Thursday, July 31, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: Breaking Into Administration

A new correspondent writes:

I'm having a tremendously hard time landing my first college staff Job.
 I'm a graduate of Respected State U, and a current graduate student there
studying English Lit.  My goal is to move on to an Ed.D at Respected State,
and to become an
Administrator.  In order to achieve my goals, I need to get experience
with an entry-level position.  It's very, very frustrating and
discouraging.  While working for a large health insurance company, I've
conducted a two year search, with visits to the campus career center to
polish my resume, and I have yet to get an interview.  Respected State is a
very large school, and is known as a Commuter College, with people
commuting from all over the area.  In my time there, I've
gotten to know very few people with whom I can network.  I'm trying my
best, but what else can I do?  What *should* I do?

My first thought is, slow down.

Generally speaking, 'administrative' positions can be broken into two groups: academic and non-academic. Academic administration encompasses department chairs, deans, VPAA's, provosts, and the like. Non-academic encompasses the business and finance side (payroll, buildings and grounds, security, budget); the non-credit side (continuing ed, workforce development); fundraising (whether in the sense of grants officers, or people who cultivate donors); and student life (athletics, student clubs, records and registration, admissions, student judicial boards, etc.) There are also hybrid positions that fall between the camps, like HR, academic support (tutoring centers, instructional technology), and planning.

For the most part, the academic administrative positions require full-time faculty experience. The idea, which is largely correct, is that faculty have a culture uniquely their own, and that people who haven't done what they do are unlikely to get it. Faculty culture has its own set of buzzwords and tripwires, and someone who doesn't know them will likely fall victim to them, despite the best of intentions. If this is the route you want to take, I'd target a faculty position first, and earn your stripes there.

On the non-academic side of the house, the rules are different, but there's still an expectation of starting at the beginning. And although this flies in the face of every career counselor out there, I'll go out on a limb and say that 'networking' is probably less important here than in almost any other industry.

The first thing I'd advise is deciding which path you want to follow. A degree in English Lit certainly suggests the academic side of the house, though an EdD may or may not work for that. (In the evergreen disciplines, it's fairly commonplace for faculty to look down on EdD's as impure.) There's really no such thing as an entry-level generalist, so you'll need to pick a path and devote yourself to it.
The highest demand is usually in fundraising, though that's one of those fields for which you either have the personality or you don't.

One relatively easy thing to do, depending on local culture, would be to talk to people in the various offices at Respected State and see what they actually do. The details can surprise you. When I finished my PhD, I had no intention at all of going into administration. I wasn't opposed to it, exactly, any more than I'm opposed to playing third base for the Orioles. It just wasn't part of my world. Now it's what I do with my time, and I've found parts of the job that I really enjoy. (Other parts are simply pains in the neck, but that's true of most jobs.) Conversely, in college I thought I was prelaw until I spent a summer internship surrounded by lawyers, and discovered that I wanted no part of that world. Best to find out early.

I'll throw this one open to my wise and worldly readers, since my experience has been entirely on the academic side. Folks who've done other versions of administration – what would you suggest?

Good luck!

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

Comments:
I've been both academic and non-academic. In the non-academic side it's pretty easy to start in admissions if you're peppy and high speed.

But! There's not much in the way of advancement possibilities unless you go out and get a degree in high ed or College Student Personnel or the like. There's no looking down on EdDs in student affairs because most people are MAs.

Student affairs (think overseeing clubs, making up things for commuter students to do) offers some possibilities, but typically they want you to have started during grad school (while you're getting your MA or doc would be fine).

If you're good with administration you could try the financial aid office or housing.
 
Having done time in residence life, I can say that networking could actually be quite helpful, in that friends at other schools could alert you to new positions coming open. Then you'd be the first in line.

Find the professional association of the area you're interested in, student affairs, student services, admissions, whatever, and join. Start going to the conferences. Folks in these fields are very approachable and friendly. You'll make some valuable connections.

Hang in there. I have friends in just about every occupation, academic and not, and nobody, NOBODY, is having an easy time in this job market. Do what you can to improve your odds, but ultimately much of your trouble is not your fault.
 
