Switching Sides

by Julie Miller Vick and Jennifer S. Furlong
Chronicle of Higher Education
Thursday, February 9, 2006

Jenny: For many Ph.D.'s contemplating a career change, it's hard to imagine leaving the university setting. You may have gone straight from undergraduate to graduate school and be unfamiliar with other work environments. You may have worked elsewhere and chosen to return to graduate school because you felt the university environment best reflected your values and aspirations. Or, you may find it hard to give up some of the wonderful perks that come with being on a campus -- like access to speakers, libraries, databases, and colleagues, not to mention the opportunity to teach from time to time.

So maybe you've decided against a faculty job, or just given up on a glutted market, but you still want to pursue some sort of career on a campus. We'll discuss here some of the many roles that Ph.D.'s play in a university setting, as well as strategies for shifting your focus. We'll also share some insights from our conversations with Ph.D.'s working in various jobs in higher education.

Julie: Many Ph.D.'s in the sciences, as well as in some social-science fields, have the opportunity to apply for positions on what is known as the research track, as opposed to the tenure track. National searches are conducted for tenure-track jobs, and candidates for such positions would normally have done postdoctoral research for several years. Being a tenure-track professor and a member of the standing faculty of a university means one is eligible for all faculty benefits and is a voting member of the faculty.

Jenny: A department seeking to fill a research-track position might also hold a national search, but it would usually specify a narrow skill set. If you're a candidate for a research assistant professorship, you will need a good publication record. If hired, you are unlikely to receive a start-up package or be required to teach, as a tenure-track professor would. Your salary would likely come entirely from a tenure-track professor's research grants -- not from the university -- and you would work in that professor's laboratory. In most cases, there would be no commitment from the university.

Most people hired as research faculty members work under contract and are evaluated on a cycle, frequently a three-year one. If the grant that pays your salary is not renewed, you could be asked to leave. At some institutions, you would proceed on the research track, with evaluations and promotions, while at others, your position would last a defined number of years.

Julie: Clearly, research faculty members do not have the job security of their tenured peers. However, they also do not have many of the responsibilities. For Ph.D.'s who love the day-to-day work of bench science and the thrill of discovery in the lab, but don't relish the idea of starting up a lab of their own, writing endless grants, or managing a team of postdocs and graduate students, the research track can be a compelling option.

Jenny: Just as many scientists realize that the research track can keep them in touch with what they love about science, Ph.D.'s in many disciplines can find satisfying work in the diverse world of university administration.

Nearly all of the Ph.D.'s we spoke with mentioned that one major advantage of making the transition from a faculty role to an administrative one was the possibility of maintaining a healthier work-life balance. Said one such Ph.D: "Working in academic administration enables me to have more control over how I spend my evenings and weekends. I use my time outside the office as I want to (for research and writing sometimes), not as the pressures of the tenure process dictate. In the end, I'm able to enjoy my time at work all the more because it's balanced by a fulfilling life outside of work."

Julie: For those who love to teach and work with students, student services and academic advising can be an excellent fit. For some, interactions with undergraduates are even more satisfying when they occur outside of the classroom.

A Ph.D. and career counselor we interviewed who works with undergraduates said, "A great advantage to working in career services is the chance to develop relationships with students in a face-to-face way that is often difficult between teacher and student. By seeing a student over a longer period of time, with in-depth conversations, and in a nonjudging (grading them) context, I am able to assist them and help them develop in ways that their academic teachers cannot."

Jenny: All of the Ph.D's we spoke with found that the switch to administration provided them with work that was equally as challenging as teaching and research. "Career counseling is an open-ended discussion," said one Ph.D., "and students constantly bring very different and challenging problems to the conversation -- a situation that forces me to analyze and brainstorm in an interactive way that is more taxing than content-based academic instruction."

Julie: We've met Ph.D.'s working in what might be considered "unexpected" places on campuses: organizing training seminars in human resources, planning urban renewal in the real-estate department, overseeing technology for a particular school, administering a postdoctoral program and doctoral admissions, and overseeing trustee affairs in the president's office. They all seemed to feel that the work was a good fit for their skills.

A Ph.D. who is the administrative director of a new undergraduate program wrote, "Working within a new program is like working for a start-up: It provides ample outlets for individual initiative and creativity and allows me to wear 'multiple hats' in a good way."

And a Ph.D. working in a university human-resources department said,"Although I no longer get paid to think about literature, I am still involved in learning and writing, and I work in a stimulating environment with an enormous amount of opportunities available to me as an employee."

Jenny: Working in administration can give you an entirely different perspective on how academe functions. A Ph.D. who works in a university president's office said, "I learned more about how a university works in a month in this office than I did in 10 previous years of graduate school."

You may also find that, as one Ph.D. put it, "there's a lot about the 'academic enterprise' that the administrators don't really understand."

Julie: If any of those positions sound interesting to you, start by looking at the human-resources Web sites of the colleges and universities in your area, or in regions in which you would like to work. Read job descriptions, and try to get a realistic understanding of the skills involved.

Take advantage of the fact that you are already in an academic setting to talk to those around you. Volunteer, or ask to do an internship, in an administrative office. Transform your CV into a resume (go to: http://chronicle.com/jobs/news/2004/12/2004121701c/careers.html for information on how to do that so that it looks as if you are serious about your move to administration).

Keep in mind, however, you're not going to find a perfect world in your new chosen field. Certainly, within the university hierarchy, staff members do not have the same status as faculty members. Some Ph.D.'s have found that the resistance they sometimes encounter from faculty members and other staff members can be a difficult pill to swallow. And although access to university resources will make it easier for you to stay active in your field of research, you will no longer be paid to do that work.

Jenny: For many Ph.D.'s, however, the move to administration has enough positive aspects to make up for those losses. One Ph.D. who made the switch to administration summed up the concerns of many in her position:"I feel fortunate that I was able to find such fulfilling work in the area in which I wanted to live. I know that if I had stayed on my original academic path, I would have faced difficult choices regarding job opportunities and geography, not to mention the rigors of the tenure process. Of course, I miss conversations about good books and great writing, but I've met that need by participating in a reading group with some university colleagues."

Julie Miller Vick is associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania. Jennifer S. Furlong, who earned her Ph.D. in romance languages from Penn in 2003, is a graduate career counselor at the university. Vick is one of the authors of The Academic Job Search Handbook (University of Pennsylvania Press), along with Mary Morris Heiberger, who was associate director of career services at Penn.