Switching Sides, Part 2

Wednesday, April 11, 2007
by Julie Miller Vick and Jennifer S. Furlong

Career Talk: Practical guidance for academic job seekers from professional career counselors

A year ago, when we first wrote about career options in campus administration (http://chronicle.com/jobs/news/2006/02/2006020901c/careers.html), we focused on what Ph.D.'s who have made the transition from faculty life found satisfying about their new work. But since then, we have heard from a lot of readers who wished we had offered more detail about the various nonfaculty career paths available at colleges and universities.

So this month, we would like to revisit the topic by interviewing some readers who have actually taken those paths.

Academic Technology

Judith Tabron, who has a Ph.D. in English and is director of faculty computing services at Hofstra University, wrote to say she just couldn't "let it pass" that our earlier column included only one phrase about campus technology jobs for Ph.D.'s. Her e-mail message prompted us to get in touch with her to hear more about her work.

Every college and university must offer technology support to its faculty members. Moreover, Judith said, if the institution is a good one, that support is not simply providing basic tech advice to users. It also involves helping professors think about the way they teach and do research, and working with them to incorporate technology into their classrooms in meaningful ways.

While she was a doctoral student at Brandeis University in the 1990s, Judith also held an administrative position working in computer support. Her interest in technology prompted her to begin using it in her own classroom, and she has been working in the field of academic technology since then. At Hofstra, she and her staff reach out to faculty members to let them know what's available in terms of classroom technology, and what's possible. One of the things she enjoys most about her work is the opportunity to interact with faculty members in a wide range of fields, from chemistry to English to political science.

She thinks the best candidates for positions in her office are Ph.D.'s, since they have "a real understanding of the overall goals of the faculty." For several years now, she has been able to hire people who have both solid computer skills and graduate training in the same fields as the faculty members who come in looking for assistance. A staff member's graduate work often "changes the discourse," she says, making that staffer's interaction with a faculty member more of a partnership than a service relationship.

Judith wishes more graduate students were aware of this career option. "The door is still open -- experience is more important than any sort of certification or specific degree," she said. "It's challenging and rewarding. Graduate students who decide that the tenure track is not for them, who find technology interesting, and who have an interest in teaching should have no trouble contacting someone in the field of academic technology who can talk to them about options. I would recommend it, and not only because I currently have job openings I am trying to fill."

Institutional Research

Several readers asked us to talk more about institutional research. To find out more about how that career path is a good fit for Ph.D.'s, we spoke with John Nugent, a senior research analyst at Connecticut College, where he is also a special assistant to the president.

John earned his Ph.D. in government from the University of Texas at Austin in 1998. He made the transition to a career in institutional research after being unable to find an institution that could provide tenure-track positions for both him and his wife, who is a faculty member at Connecticut College.

As an institutional researcher, John uses both qualitative and quantitative methods to evaluate how various campus programs are functioning. He designs and conducts studies to help the college in its strategic planning, and reports relevant data to various outside agencies. He admits the work "sounds dry," but he loves his job and sees it as a continuation of his earlier research in the social sciences studying people, institutions, and the way they intersect.

One aspect of his work that John enjoys is the fact that he gets involved at one time or another with every division of the college -- admissions, athletics, financial aid, academics, and others. The job give him a sense of the complexity of the institution that he would not necessarily perceive as a faculty member.

He also loves the rapid pace, as compared with academic research. His work is project-based, and often begins with a query from an administrator or a faculty member. He then must evaluate what data he has, what data he has to get, and how. Each new project is an exercise in research design. He is able to see the fruits of his labors quickly, and knows that his work might influence important institutional decisions.

Institutional research is described by a variety of labels -- some call it assessment or planning, for example -- and may be done by a combination of people on a given campus. However, every institution has to have someone who reports the necessary data to the federal government. What will vary, according to John, is the extent to which that institution does program reviews on questions such as, "Should we change our general-education requirements?"

You might think you don't have the high-level statistical training necessary for the position. However, John said his colleagues in the field come from a wide range of backgrounds. "No one seems to have explicitly trained to do this work," he said.

Most of his colleagues do have some training in quantitative data collection and analysis. John does both quantitative and qualitative studies, and finds that a deep familiarity with Excel serves him well in designing studies and reporting on their results.

He suggests both the Association for Institutional Research and the Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium as professional resources that were extremely useful to him when he was just starting out.

Liberal-Arts Dean in an Art School

Peter Stambler is dean of the liberal arts at the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia. With a B.A. in English and an M.F.A. in playwriting, he taught theater and English at the North Carolina School of the Arts. He went back to graduate school for a Ph.D. in English to improve his "marketability," which, he said, was "something of a disastrous decision."

He spent many years at various teaching and administrative positions both in the United States and in Hong Kong before taking the job at the University of the Arts in 2001. "The irony," he says, "is that, like most sons, I spent a lifetime being Not My Father and then ended up here. My father was chair of the academic division at Juilliard for 25 years or so."

Peter is responsible for advising students on academic matters, scheduling and staffing 160 classes each term, supervising 12 full-time and 85 part-time teachers, handling the budget for his division, serving on countless committees, and, best of all, being the Official Intoner of Names at graduation.

A highlight of his work on the school's liberal-arts curriculum has been guiding the development of a series of period-interpretation courses that are substitutes for the kind of "one-size-fits-all Western Civ course that kids hate," he says. Instructors invent specific courses tied to both conventional and unconventional views of certain time periods, decades, and even years.

Peter doesn't think anyone actually goes to graduate school to become a dean. There are training courses here and there, but he hasn't taken them. "In general," he says, "I think a solid education in any field that suggests you think carefully, know how to negotiate, and can communicate clearly is sufficient training."

Librarian in a Research Library

One career path for Ph.D.'s that we neglected to mention in our first column is that of academic librarian. Elizabeth McBride, a librarian for African studies at Emory University, told us that almost all of the professional staff members at her library have advanced degrees in particular fields and most also have master's degrees in library science.

"We've hired a film-studies Ph.D. to oversee our burgeoning collection in that area," she says. "While he has been with us, he has traveled to Russia to be a judge in a film festival and taught an introduction to film-studies course. Don't forget that among his regular duties is buying films from around the world. Sounds like a great career move to me."

She also pointed out that job candidates who are technically savvy will have a number of career opportunities in research libraries, where the focus is increasingly on digital projects.

We couldn't agree more, and will defer to Todd Gilman, the librarian for literature in English at Yale University's Sterling Memorial Library, who has written a wonderful series of columns on academic librarianship.

Additionally, readers interested in this career path might want to subscribe to WRK4US, an e-mail discussion group that has talked about this very topic.

We hope these profiles will help Ph.D.'s who are contemplating a career switch to understand the wide range of opportunities available in campus administration. In a future column we will look at other jobs in academe that capitalize on the talents and skills of Ph.D.'s.


Julie Miller Vick is senior associate director of career services and Jennifer S. Furlong is associate director at the University of Pennsylvania. Vick is co-author of The Academic Job Search Handbook (University of Pennsylvania Press), along with Mary Morris Heiberger, who was associate director of career services at Penn.