Tuesday, April 03, 2012


Ask the Administrator: Ph.D. or Industry?

An ambitious new correspondent writes:

I have taught or tutored since 1998. I was an adjunct chemistry instructor for 3 years at my community college.  I have been Coordinator of Divisional Planning (read assistant dean) for my division for 1 year.  I work with program coordinators and department chairs on student learning outcomes, program review and improvement, marketing/ PR, hiring, accreditation documents, room scheduling, collaborations with outside organizations, advisory boards, professional development, student appeals, student engagement activities, and other duties as assigned.  I am the go-to person between our division and both HR and Institutional Effectiveness.  Through my work on student learning outcomes, I even developed a very specific process for writing strong uses of results that I have submitted for presentation at a CC conference.  This position is a part-time position with no prospect of becoming full-time within the next 3 years. My dean has been a phenomenal mentor.  About 6 months ago he encouraged me to start exploring the option of becoming a CC dean.  Since that time I have spoken with my VP of instructional services and another CC dean about what steps I needed to take to make that happen.  My VP had the most specific recommendations.  He said that the biggest holes in my resume were in direct supervision and budgeting and lack of a PhD in higher ed administration.  The other CC dean said that in order to get faculty buy-in as a dean I needed to follow the traditional path and hold a full-time position in a CC. Although my dean actively seeks out opportunities to help me build my skill set, my current position has 2 very real limitations: no opportunity for direct supervision and it is part-time with little hope of being made full-time within the next few years. I understand that the traditional path to deanship is full time faculty, program coordinator, department chair, dean.  Your blog and my own conversations have confirmed that.  My VP said that he felt confident that I could move directly to department chair based on my teaching experience and current role.  My dean feels that I can move directly into a dean position. Out of the blue, I was offered a manager position in customer service and HR for a medical device manufacturing company.  It would offer me the supervisory and HR experience that I am lacking, and the pay increase would allow me to go back to school to get my PhD in CC Leadership. It is even within my general field of expertise.  However, the experience would not follow the traditional CC dean path. My dean recommended that I take the position, but also suggested that I run the information by as many others as possible to get their perspectives.  He said that I could remain employed in his office, he would funnel projects my way to keep my foot in the door, and that anything that is required for the PhD, he would make sure that I could do at my institution.  My dean said that although he followed the traditional path, he felt that his resume lacked the industrial experience that would have been particularly helpful when working with advisory boards and writing grants. So here is my question: Is it better to keep my current administrative position in the hopes that a dept chair or dean position becomes available in my area or is it better to pursue a degree, fill the gaps in my experience and hope that someone will consider me for a CC dean position?

This is a good problem to have.  You’ve impressed people enough that they’re trying to figure out ways to keep you around and move you up the ladder.  But you have to choose which ladder you want.

For the record, it’s simply not true that you need a doctorate in community college leadership to be a dean.  It’s one route, but hardly the only one.  At my college, for example, none of the deans has one. They all have degrees in disciplines they’ve taught.

Deans come in different flavors.  The traditional dean of an academic division typically has full-time faculty experience, and a Master’s or higher in an academic discipline taught in that division.  Your chemistry degree covers that, though your teaching experience thus far has been mostly adjunct.

But there are also deans of planning and assessment, for example.  (They’re also sometimes called deans of institutional effectiveness.)  From what you’ve written, it looks like you’re on a fast track for something like that.  (Sometimes they’re called “directors.”)  In a role like that, you may or may not have much supervisory responsibility, but your purview extends across the entire college.  Being the assessment officer for a college gives you a key role in maintaining regional accreditation -- no small thing -- and it exposes you to the entire institution in ways that divisional deanships typically don’t.  

So I’d suggest that it really comes down to what you want.  If you want the traditional deanship of an academic division, then I’d strongly encourage you to try to find a full-time faculty slot.  (Sometimes cc’s will hire people directly as department chairs, if nobody among the incumbents wants to deal with it.  Selling your administrative experience could work in your favor.)  Get some exposure to the culture of full-time faculty and to the daily realities of their world.  After a few years, you’ll be in much better shape, even without a doctorate.

But if you like the assessment focus and the collegewide scope it gives you, you’re pretty well positioned already.  

Other than salary -- which if you need it right now, settles the question -- I’m not sure what some years in industry will give you at this point.  It makes a world of sense if you want to have a career in industry, but in terms of moving a community college academic career forward, I don’t see it.  Management in a for-profit company is wildly different from management in a community college -- longtime readers have probably seen me hit that note once or twice -- and I don’t see it buying you much extra credibility.  Even the “but it could pay for my doctorate” note sounds a little off, since typically the dissertations for programs like that consist of fieldwork at one’s home institution.  If you don’t have a home academic institution, you’ll have a hard time doing the work.

One admin’s perspective, anyway.  I’m sure folks in different contexts have different angles on this, so I’ll open it up.  Wise and worldly readers, what say you?  Does one path seem clearly more likely to succeed than the others?

