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.