fun, it was fulfilling and I kind of, Which was just like, this is what I wanna do full-time. And, uh, I’m not big on manifesting things, but I do feel like I kind of spoke it into existence that I was going to teach full-time because I would just start telling people pretty regularly that that’s, that that was my mission and that’s what I wanted to do.

And that I was pretty much hooked on teaching through this, this little experience that I had of teaching a three credit course. Uh, and, and eventually an opportunity came up in the College of Communications that. It just was fantastic timing. It was, um, you know, less than a year after I’d graduated earning [00:06:00] my master’s.

It was to replace a professor who was leaving, who taught courses heavy on social media. And at that time I was doing a lot of social media work for the Penn State Office of Strategic Communications. Basically creating content and managing all things related to the main Penn State social media accounts.

So I just really had a lot of stuff go well for me, and the timing was right. And since fall of 2017, I’ve been, been teaching full time and it’s, it’s been a fantastic ride.

Brad Groznik: That’s amazing. So I wanna pause just real quick and, and make a couple notes. The first is, I think we’re gonna use the, the, the term professor very liberally in this conversation going forward.

You and I know that there’s so many different kinds of professors. There’s research professors, teaching professors, tenured professors, non-tenure professors, and within, within that world, a professor means a lot of different things. I. But to the 98% of the world outside of academia, you know, professor just means they’re, they, [00:07:00] they teach college students.

So I just kind of wanted to say that before, before we move on.

Bill Zimmerman: Yeah, I appreciate that. You know, officially, I’m a, I’m a lecturer. I’m a, and I’m a, I a teach, you know, I do not do any research at Penn State. So, but, and yes, I do try to always make that distinction when I’m talking to people on campus. I don’t wanna misrepresent myself as a, as a professor, but yeah, I, I’m glad you gave that, uh, that little note.

Brad Groznik: And the second thing is, uh, I have a similar career trajectory. I teach entrepreneurship for the College of Engineering. Part of my, like, I wanted you on here so that we could talk about just how great this job is, you know, selfishly, um, and how amazing of an opportunity it was. Neither of us really. I. Saw it in our future when we were like growing up.

But once we got here and got a ta, both of us, I have the same, same reaction. Once I got a taste of of teaching, I was like, this is fantastic. This is really, really exciting. Uh, I didn’t expect to do this. Uh, now early in my career, we’re both young, in young, into our careers, but like I jumped on it too when, when I had the opportunity.

One thing I wanted to ask you [00:08:00] about, you know, going back is as a way to get in, you mentioned that class, that, that news writing course and how you, this department had this oversubscribed course. I found that that’s, that’s the way, the way in and a lot of departments have these courses where, you know, every student’s required to take ’em and they’re oversubscribed and.

They can’t get enough professors to teach ’em. And those end up being classes that they’re always looking for adjuncts. Um, is that kind of the, how, how you’ve seen it and

Bill Zimmerman: Yeah. That, that’s been, been my experience and you know, and yeah, there you would be surprised. It’s really that the, that entry is kind of contacting that department head.

I. Um, explaining what your, your skillset is and, you know, seeing and, and hoping that, that it matches up with those Yeah. Those classes that just have, you know, large, large demand. You know, thinking of some of my coworkers I know who they haven’t fully made the switch to teaching, but who have taught regularly, uh, over the last several years while working in university communications.

You know, these were classes like copy editing, [00:09:00] you know, where maybe there’s a really large class layout and design classes, you know, classes that are. Really helpful to have somebody who’s has a lot of professional experience and who’s regularly working in that, those areas, um, it’s really an advantage to have, have them teaching those, those courses.

But yeah, there’s a lot of, you know, I, I would encourage if somebody is, if somebody’s curious about this, you know, you could, you could also contact the local community college. You could see if there are online classes, dip your toe in there lightly and, and, and see if this would be a. You know, a satisfying transition for you.

Brad Groznik: You mentioned reaching out to the department head, and when you reach out to ’em, would you just, what would you say, would you say, I’m interested in teaching journalism courses. Do you have any classes that are oversubscribed in your hiring adjuncts for? Is, is, is that kind of, can you be as blunt as that?

Bill Zimmerman: Yeah. And you know, I, yeah, I, I’m trying to think back to what, what I did. And it was, uh, you know, a a, a pretty brief email introducing myself, my, my work [00:10:00] experience mentioning that, you know, several of my coworkers are currently. Teaching as, as adjuncts. And, uh, they’ve talked about how good the experience is.

You know, in that way if, if the department head would wanna check you out, they could, they could contact those people and, you know, see if they, they vouch for you. But yeah, it was really just explaining. I, I think I probably sent a resume as well to, to show my, my work experience and, you know, and you would probably wanna share your avail availability if this is maybe only something you can do on.

On evenings, or you want it to be entirely online, you could could present those things, but I think that it would mainly need to be a, an introduction of who you are, a little bit of your, your motivation behind why you wanna teach and your, your credentials. That would, that would make you a good fit for the job.

