From PhD to Academic Administration Part One: how did I end up here?


Last night J jokingly called me the Pied Piper of Academia. Since finishing my PhD a couple of years ago, I’ve been working in university administration.

And since almost the first month in my new job, I’ve been asked by fellow grads for advice on the pros and cons of taking that step over to the dark side.

At first it was just people I knew.

Recently I’ve had emails from total strangers, referred to me by people I hardly know, asking if I’d have time to talk over coffee.

So as academic job application season swings around, I thought it might be worth a blog post.

In this first post I’ll give you some background on how I ended up making the decision to apply for an administrative job in the first place. In the next I’ll leap into the bit you’re probably more interested in: the pros and cons of making a side-ways move in the university if you’d always assumed you would be an academic.

My thoughts on this topic are based on my own limited experience and to a certain extent my ethnographic work on universities. But if you in a similar situation yourself, please chip in in the comments!

So how did I end up working in the Provosts Office, rather than in an anthropology department?

Well I finished my dissertation in early 2014 after nine long years as a grad student in a university with very low and short-term stipends. As an international student I couldn’t get loans or credit cards, and I didn’t have parents or a spouse who could help me out financially when I got stuck. As a result, my grad school existence was defined by my extreme financial precariousness.

The year I was doing fieldwork on a Wenner Gren grant was actually the only time I had guaranteed money for a whole year. The other eight years involved a constant hustle to patch together teaching positions, RA-ships, and (for the first few years) a small stipend, so I could make rent, eat, and pay health insurance. Most positions only lasted a single quarter, so I’d only be secure for 3 months at a time before having to find the next thing.

It was utterly exhausting. I’m sure many other graduate students can relate.

As the end of grad school finally came into sight, I applied for a bunch of academic jobs but I made the decision not to apply for adjunct jobs.

(By academic jobs I generally mean those that involve research and/or teaching, with at least one year’s salary and some benefits: so postdoc positions, tenure-track positions, VAP positions, and the like. For adjunct positions, I’m thinking of the temporary teaching positions for less than a year, often paid by the course, that usually come without benefits and are notoriously badly paid. For more info on adjuncting, follow some of the links here.)

To be honest, I just didn’t think I could cope with the level of financial insecurity adjuncting would involve. So I only looked at academic positions that came with at least a year’s salary.

Ironically, I suspect the high-levels of finance-related stress I was under as a grad student had an impact on those applications I wrote, dripping as they probably were with my desperation to get anything at all. The stress and insecurity certainly affected the quality of my other writing.

But then again – we all know that academic jobs are very hard to come by. I think there were maybe about 15 advertised total, the first year I was ‘on the market,’ that I was even vaguely qualified for.  Maybe two of those 15 actually asked for someone with my research focus.

Plus it’s entirely possible 200+ people were applying to each of the TT/VAP jobs, while the big postdoc fellowships get 900+. The odds are ever not in our favor.

When nothing came up on my applications, I decided to think more creatively about getting a different kind of job. I knew had to work in a university if I was going to get an extension on my student visa.

A factor in my decision making was also the very large number of miserable academics I knew at that time. I had just finished up an ethnography of academics, that involved interviewing people who were years or decades into the kind of tenure track jobs I was applying for.

And they were not a happy bunch. Particularly the US academics. The only person who struck me as super happy with his life choices was this one tenured, male, single, white, childless professor, who appeared to be having an awesome time. Looking at the people around me, and looking at my fieldnotes, it felt like it might be a good idea to explore other possibilities that would potentially offer a better quality of life.

So that’s pretty much why I started applying for administrative positions.

There was a secondary reason, and that was that my research partly focuses on the anthropology of higher education. Sadly, the anthropology of higher education so far consists of me and one other dude (and we don’t have much to say to each other.)

So after not having much luck marketing myself as an anthropologist who studied universities, I wondered if I might have more of an impact as an anthropologist working in a university.

The first job I got was at a large state university, and actually asked for research experience in the study of higher education! Although my involvement in the actual research never really happened for reasons that are too complicated to explain. As a result, the job ended up being Project Management for a Vice Provost: writing grants and reports, handling IRB protocols, organizing meetings, and managing the day-to-day of an office. I never interacted with students, and worked mostly as an assistant to the people at the very top of the university hierarchy.

The next position I held (and currently still hold) is at a private research university. It involves a combination of administration and student advising. I manage a range of projects and events, and work one-on-one with about 300 students a year. So different from my previous job in that I get to work a lot with students. My current position is also, however, officially in a Provosts office.

As I’ll talk about in the next post, that means something different from what you might expect.


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