How do you get your foot in the door in higher education? And once there, how do you advance?
Like any other career, the path to the top in a college, university or related organization has its own nuances that professionals must remain aware of. From the differences between departments to federal Department of Education guidelines, those in the field have a lot to keep up with.
To develop a clearer roadmap, we consulted the experts on Education Dive's Higher Education Management LinkedIn group. What should you do to get ahead? Read on and find out. (And for a selection of top education jobs, check out our new job board—or reach our 55,000 readers with listings of your own.)
1. KNOW WHERE YOU'RE BEST SUITED TO BE
"The best advice I can offer is this:
Know and understand the difference between 'teaching' and 'learning.' If your focus and passion is on 'learning' you have a future in the classroom. If your focus is on 'teaching' then stay out of the classroom and look to management or administration."
- Tim Klassen, Director of Ontario College Quality Assurance Service
"I've spent the past 30 years in higher ed. I love our mission and I wouldn't want to work in any other field. I've worked in higher ed finance, the Provost's office and in campus student development. I recommend you first evaluate what interests you. Do you prefer to work in a "back office" environment, mostly away from the public—like payroll, HR, finance, Registrar's, IT, etc.—or do you prefer to work on the "front lines", with the public—like student services, advising, counseling, teaching? I recommend you try multiple areas and move around every 3-5 years. Don't get too comfortable (unless comfort and consistency are important to you). A diverse blend of experience, knowledge, skills and abilities will help you when you want to move up, or laterally (don't pass up lateral moves just because there's no financial incentive). If you can, try out teaching to see if you like it. Teaching can be one of the most rewarding areas of higher ed, but not the only area to consider. Higher ed is a conglomeration of many professions, so you're sure to find something you enjoy."
- Craig Winters, Student Services Manager at Pima Community College
2. TEACH BEFORE YOU LEAD
"I am somewhat wary of those in administration that have not spent time as a faculty member. It makes the issues more difficult to understand. So I would spend at least one or 2 semesters teaching to get a feel for it."
- Jennifer Swann, Professor of Biological Sciences at Lehigh University
3. EXPLORE DIFFERENT TYPES OF ORGANIZATIONS
"May I suggest that you investigate the different types of educational organizations and which would be a good fit for you? There are large state and privates, small liberal arts with different missions, different strategies and different cultures. Talk to people who work in different areas of the organizations to determine if the school is a good fit for you. Then do your homework on the Internet and find out the salaries and employee satisfaction, etc. Good luck to you! Academia can hold a rewarding career!"
- Linda Cirocco, Director of Continuing Education at University of Central Florida
4. BE PREPARED TO MOVE BETWEEN LOCATIONS AND DEPARTMENTS, AND DO YOUR RESEARCH
"My first piece of advice is to start your career in higher ed by thinking about where you want to LIVE, not necessarily where you want to work. Climbing the administrative ladder in higher ed very often means bouncing from one institution to the next to gain the kind of multi-faceted experience successful senior administrators need. It's a special thing (and a sign of an institution which is good at professional development) when someone can move through the ranks at one institution. I read a post recently from an administrator moving back to academia. She discussed the false perception that when you're ready to move up professionally at your school, the opportunity will be there for you. In most cases, it won't be. So be ready for a journey. I would focus first on location and look at the schools near where you want to be.
Second, keep an open mind regarding what office, department or division you might work in. The culture of institutions varies so greatly that you might even have to put some faith in the people you interview with in assuming that they are representative of a strong institutional culture where you will be happy. Don't get caught up on job titles. Admissions is often the easiest door into higher ed administration, since representatives are often recent grads. Keeping in mind, though, that 'assistant dean' or 'assistant director' is often the entry-level title. There's nothing wrong with putting in some time in one office then moving to, say, student affairs. Like I said, the best senior admins need to be generalists and specialists at the same time—they need to know a little bit of everything.
If someone is serious about making higher ed a career, you might as well start reading up on Student Development Theory now. Whether you work in administration or an academic setting, being able to speak intelligently about the various theories and their applications to the university will be a real leg up. See Perry, Chickering, Kohlberg, Kolb, Schlossberg. Once the government decides to start functioning again, the National Center for Education Statistics is also a great website to walk around and read about trends in education."
- Jack Nelson, Regional Director at World Education Services
5. BE FLEXIBLE, DETAIL-ORIENTED AND POLITICALLY SAVVY
"While higher education is somewhat notorious for being slow to change, in fact, leadership positions may turn over when you least expect it. So it is important to be flexible and prepared to work for whomever your boss actually is. Years ago, I was hired to be the staff assistant to the provost at the University of Pennsylvania - I wound up having three bosses in two years (provost, interim provost, new provost). Periods of transition can be unsettling and challenging; but they also can be opportunities for staff members to provide continuity, to be useful, and to make their mark as being reliable, flexible, and able to adapt to new situations.
I often tell new hires in our organization that "when I say this job is detail-oriented... I mean it." Much of the work that goes on in higher education requires a high level of professionalism and attention to detail. At the same time, I find sometimes that those are two missing elements in administration. Higher education often does not have the same feel, culture, or set of expectations as a corporate office. But that does not mean that standards of professionalism should not apply.
There is much in the academic world that is political. Understanding the politics of the environment that you are in, and how to work with them, rather than succumbing to them, is important."
- Bethany Zecher Sutton, Chief of Staff at Association of American Colleges & Universities
6. UNDERSTAND YOUR DEPARTMENT—AND ITS STUDENTS
"I would advise anyone just entering the higher education industry to remember that colleges and departments are not silos within a university. The term “interdisciplinary” is applicable in administration. Know and understand the holistic policies, procedures, roles, and needs of your school. Reach deeper into your own position as well. Then see how your role could be expanded or enhanced. Get a clear and accurate grasp on the finances of the department. Know and track the numbers: enrollments, drops, graduation, etc. And never, never lose touch with the students you serve."
- Michelle Geigle, Former President of Schiller International University
7. LISTEN, AND BEFRIEND THE PHYSICAL PLANT STAFF
"Whoever you are and whatever level you'll be working at, my top three are:
1) Get to know the portering, cleaning and maintenance staff in a genuine and on-a-level way. They hold the key (often literally) to a smooth path through a working week. And they know everything... and I do mean everything... first!
2) Listen—really listen—to your new colleagues when they tell you what they do and why. You may be able to help them or they you which creates productive networks, especially across team boundaries.
3) Be nice—it costs nothing—and don't gossip! It's no harder to look for the positive than it is to look for the negative.
Generic stuff, and OK, maybe it sounds obvious, but it's stood me in good stead over 25 years in HE."
- Shelley Upton, E-Services and Communications Manager, Information Services at Aberystwyth University
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