Thursday, April 12, 2007


Same Planet, Different Worlds

There's a great old Far Side cartoon captioned “Same planet, different worlds,” in which a guy is seen daydreaming “I wonder what she thinks of me,” or something to that effect, and the girl is shown daydreaming “you know, I like vanilla.”

I had a flashback to that reading this nugget of wisdom from Kiplinger's.

Apparently, “Higher Education Administrator” is one of the 7 Great Careers for 2007, along with orthodontist, landscape architect, and librarian.


The author, with Cool Careers for Dummies to his credit (and I'm not making that up), claims that:

A college campus is among of (sic) the most pleasant and stimulating work environments. And with education ever more viewed (ouch) as the magic pill, longer legions of students (beware short legions, I guess) are lining up to enroll. That means a better job market for you.


Okay, a few concessions. It's true that when I get all crabby about my job, I think back to the ice factory, and decide that this is better. And sometimes I watch Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Channel, and give thanks that I don't have to vacuum out septic tanks. And yes, a college campus can be a very pleasant place to stroll. I'll even concede that the grounds on my campus are genuinely lovely, and that on a beautiful day a quick walk between buildings is a pleasure.

And, to be fair, the author singles out student affairs administration, as opposed to the academic side of the house. It's probably more fun to organize Spring Fest than to nag department chairs about outcomes assessment.

Still, I really have to wonder. Would I recommend higher ed administration to a career changer, someone looking to recapture that lost spark of youth?

Uh, no.

On the academic side, the years of preparation are staggering. You have to go through the standard training for a professor, then be a professor for a while, then work your way up. (At 38, I'm still considered freakishly young. In how many lines of work would that be true?) At every turn, people with lifetime tenure and higher salaries than your own will accuse you of all manner of selfishness. You will be charged with managing people whose jobs and salaries don't depend on you. Your very existence will be taken by many as an affront. You will be blamed personally for large structural trends far beyond your control, usually in tones of aggrieved self-righteousness. You will receive an academic-scale salary for a forty-plus hour week, twelve-months-per-year gig. Since performance is hard to calibrate objectively, you will be considered expendable when the political winds shift.

It's also criminally stupid to think that enrollment is the sole driver of employment. If that were true, faculty jobs would be thick on the ground. The primary reason for the comparatively high percentage of openings in administration at any given time is the staggering attrition rate, not all of it voluntary.

Regular readers of this blog can tick off a list of reasons that a sane person would avoid this line of work. The downside, of course, is that when the sane walk out, the insane are left behind.

I stick with it because I think I'm good at it, and I'm not convinced that many are. As a faculty brat – my Dad met my Mom when he was her T.A. -- I feel a commitment to the profession, and to higher education generally. And there are some projects, programs, and experiments I think would be worth trying, that I want someday to be in a position to attempt. It's genuinely gratifying when you see a project bear fruit, or a new hire turn out great, or a buried treasure come back to life.

But would I advise a burned-out stockbroker to give this a shot? Oh my God, no. No, no, no. I don't know who this “Marty Nemko” character is, but I'd venture to guess he's never been a dean. If this is what he thinks deaning is like, he should stick to vanilla.

Academia does look idyllic from the outside, and wouldn't you like to be in charge of all those lovely academics? My mom said she put down a murder mystery she was given as soon as she realized the premise: in a college department, the chair is open and everyone wants it, leading to murder. That said, a mid-level academic dean told me she thinks her job is great, and all the positions above her would be horrible.
"I'm good at it, and I'm not convinced many are."

How true. At my top 10 (in the dominant fields) R1 university, all of the academic administrative positions below chair or Dean (associate dept. chairs, associate dean, directors of undergraduate and graduate programs) are promoted from within the faculty ranks. Most take their job seriously and do well at it.

As one of those individuals, the surprise to some of our faculty is that as large as our faculty is, the actual pool of willing AND capable faculty for such jobs is remarkably small. Most academics, even the most accomplished, often have either horrible time management skills or put themselves and/or their research programs ahead of all other concerns (including institutional service). Ironically, this second behavior, which someone told me Feynman called being "calculatedly irresponsible", often leads to the greatest "success" as an academic (in the end, bringing in large center grants trumps any amount of university service or lack thereof).

I enjoy your blog. While the CC dynamic is at time quite different than the R1 dynamic (for example, we have almost no adjuncts) many of the faculty/student/administrator conflicts and issues you talk about are similar.

We tend to recruit chairs/deans using combined external/internal searches, so the internal competition for such positions is a bit less than some programs that elect/hire/rotate their chair from among their faculty.
You need to look for a show called "Worst Jobs in History" that's on History International channel on Monday nights around 10. It was a pretty short BBC series (6 episodes?) that showed the worst jobs from each epoch of British history, such as wattle-and-daub building or manufacturing pins, golf balls or white paint. In addition to being glad to have that office job, you'll be thrilled to live in the current century, as if penicillin and flush toilets weren't enough.
anonymous: Definitely. I have a translation of Cennino Ceninni's 15th century treatise on fine crafts, and one of the jobs it mentions is a kind of glass-painting. The technique involved heating precious metals and allowing them to transfer to glass painted with a size. The product probably looked pretty sharp, and the work was skilled, so it paid well. Plus, you've got your artistic satisfaction. Great gig, right?

Unless you count the fact that this job involved sucking heavy-metal vapor all day, in a badly-ventilated workshop. The last sentence of Cennini's description of the technique is "Those set to this task do not last long". I guess the trick was to read Cennini's book, so you knew enough to get one of your apprentices to do it.
Ah yes, the author of "Cool Careers," is Marty Nemko - who on his Bay Area radio show often promotes the benefits packages offered by higher education, frequently bashes formal education. Why get a degree when you can learn everything in a weekend seminar or by doing an internship for a few months. Interestingly this self described highly intelligent person, yes indeed he tries to remind his listeners at least once a week (he's only on once a week) of his PhD from Berkeley.

Marty taught briefly at Berkeley (TA & Adjunct I think), but left after they didn't seem to see things his way. This lead to a string of about 2 dozen career changes and finally becoming an career counselor. I guess ... with all that experience ...

You can listen to recordings of his show on his web site. It's like passing a fatal traffic accident, tragic and unfunny, but hard to turn away from. I remember well him starting his career advice to a "blind" caller by asking her if her sex life had been better since going blind, because you know "the other senses develop more."

Should you listen you'll find his most frequent guest (and I might say the only one to ever come back) is his wife whom he has on occasion begged to address him as "Doctor" as he does her.

Truly bizarre.

I hear there is an opening for War Czar if your academic idyll lacks enough challenges.
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