Brad Groznik: Do you think you would’ve discovered this path if it, if you didn’t live in state College?

Bill Zimmerman: probably not. You know, I think working at the university, I started to just talking to coworkers and hearing about their experiences and like, oh, oh, you teach a class? That’s, that’s really cool. Um, how did, how’d you go about doing that?

I, I knew, uh, [00:11:00] professor John Beal, who was a photojournalism professor in the College of Communications. He went to Indiana University of Pennsylvania like me, so that, that’s how I knew him. So I was aware of that was, that was one person’s journey from. Professional, you know, professional photographer who’d worked for a long time at the Pittsburgh Post Gazette and was, was highly regarded in his field.

So I got to see his, his blueprint a little bit, his path to kind of see how this, this worked. But yeah, it, it would’ve been otherwise, yeah, probably would not have been exposed to that, that, that option.

Brad Groznik: So take me into that first class or that, that time where you realized, oh, this is something I want to do.

What was it in that class or what, what is it about teaching that, that was such a draw?

Bill Zimmerman: You know, I think just if you know, coming into class, maybe you. Just if you have a moment that where a student seems interested, you know, is just a, it can be pretty profound, as simple as that, that may seem that if you pose a question and several students answer it [00:12:00] or share their thoughts or, or feedback or opinions.

And if you, you dream up an idea for, for an in-class activity. And the students actually do it. They, they, you know, they, they, they get into the, which seems funny, you know, you, you’re the professor, you assume they’re gonna do what, what you ask. But sometimes they’re just like, wow, they, they actually did this.

They, they got excited about it. They committed to it. So I think it was just those, those little moments that I. Made you feel like, wow, I’m getting them to maybe think a little bit differently, uh, be, be better critical thinkers to get comfortable sharing their thoughts in class. So I think when, you know, maybe you just, uh, those moments where you feel like, wow, when you see yourself maybe come up with a creative idea for an assignment or an activity in class and it goes really well, those that, that I think is probably what got me hooked the most.

Brad Groznik: Can you give an example of the type of assignments you, you assign in, in classes?

Bill Zimmerman: So, so something that I do that is a very simple assignment that I think it is just super [00:13:00] helpful is I, I call it just putting research into action where students are given a, a report. It’s, it’s not, this isn’t, it’s not thing, it’s not dense peer reviewed journal articles.

It’s, you know, maybe something like, for example, a report that Spotify did on. Gen Z’s, um, attitudes and behaviors, particularly around audio. And the idea would be, you know, you would read this 1215 page report and then write a memo to your boss. Recommend, uh, giving a quick overview of what you learned from this report, uh, the takeaways, and then making a recommendation based off that, you know, this report says this, this, and this about Gen Z.

My recommendation is that we, we do this, this, and this, um, to reach them, you know, so just a one page memo. I think that’s where. Getting them to do writing that is concise and brief, you know, it can, is actually probably a big change from a lot of the writing they’ve done in college. So, uh, I just, I try to really, I try to maintain good contacts with [00:14:00] people in industry.

I, I try to, to read a lot. I try to make sure that I am trying to get them practical experiences and getting them the familiarity with things that, that they need to know before they get into the, the workforce.

Brad Groznik: What do you see as the main benefits of being a Penn State professor?

Bill Zimmerman: It’s an awesome job. It can be very energizing to, to be in the classroom and see the students learn new things and see their work improve and see them make these mental connections that you were, you were hoping for.

Uh, when you bring in a guest speaker and the students are really excited and feel good about getting out there and getting a job, that’s always great. Uh, for me personally, I like the, the independence of the job. That really, that really does it for me. I tend to be more of an, an introvert, so I, I like my alone time.

I like being able to work from home or go into the office. I just like having that choice. The [00:15:00] extrovert in me gets, gets its feel from being in, in front of the students and talking to them and seeing them during, during office hours. So I, I really, the, the work it feels, it feels entrepreneurial in a way for sure, except you have benefits, you have health benefits, that, that is the, uh, the nice side of it.

But it does feel very much very self-directed now that that can have its downsides. You know, I feel like I probably do work every day as far as. Answering emails, grading. You know, my work is spread out over seven days a week routinely, but I also like the option of, you know, midday I’m gonna stop and just go for a run or, you know, do this and that.

And then, then I’ll catch up and grade into the evening and, you know, that sort of thing. So I, the, the flexibility of the job is, is really awesome. And it is just, it’s, I, I like the connections with alumni as well. Our college does a really good job of connecting faculty and students with, with alumni, and they’re usually really excited to, to pass their, their [00:16:00] knowledge off to the next generation and help educate us as faculty members on what we, we should be teaching.

Because, you know, they’re, they’re hiring students outta college. They’re supervising interns. Um, so I often ask, Hey, what, what are the things that they’re, what’s the knowledge you wish they had coming into these positions? What are they doing well and what’s, what do we maybe need to do a better job?