Good luck!

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

I have a PhD in Ed Leadership. I did most of my work while working full time for a copper mining company. It was awful. Full time work for a for-profit company expects you to devote your time and energy to them. At a management level, it can become all-consuming. To then go home and switch gears to a completely different industry, with completely different problems, was a jolt. I lost about 2 years on getting my dissertation to that distraction. AND I now have to explain to everyone where I was and what I was doing during that time.

It isn't worth it. The money is nice, but stay focused on the industry in which you want to make your career. You are better off taking a slightly less lofty full time position in a CC and then working up than going out of the industry for a few years.
Since my Ph.D. is in my discipline (a science), take these comments with a grain of salt, because doing research in a lab is is different and requires you to be...well, onsite in a lab and most other disciplines have more flexibility with research on writing. However, the perception of "I'll just get my Ph.D." while doing anything else is always amusing to me. I earned mine right after undergrad, when I had no other responsibilities, and it was hellish. If there are other options that are almost or equally as good to further one's career, I'd say go for those.
I'm Anonymous 4:41. This line ...well, onsite in a lab and most other disciplines have more flexibility with research on writing. should read ...well, onsite in a lab and most other disciplines have more flexibility with research or writing.
As a full time faculty member with a Ph.D. in chemistry, I have to agree with both Anon 4:41 and Anon 4:42.

I went to graduate school after being in industry for a short time. It was a hellish experience for me too. At my graduate institution nobody, and I mean NOBODY, worked a full time job. You must be in the lab, at seminars, TAing (required in my program), and the like. The most anyone did during my time there was bar tend on weekends.

I will reiterate what Anon 4:41 said... if you have other options that are almost or equally good... pick one of those!
Interestingly enough, this story provides an example of someone without a PhD and without significant research experience or tenure who would likely be good in an administrative role within a post-secondary school. Perhaps having people in admin roles without such credentials isn't such a pipe dream after all.
If working in a community college is all you want to do, I would keep focused on that. But, if you can see yourself wanting an industry career, the new job sounds like a good deal. It might give you an outside perspective and the ability to say "screw this crap I'm out of here" if things get too ridiculous or it might make you appreciate what you have at the CC. Don’t underestimate the power of being able to walk away – from either situation. Right now, if you lose your CC job, it’s not clear to me that you’d have a lot of options employmentwise.

Ph.D programs in Ed Leadership tend to cater to a different crowd than science Ph.Ds and can be completed by those who work full time- if you do not have a family or outside interests that require time, I can see you working in industry and getting an Ed Leadership Ph.D "on the side". With a family or other significant outside of work responsibilities, it will be hard and will take longer (unless your spouse is VERY supportive). Make sure the school that you go to is regionally accredited (some are not and that makes the degree useless when applying for jobs at certain institutions).

I’d go with your gut on this one – in this situation, my gut instinct would be to take the full time job and get the Ph.D. It positions you to have the most options moving forward. Given the instability in both industries, I’d go for maximizing your options. Having had experience supervising people is always a good thing.
Higher Ed will be in perpetual crisis for the future. Why not have a job where you can leave the job at the job and feel a vague sense of accomplishment instead?
I've gone on career walkabout a couple of times in my student affairs career. It all happened in the same stretch of time, but I went to explore K-12 teaching (and live in France for a year). After I got back, I took a job as a corporate recruiter.

It turned out that the triumphs and challenges of those two jobs were not preferable to the triumphs and challenges of working in student affairs. I returned to the student affairs field with a renewed certainty that it was the field I wanted to be in. The things that made me want to go on walkabout were easier to live with as I was able to satisfy my curiosity as to the colour intensity of the grass that I was seeing elsewhere.

I also just finished an M.Ed. in Higher Ed Leadership. Granted it isn't the same as a PhD, but you might be able to do your dissertation in a way that links your current employer to the institution you are currently working at. I agree with the other posters that it's a far easier task when it is drawn directly from your FT work. In your new gig, you would be supervising/training/etc: you could focus on the company as a learning organization. DD has posted several times on the challenges of CC's providing industry training that works for everyone involved. With a foot still in both worlds, you'd potentially be able to put together a uniquely informed dissertation on professional development, CC program development and how bringing the level evaluation of how both of these things work together to produce a qualified workforce that was hotwired to your work with both employers. This is obviously a bluesky idea, but there could be a kernel there. The question to ask is: how do you provide added value to both of your employers in the new scenario through the PhD in Ed Leadership/Admin?

Lastly, it sounds from the description as though there isn't a huge opportunity cost to taking the new job. You aren't comparing offers: the new gig is attractive because you don't seemingly have lots of options in finding viable work in CC admin at present. It also sounds like you would be able to retain your previous position. Asking for a 1yr leave of absence to 'hold' your current job while you figured out if the new job was a good fit would seem to be a possibility given your relationship with your dean.

So: I say go for it. In the long run, failure can be just as helpful as success in these cases.
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