Friday, March 21, 2008


Ask the Administrator: Faculty or Staff?

A young correspondent writes:

I'm writing to ask your opinion about attending graduate school. I recently
graduated from a [public] comprehensive college with a dual degree in History
and Political Science (3.95 GPA). I've done some "scholarly activities,"
mainly teaching assistantships and presenting research at a national
convention; however, I'm concerned about the academic job market for
Political Science PhD graduates. Most of my professors seem rather
nonchalant about the job market (e.g. don't worry, the job will be there)
and my ability to gain admittance to an R-1 institution.

Presently, I work in a higher education setting as the "Assistant to the
Director" on a system-wide initiative to establish Professional Science
Master's degrees at several campuses [across the state] and have been accepted

to study higher education leadership at [Respected Private U]. In your opinion,
would it be advisable to enter the marketplace as professional staff (most
likely academic advisement or admissions) or just earn a PhD in Political

I don't know what a Professional Science Masters program is, so I'll just ask readers who know to fill me in in the comments. And I love the way this note ends -- “or just earn a PhD in Political Science.”

The choice you're posing – faculty or staff, basically – suggests to me that being in and around higher education is more important to you than the content of what you study. That's not meant as a criticism – higher ed can be a great place to be, and college towns have a lot to be said for them -- but it does suggest an answer.

My usual advice to anyone considering a doctoral program in any liberal arts field is to think long and hard about whether they could possibly be happy doing anything else. If the answer is yes, do something else. The 'apprentice' system is broken beyond repair, for reasons my regular readers are probably tired of hearing. It's tempting to think “I'll be different,” but if you aren't at one of the top half-dozen or so programs in the country, it's pretty unlikely.

In your case, you're in the happy position of having another option already at hand. You've had a taste of the 'support' side of higher ed, and it seems to agree with you. The great news is that jobs in those areas are generally easier to find, and you'll have much more choice of locale.

On the faculty side, if you finally find a tenure-track perch and you aren't a superstar, it's unlikely that you'll have much choice of locale. That may not seem important in the abstract, but most of us wouldn't find, say, rural West Virginia, suburban Michigan, and Dallas interchangeable. New faculty usually have to take whatever they get, even if it doesn't match their preferences. If you pick a less competitive side of the academy, you'll probably have a better shot at living where you want. (This goes a long way towards solving any 'two-body problem' that may develop along the way, too.)

Geeky Mom, who is one of my favorite bloggers, has written thoughtfully on the intellectual content of college staff work. Although some faculty prefer not to know it (or not to admit it), professional staff face dilemmas, solve problems, help students, and make possible much of the work of the faculty. You obviously have the intellectual candlepower to make a real contribution; I suspect you'll have an easier time making that contribution on the staff side. And you'll be able to do it in a setting of your own choosing, one that fits your taste and your relationship. I know some faculty who would take that deal in a heartbeat.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – what say you?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

A Professional Science Master's is a hybrid business-science degree. The candidate does half their course work in business, accounting, etc, and half in a specific science (the one I'm working with is Biostatistics). Then they do an internship instead of a thesis. The idea is to prepare people to manage scientists.
Lisa: So, how did you enjoy the Current Concepts in Cat Herding seminar series?
Question number one should be "what do you want to do in the long run?" Question number two is then "is getting an advanced degree the best (or only) route to being able to do what you want to do?" If the answer to question 2 is "no," then for god's sake don't get an advanced degree.

I will say, though, that a PhD (in anything) has become a basic requirement for any staff position with a path upwards, at least at my institution. You can still have a relatively interesting and fulfilling job with a Master's, but there is a ceiling that you cannot penetrate without a PhD. With a PhD, you can join the "parallel" track (i.e. parallel to the tenure track), which gives you much more maneuverability within the institution, and ultimately leads to the functional equivalent of tenure.

With a PhD, and teaching experience or concurrent teaching duties, you also have much more credibility with faculty. If you're looking to "manage" faculty (cough cough), a sense on their part that you know what their lives are like is essential.

Please note also that the difference between management and governance is not like the difference between night and day. It's more like the difference between codfish and inflationary expectations.
I should say that as PhD programs go, Political Science is not the most dangerous, because the job market isn't terrible. The number of undergraduate majors has boomed since 9/11, and many states have requirements like Texas Civics or somesuch that keep department enrollment permanently inflated. Plus, there are lots of government and non-profit (IMF, World Bank, etc.) exit options for PoliSci PhDs. So all in all, if you go to a decent school, especially if you can teach American government, your odds of eventually landing some kind of tenure track position somewhere are relatively good.
I have noticed people on the Political Science job market right now are faring better in terms of number and "quality" of job offers than those in other Humanities fields. Of course, who knows how it will be in seven years when you're done with the PhD.
As far as the intellectual quality of staff positions, I believe it instructive to note that my grad department's beloved admin went back to school part-time, and is fairly consistently winning awards as the top student in our/her field. She knows her stuff.
If you are able to enter the market place working in the field of education, personally I think that is the way to go, assuming that it is something you would enjoy doing. If you do that, is it feasible to work on getting a PhD while working. If so, perhaps you could experience the best of both worlds.
A political scientist here -- Actually, the job market isn't bad as long as you focus on marketable subfields (i.e., public administration is a hot field right now, theory is not). I landed a tenure track job before I finished writing my dissertation and have had chances to move to other institutions in the last five years.

However, don't count on landing in an R1 school with ease. Those jobs are hard to find and you have to work your ass off publishing as a grad student just to get a shot at one of them. You'd also need to write your dissertation in such a way that you can start harvesting publishable nuggests as soon as the glue binding the dissertation grows cold.
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