Friday, February 24, 2006

Ask the Administrator: Torn Between Two Futures, Feeling Like a Fool...

A twenty-something correspondent writes (edited for length):


Help! I think I’m suffering from academic schizophrenia! As I move towards the final year(s) of my Ph.D., I’m absolutely torn about how I should approach my future in terms of my next job choice…I’m currently considering applying for a variety of types of positions in academia – all of which I think would be interesting and fulfilling. One of the things I find most stressful about the whole academic/job search thing is that it seems one needs to pigeonhole oneself into a particular type of track. Am I wrong in thinking that there might actually be gasp more than one way of working in academia that might make me happy?...Assuming that I have aptitude for both teaching and administrative careers, do you think it’s a good idea to undertake a job search which involves looking for multiple types of careers in academia? Any ideas of how to tell my committee which really only wants me to apply for 4 year college/university tenure track jobs? Do I have a shot at all these different types of jobs? I should say at this point that I have a happy and rich life with family, friends, and a long term significant other.

I don’t have any particular geographical parameters or family/partner issues influencing my job choice…I’m in my fifth year of a Ph.D. program at a well-respected public research university. I expect to file my dissertation next summer…my committee seems happy with my progress. Over the last few years I’ve received internal and external fellowships to pursue my research and I have a few publications as well as a book that I’m editing that will be published by a nifty academic publisher. My committee really wants me to go on the 4 year college academic job market starting next year (meaning Fall of 2006). In addition to my dissertation and graduate student life I am also the coordinator of a major grant which one of my committee members has received. Administering this grant involves lots of different sorts of administrative work as well as conference planning, meeting with the big administrative offices at our university…I’ve also been involved in different administrative appointments at my university within my department.

Do you think that these sorts of experiences would make it possible for me to apply for administrative positions in a 4 year college or cc? On top of all this I’m also an adjunct instructor at a local cc…I also have a few publications which are about the teaching of my subject (trying hard not to sound like just another snobbish academic to cc departments that might frown on my background).

Should I focus my search on one of these fields or try to do it all and find the best fit, assuming that I actually get offered a position somewhere?


I always feel like an underachiever when I read stuff like this.

Yes, you would probably be a good candidate for certain kinds of administrative positions – assistant deanships of special programs, or perhaps directorships of tutoring centers. I wouldn’t advise going that route initially, though.

Positions like those are terminal. You will have peaked, organizationally, on your first day. As long as you’re on the academic side of the college, broadly speaking, (which would include tutoring centers, but would not include, say, the financial aid office), your ceiling will be low without experience as full-time faculty. The salaries are lower than you might think, and the jobs repetitive after a while. And it will be harder to jump back on the faculty track, since some search committees won’t take you seriously and your Ph.D. would have passed its informal expiration date for a new hire.

To move into the positions that offer the possibility of leading to other things, you really need several years’ full-time teaching experience. Once you have that, you become a very viable candidate for all manner of other things, especially if you manage to finagle a department chairmanship.

(In fairness, I should indicate that my entire professional experience has been at small or mid-sized teaching institutions. I don’t know the admin structure of an Ohio State or a Stanford as well.)

As I’ve seen said elsewhere, you can have it all, but not all at the same time.

Having said that, in your applications for faculty positions at teaching-oriented places, I’d strongly encourage you to highlight your administrative background and capabilities. It’s an open secret that departments often dump what they perceive as the least desirable assignments on the rookie hires (outcomes assessment, say, or whatever the latest dean’s task force happens to be); if you communicate that you actually like that sort of thing, you’ll stand out. Most finalists for tenure-track jobs make strong cases for themselves as teachers and scholars, and you’ll have to, too. But if you can add to that a strong case for yourself as a departmental citizen, you’ll make an awfully compelling candidate.

Once you land somewhere, volunteer for some of those assignments. (Most likely, you’ll be pushing an open door!) Deans and others of our ilk notice, quickly, when a competent new hire steps up and performs well on the tasks that faculty always gripe the most about doing at all. At my college, there’s one pre-tenured professor who has done a nice job with several small administrative assignments, and he has already caught the attention of the vp. The combination of capable, willing, and sane is surprisingly rare.

The good news is, you can please your committee, cash in on your publications, and lay the groundwork for whatever career path you choose, all at the same time. You just have to be a little bit patient while laying the groundwork.

Good luck!

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.