Friday, September 20

Grad Students Should Consider Administrative Work

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This article originally appeared on Inside Higher Ed on August 5, 2019.

Colleges and universities are great places to work. Many Ph.D. students who are no longer are attracted to faculty careers are still interested in working in higher education. They are drawn to the teaching and learning mission of the institution, its organizational values, and the opportunity to collaborate with smart people.

The good news is that a wide range of positions at colleges and universities are open to those with a Ph.D. The two most obvious, building on the skills that students are learning during their degree programs, are teaching positions and research positions. A previous “Carpe Careers” column did an excellent job outlining the variety of teaching roles in the higher education landscape beyond tenure-line faculty positions. Colleges and universities also hire for research scientist roles, which are full-time staff positions.

I want to talk about a third path: the wide range of interesting jobs that have a largely administrative element. Although some faculty members speak disparagingly about administrators, staff members are responsible for much of the work done in higher education institutions.

The word “administration” encompasses a wide variety of kinds of work and content areas. Scanning a university organizational chart reveals a number of areas that have hired Ph.D. holders.

Academic program administration positions are located within academic units and employ a large number of Ph.D. holders. The work often focuses on a specific academic program or unit that delivers courses, including large courses like introductory psychology or chemistry, specialized master’s programs, and interdisciplinary degree programs. You can find other positions in research centers that have affiliated faculty and visiting scholars. The skills needed involve planning programs, managing budgets and understanding curricular development, as well as people skills that enable you to work effectively with students and faculty members. Ph.D.s are often hired into these positions because they have disciplinary content knowledge and also understand academic life.

Institutional research staff members collect and assess data about the college to help with internal decision making and to inform external audiences. Their work focuses on analyzing enrollment, staffing and financial data about the institution. Program assessment is another responsibility of institutional research offices. These positions are particularly suited to social scientists who have experience with extracting and analyzing quantitative data, designing and conducting surveys, organizing focus groups, presenting data, and writing reports. The good news about these jobs is that you can find them at every type of higher education institution, from large research universities to community colleges.

Teaching and learning centers also offer job opportunities at many colleges and most large universities. Staff members in these centers support faculty members in their teaching roles. They also often work with grad student TAs and manage tutoring programs. Ph.D.s who gravitate toward these positions often discovered during graduate school that teaching was their passion and then doubled down on getting pedagogical training and mentoring their peers.

Diversity and inclusion positions are a rapidly growing area of work in higher education. Such officers work to promote access to higher education for students who are historically underrepresented. One goal is to actively recruit students and faculty members, and a second is to improve the campus climate and provide resources so community members can thrive. Student recruitment often involves travel and one-to-one student advising. Program development and delivery can be another facet of these jobs. These roles require knowledge of the research related to diversity and inclusion, as well as a track record of work in this area. Grad students can gain skills by helping with student recruitment, participating in mentoring programs and organizing events that emphasize diversity.

Student advising is a professional area devoted to counseling undergraduates about how to handle academic and life challenges and to select courses and a major. Staff members also provide pre-professional advising. Counseling and listening, understanding university policy and procedures, and problem solving are necessary skills.

Graduate student career services might be of particular interest to grad students who have developed experience while looking beyond faculty roles themselves. It is a rapidly growing area; many doctoral-granting universities are hiring staff in either their career center or the graduate school to offer coaching and programming to help Ph.D.s and postdocs explore and enter a diverse range of careers. You can read one person’s journey to this role here.

Many other areas of colleges and universities occasionally hire Ph.D.s. They include offices that emphasize outreach and community engagement, libraries, and development offices, which hire fundraising staff who are passionate about and expert in the institution’s research and teaching mission.

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

How Can You Learn About These Careers?

Figuring out whether one of these areas is right for you involves exploration. Here are four ways you can learn about one or more of these areas of work, listed according to intensity of effort.

No. 1. As an initial baby step, attend a panel on administration positions. Many panels are centrally coordinated via the career center or graduate school and feature panelists with a diversity of disciplines of origin. Or they can start in a department and include panelists who started from the same disciplinary home and ventured into a variety of positions. Such panels can showcase the range of offices that hire Ph.D.s, and panelists give great advice. If no panel is offered, then you can organize one yourself. It’s easy to do: you will find willing panelists on your campus, and the costs are limited to publicity and snacks.

No. 2. Setting up informational interviews is a tried and true strategy that requires a little more work. Luckily, plenty of Ph.D. holders whom you can approach for an informational interview work on your campus. At Stanford University, we created a directory of more than 150 staff with administrative roles who hold Ph.D.s and are eager to mentor current students. You can find lots of great advice about informational interviews here and here. Some specific questions that are helpful for talking with people in administrative roles are:

  • What in your graduate work prepared you for the work you do?
  • How much do you use your disciplinary training or other preparation from grad school in your day-to-day work?
  • What drew you to administrative work? What do you like best and least?
  • To what extent do you work with students or faculty?
  • What kinds of things can I do while I am still a student that will prepare me to transition into a role or unit like yours?

No. 3. Once you identify an area of administrative work that has appeal, you can take a deeper dive to learn more. Ask to shadow someone for a day or two. That will help you see how people spend their time and get a flavor for the culture of an office. Ask if you can attend a staff meeting. Find out what you can read to tell you about the latest innovations and challenges facing that field.

No. 4. Even more intensive is the possibility of taking on a small project in someone’s office or even part-time work. Creating such opportunities allows you to simultaneously gain experience (great for your résumé) and exposure (to help you decide if you like this work). During these summer months, administrative staff members are usually planning for the next year and may welcome a pair of willing hands who can take on a project; it’s much easier to hire students and short-term employees than full-time staff.

What Is the Value Added of the Ph.D.?

Many of these positions will not require a Ph.D. Don’t be discouraged by that fact. Your goal is to find a role that gives you satisfaction (as this post reiterates). However, a Ph.D. holder brings certain advantages to such positions, and it is important to emphasize those in your application and interviews.

Ph.D. holders know how universities are organized and how they work. Most have spent at least a decade on one or two campuses and intuitively understand what can often seem baffling and idiosyncratic to outsiders. If you are applying to an institution where you have studied, you can pitch yourself as an insider who can hit the ground running. If you are applying to a place that is new to you, you can frame your advantage as someone who brings new ideas from other places and is able to see things to fresh eyes.

You also bring insight into the mind-set of faculty. Too many staff, faculty members are mysterious creatures who don’t act like normal organizational employees. As a Ph.D. holder, you have been enculturated into faculty and academic department life. This insider understanding is an asset. Likewise, you understand graduate students, particularly doctoral students. If the office where you are applying focuses on grad students or is expanding its work to include them, then you bring something special to the job.

Higher education institutions are complex organizations that function because there are offices that handle matters from finance to athletics to classrooms to student life to alumni affairs. A successful college or university is the result of the dedicated efforts of thousands of administrative staff. If you want to contribute to this enterprise, then administrative work might be for you.

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