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.