What’s, where’s the industry going? What’s some stuff that we may be teaching that’s incredibly outdated and we need to get out of our curriculum? You know, uh, so I, I like, I like getting a chance to talk to people in industry too.

Brad Groznik: Yeah. And you got that free pass of like, Hey, I’m a Penn State professor.

Can, can you chat with me for a few minutes? It’s just like so cool that you have that, that, that card to play to say, and, and you can almost get anyone to talk to you. I can talk to CEOs.

Bill Zimmerman: Yeah. That is, that is powerful. Yeah. And you get summers off. Yeah. Yeah. There is that. Yeah.

Brad Groznik: I mean, find me a job where you get, where it’s a nine month contract.

It’s just what a [00:17:00] wonderful. Kind of work-life balance, it offers too. And, and you and I both teach in, in the summer, which we do just in addition to our, to our load. But you can have three, you have three months off.

Bill Zimmerman: Yeah. That’s, that is a, a, a major perk. And, and there are people who can figure out other ways to, to make money during that time.

You know, you typically, uh, you’re going to have to disclose other, other work you may be doing, consulting, that sort of stuff. But yeah, people, people figure that out as well. So I think that’s probably another thing that. If you would, if somebody would make the transition to being a full-time faculty member, that does not have to be the death of their, their career and their industry either.

There are ways that people could still stay vital and still say contributors to their field where they, they, you know, put in so much time.

Brad Groznik: Great. So now we’re gonna enter our segment called How to Do the Thing where we ask you to briefly lay out for us three actionable steps on how to do the thing, or at least how to get started doing the thing.

The thing in this case is becoming a full-time professor at Penn State. What would [00:18:00] you say the three actionable steps our listener could take towards achieving that goal? Yeah,

Bill Zimmerman: I, I love the, the structure for this. This is a, a good idea. I like, I like recurring features on, on podcasts. Well, I think the first thing is you, you do have to establish some level of expertise in a field.

Um, so for me, you know, when, when I started teaching, I was, I probably had close to 15 years of working in communications in journalism and n pr. So it does take some time. You do have to, to kind of build up your, your credentials and the experiences that you can draw off of, um, to talk in the, in the classroom.

You, you are probably going to, to need a, a master’s degree. Now, probably not a hard and fast rule. It’s probably different by, by college and department. And certainly there I’ve seen cases of, of exceptional people in their field who were hired to teach, who had bachelor’s degrees, who didn’t have master’s or PhDs.

But you, you probably are going to have to have that master’s [00:19:00] degree. And even better, probably some experience of, of instruction, even if that’s just as a, as a manager or that if you led workshops on things in the past, that would all be really helpful. I would say. Second, you do have to be ready to put yourself in that, that teaching position.

You have to embrace that you are going to be teaching novices, non-experts. On your area of expertise, and you have to be ready to break things down to their, to their basics. You, you can’t really bring a, an ego into the classroom. You have to be good at putting yourself in their, their shoes. You gotta embrace that mentorship role that can come with, with being a faculty member.

And you have to, you gotta be ready to adjust for that. Lastly be, you’re gonna have to be ready to talk about, to speak the language of the people who are going to hire you. Do some research on how colleges and universities work. See what information you can find on kind of the state of that. I.

Department or industry [00:20:00] and talk about how you would plan to teach it, how you would specifically prepare that, those students for work life. Are there student organizations that you would really like to be an advisor to and think you could really be a, a big help? Are there industry connections that you would wanna leverage to make your classes better?

Whether that’s guest speakers or case competition that maybe you could, you know, work with a, a, a company that’s, that’s doing that. Anticipate all the needs. Of that department and present yourself as, as the solution to those in the, in your cover letter, your email pitch, during your job interview. Uh, you know, be be ready to, to speak the language of somebody who’s trying to put a good person in that position.

Brad Groznik: Well, Bill, it was great chatting with you. I always love to geek out on teaching with you. Uh, your students are lucky to have you. State College is lucky to have you. Is there anything you wanted to touch on that we didn’t? Talk

Bill Zimmerman: about. Yeah. Thanks for your kind words, Brad and I, I was, you know, really happy for you when I, when I heard that you were, you were hired full-time as well, and I would, [00:21:00] I would love to hear from anyone, you know, after listening to this, who wants, wants more information, wants advice, and especially would love to hear from people who, uh, successfully made that, that transition.

So happy to keep this conversation going and, uh, yeah, I hope this helps some people. Fantastic. And gets them coming to State College. Great. Thanks, bill. All right. Thanks Brad.

Brad Groznik: Thanks for joining us for this episode of the Rediscover State College Podcast. If you like what you heard and want to hear more, please subscribe to the Rediscover State College Podcast. Wherever you listen to podcasts. Episodes will be released every month. If you want to connect with Bill about anything we just talked about, or you have some thoughts about being a professor at Penn State that you’d like to share with us, email us at