Monday, August 30, 2010

Alternate Careers Part II: Academic Administration

Chessboard by Anna Cervova


Academic administration is one of the more popular alternate and/or side career paths for graduate students and PhD.'s, whether their speciality is in the humanities, social sciences, or a STEM field. Why? For many of us, there are significant advantages to remaining within the tight-knit, quirky, and often infuriating, world of academe post-Ph.D., even if your primary view is at the staff end of things . . . in a cubicle.

I'll list a few of these advantages here:

  • University affiliation and hence library privileges (a major bonus for bibliophiles!!)

  • Hands-on, pragmatic use of your knowledge of higher ed; thus no need to experience the profound culture shock of leaving academe for the world of industry

  • A chance to work with students, faculty, and staff in any number of administrative areas including student affairs; advising; institutional research and development; the business office; the provost's office; graduate studies; study abroad; the careers center; the writing center; the IT center; and so on

  • Pretty good salaries and benefits, although there is certainly a wide margin here  

  • An office environment which is literally in the midst of university life, governed by an academic calendar, frequented by students, faculty, and staff, and concerned with affairs related directly to the world you're familiar with: higher ed

  • Frequent contact with and access to scholars, teachers, young people, and motivated admin types

  • No pressure to publish (could be both a blessing and a curse)

  • (sometimes) A chance to continue teaching a class or two as a lecturer, depending on one's role within the university setting
But there are, of course, some distinct disadvantages to working in academic administration:

  • Being treated like a 2nd class citizen by faculty; you're "just staff" and no longer considered an active teacher-scholar (this can sometimes result in an identity crisis; be prepared)

  • Paper pushing from 9-5, despite an initially attractive, challenging job description

  • No support for research or conferences whatsoever

  • Plus, no rewards for publishing or being a productive scholar; research productivity is something you do/finance on your time, which is now limited by a regular work schedule and limited time off

  • Excluded from faculty events, plans, and special workshops, even if your area of expertise is in a related field (and even if you've published more than some of the faculty members in question)

  • A career plateau once you've reached a certain point, unless you're willing to relocate

  • Constant exposure to the threat of layoffs

  • A potentially low starting salary; again, though, this is context dependent

  • Working alongside young people with B.A.s who are actually more qualified and office savvy than you!
Nonetheless, based on what I've read about careers in academic administration, it would seem that if you really love being part of a higher ed environment, the benefits significantly outweigh the disadvantages. But this is a highly subjective observation.

So, how does one get started? Here are my top 5 tips for Ph.D.'s (or AB.D.'s, etal.) who would like to explore a career transition to academic admin.:

1. Research the areas of the university you're interested in and narrow down your focus. University administration is a HUGE field, with any number of departments related to such things as research, development, student affairs, faculty affairs, communications, governance, etc. Ask yourself what you would prefer doing: Advising undergraduate students about entry requirements or career prospects? Helping struggling undergrads to learn to read/write more effectively? Working solely with angsty grad students looking for work or having personal crises? Helping faculty members develop new courses or improve their teaching skills or secure research grants? Preparing print and online marketing materials for the main communications office? Serving as webmaster for a department? And so on. As you can see, the possibilities are nearly endless.

2. Read widely about academic administration; network with administrators and conduct informational interviews.
Know what you are getting into. Buy or check out library books about how universities function and familiarize yourself with the tasks administrators actually perform on a daily basis. Contact administrators and ask for 15 minutes of their time. Network like crazy. Realize that working as a staff member will place you in a completely separate category than faculty, with different interests, goals, and priorities. This is normal; you're not a traitor. Learn therefore to start thinking more like an administrator rather than a faculty member focused solely on her or his own department, courses/students, niche field, tenure portfolio, and publication record. Broaden your focus to the wider university community. (This can be both rewarding/exciting and a bit scary.)
**These 6 Chronicle of Higher Education articles should prove useful:

"Online Resources for Careers in Academic Administration" http://chronicle.com/article/Online-Resources-for-Career/46353/
"Getting into Administration": http://chronicle.com/article/Getting-Into-Administration/44904/
"A Humanities Ph.D. Finds Her Niche in Administration": http://chronicle.com/article/A-Humanities-PhD-Finds-He/46075/
"Switching sides": http://chronicle.com/article/Switching-Sides/46918/
"The 'other' life on campus, or how to become an academic administrator": http://chronicle.com/article/The-other-life-on-campus/46352/
"When you want to stay on campus (and you don't want to teach)": http://chronicle.com/article/When-You-Want-to-Stay-on-Ca/46318/

3. Assess your personality. Do you have what it takes (essentially a Type A personality) to work in the world of university admin? Can you, moreover, handle assuming an entirely different role on campus? Will you feel bitter in time or enjoy your new, liberating position, free from the stresses of the tenure track? These are not questions to take lightly. *Knowing yourself, and being realistic about your personality and attitude, is the key to a successful transition out of academe. Maybe a few career quizzes, or What Color is Your Parachute? type books will help you sort this out.

4. Revise your application materials. A CV and cover letter designed for tenure-track faculty positions will not fly in the world of academic administration. Tailor your materials to the job in question and ensure that your personal employment narrative, or story of ongoing professional development, indicates that you are not only qualified for the opening in question but a stellar candidate. You want HR and others to believe that this job is merely a natural progression for you, not an unrelated, perhaps whimsical, side track. This will require work on your part! See the following CHE advice pieces for hints:

"CV Doctor Returns - Administrator": http://chronicle.com/article/CV-Doctor-Returns-Adminis/48628/
"Cover letters for administrative jobs": http://chronicle.com/article/Cover-letters-for-administr/46313/

5. Get some experience. Have you ever worked on campus in a non-teaching role? Have you ever worked in an office setting? If not, it's time to get started. Volunteer, temp, or intern if necessary to gain some experience. Learn new programs and familiarize yourself with both Mac and PC platforms; practice typing and filing; join LinkedIn and get networking; read and write articles about academic administration; attend staff events open to the general public; prepare yourself to take, and flourish in, an entry-level position. Remember: it's much easier to get your foot in the door if you've put in the necessary groundwork first.

Good luck!


8 comments:

Jennifer said...

This is really helpful. For me the hardest part is gaining some office/admin experience while finishing my dissertation and teaching. But academic admin. sounds like a pretty good plan B right now.
Thanks, Eliza!

Rose mary said...

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emartllc said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
emartllc said...

very impressive article. Thanks for sharing this info. It really helped me and my friends.

Regards,
Amily,
Healthcare Administration

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