I agree with the previous posts. I think it's really hard to break into this field. Here are some ideas if you're really into the student affairs side of things: apply to be an RA. Its one way to break into the housing/student life side of things.

Use your graduate student union to get a seat on committees which deal with administrative areas you're intersted in. From what I saw at my grad institution, these were tricky positions to come by since they were more fun and interesting than...the parking committee or whatever. However, if you can be the grad student rep on a committee like this it's good resume building experience.

Is there a student advisor position you can fill within your English department? At my grad school institution the undergraduate advisor role was filled in part by a grad student. It was like a TA position. Again, good experience builder for those interested in admin jobs connected to student life.

Does your university offer a 'jump start' type program for high school students? In my experience these programs are run through a combination of administrative offices (Orientation, Financial Aid, First Year Programming, etc.). Try to get a job teaching in one of these programs. Usually they hire grad students. Or if they don't have any paid positions available maybe you could do an unpaid internship? These types of jobs can give you a chance to get to know the folks in administrative offices on the student affairs side of things.

Last thing I'll say is that I emailed Dean Dad about 2.5 years ago with a similar question. I was a doctoral candidate in English and not sure whether to head for a more academic or administrative path. I just went back and found my question and his answer...and his awesome use of a Mary MacGregor song as a post title. I'm too much of a dunce to figure out how to link to the post here but, in any case it was on February 24 2006. Maybe you will find it helpful? I'm not really clear what type of administration you're interested in but your question seemed to resonate with my experience.
I took Dean Dad's advice, waited a bit, got a t-t job at a good local cc and immediately had lotsa academic--not student service--administrative opportunities offered/foisted on me. I'm doing smaller projects now, but I am feeling like someday in 5 years or so if I wanted to become more of a full time administrator this would be a very real possibility.

Good luck!
Sarah
 
Sarah, the link you want appears to be Torn Between Two Futures. I found it from the sidebar links to DeanDad's archives by month and year. Happy to help.

That article got three real comments and two spammers!

BTW, the syntax for linking looks like (a href="http://whatever") text that gets highlighted (/a) except that you have to use greater than and less than symbols instead of parentheses. We'll see if this survives conversion by blogger.
 
I just got a higher ed job after a grueling 3-year search. I live in Boston, where 25% of the population is in college, but where there is also an abundance of professionals with degrees in higher ed. administration. (I have an MBA, had been doing nonprofit work and some adjunct-ing). I networked my ass off, applied for many, many jobs through The Black Hole that is HR, but ultimately found a middle management temp job (filling in for a woman on maternity leave) through a professional network I joined (the Career Counselors Consortium). The woman came back after six months and a new position was created for me. All I can say: this is a VERY hard field to break into, especially if you're in a mid-career situation, and I was pretty shocked by the pay (coming from the nonprofit sector, I never expected the possibility of a pay cut). Like other said, there are many openings in admissions, residence life, and development/advancement (fundraising), but I suspect this is due in part to the high turnover in these fields. The one thing I did take away from my search: after being indoctrinated into the 1 page cover letter, I learned that in higher ed it is acceptable and even appropriate to write a lengthier and more detailed letter. Also: there is a TON of internal hiring and "fake" jobs that are posted only as a formality, so one never knows if an application has any real chance of being considered. Hang in there. I am living proof that tenacity pays off.
 
"Anonymous 6:31AM" here again. A note on breaking into residence life: The previous commenter who suggested getting a job in residence life is on track, but everywhere I've ever worked the "RA" jobs are part time jobs filled by undergraduate students. Good experience, yes, but probably too low a level to help you now. Look for Hall Director jobs instead, which are either graduate assistantships, or 3/4 or full time professional positions. The titles will vary from school to school: Hall Director, Hall Coordinator, Residence Director, Hall Director, etc. Not only will you get a foot in the door of student affairs, and build up experience that can be valuable in any higher ed job you approach next, but you'll get free rent, which is nothing to sneeze at.
 
You have a fantastic blog, I liked it, keep posts like this coming!

Rina
 
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