From PhD to Academic Administration Part Two: The Pros and Cons list

Last week I started off with a brief introduction on how I ended up working in academic administration after finishing my PhD. This week I’ll jump into the bit that is usually far more interesting to people contemplating making the same move: the pros and cons list.

The Pros

 Regular work hours.

This is probably the thing people leaving academia get most excited about. If you’re a grad student, a researcher, or teaching in a university, your work hours have no official limits. This usually translates into working much longer than a 40 hour week, and working on weekends and evenings as a norm.

With the idea that your work is your passion, comes the sense that it isn’t really a job but more a life-style. So the concept of work-life balance becomes nonsensical. You work 90 hour weeks because you love it!

In contrast, my current work hours are Monday to Friday, from 7:30am – 4:00pm with an hour for lunch. I actually shifted my day to start and end an hour earlier than normal after I had the baby because this worked better around the baby’s schedule and my commute.

When 4pm swings around I turn off my email. I close my laptop and shut my office door. I pick up my baby, head home, chill out, read a book, watch a movie, do whatever I want to do. And I do not even think about checking my email (much less replying to anyone) until 7:30am the next (week)day.

Same goes for lunch. I take a full hour break in the middle of the day. It’s glorious!

Sure, sometimes when we have a particular deadline or something really important that needs doing, I will stay late. On maybe 3 or 4 occasions a year I will stay very late. Last week was one of those days and I didn’t leave until 8pm, having arrived at my usual 7:30am. But sometime later in the month, when it’s quiet, I’ll take an afternoon off to make that time back.

 A normal salary with benefits.

Pretty self-explanatory why this one is a pro, particularly when the likely post-PhD alternatives for people who don’t immediately get a permanent faculty positions are postdocs or adjunct work.

It’s frightening thinking about the nine-year grad-school gap in my pension contributions. I’m glad to be starting to chip away at that stuff. Plus being about to go to the doctor or dentist when I’m sick is awesome.

 Working with students in a new way.

Here’s where I get into the less obvious stuff.

In my current position I work a lot with students. But unlike when I was teaching in formal classes, the students seek out my help voluntarily and I am not giving them a grade. The result is a much more positive relationship, and an opportunity to get to know the students I work with as more fully rounded individuals. It can be highly rewarding and certainly beats the carrot-and-stick relationship that can sometimes accompany being a TA or a Lecturer.

 Different insight into the university as an institution.

This might just be a pro to me, but I’ve found it fascinating learning more about how the rest of the university works. When you’re in a single academic department, as either a grad student or a professor, you see such a tiny slice of the entire operation. Maybe you have no curiosity about that, but I’ve found it very interesting learning what goes on ‘behind the scenes,’ so to speak.

 More established work rights.

I could write a whole post on the detrimental effects of not acknowledging that faculty are also employees. But in a nutshell: when you are not a faculty member, and you need to go on maternity leave or sick leave, you just go. Because that is your right as an employee.

There’s no need to negotiate with your entire department to find someone else to cover your classes. No need to apologize for being sick, or bringing new life into the world with your body.

And there is no expectation that you will then do double the amount of work when you return to make up exactly the same amount you missed. (This from a postdoc teaching fellow I knew, who was eventually begrudgingly allowed to take a quarter off from teaching. But only if she agreed to teach the classes she missed on top of her usual teaching load in the quarter she returned, effectively teaching double her normal course load 8 weeks after giving birth.)

Sometimes it is a relief to not be considered so indispensable that no one could possibly be hired to cover you for a couple of months, if you need to take some time to heal.

 Easier to move positions.

From what I’ve been able to tell so far, it seems like people in administration are not expected to stay in the same job for life. In fact, movement up or sideways into a different role after a few years appears to be encouraged.

 The Cons

You might be bored.

There are certainly interesting things to do and learn, but if you went to grad school in the first place because you loved your research, you’re likely to need another source of intellectual stimulation.

 Less freedom.

I mean this physically and temporarily, but perhaps also socially. If you work in an office from 9 to 5, you have to actually be in that office from 9 to 5. So no going to coffee shops or the library to work, or arranging dentist appointments during the day. You have to be in the same place for a set period of time.

As much as I relish my free evenings and weekends, there are certainly days when I wish I could escape my office for a while in the middle of the afternoon. Or at the very least, close the door.

This also extends to the work year. If you’re used to spending your summers doing research, or being able to travel quite a bit (albeit travel to places you carry on working), it can be tough getting used to only having two or three weeks of vacation days a year. Once you add up the holidays, a week to visit family, and maybe five days at a conference, there’s not much left.

Lack of an academic network.

I’ve kept working on my own academic writing and I attend the weekly departmental talks in the anthropology department. But I do find it much harder to work on my own. I sense that my academic writing could easily slot into the category of ‘side project’ or hobby, once it’s not my main job, and it takes some effort to stop that happening.

My administrative colleagues and boss happen to be very encouraging—most of them have continued publishing, attending conferences, and occasionally teaching. But they are in different disciplines to me, so it’s not something we talk about a lot. As a result, I do find it harder to write on my own without any kind of day-to-day interaction with other anthropologists.

One option would of course be to have a writing group. But there’s also the sense that without being around people all the time, I start to feel a bit rusty.

Being treated like crap by faculty and grad students.

Here’s the big one – although how much this gets to you will depend on your own personality and ego. There are going to be certain academic colleagues who treat you like an ignorant piece of dirt. In my experience the worst offenders are, surprisingly, grad students. But the ones that have the biggest impact are always faculty because they hold the most power.

Not everyone, but some people will send you long emails in all caps, telling you how stupid you are for daring to ask them to fill in a form that will result in them being given money. Some people will stop talking and walk away mid-conversation at academic functions, once they realize you are not a professor. And what perhaps makes it worse, is that these same people will sometimes do a complete about face once they notice you have “Dr” on your email signature.

The university is riddled with people who think it’s ok to treat anyone who doesn’t have a PhD with contempt, and who take the word ‘staff’ very literally. Not everyone acts like this, or even most people. But enough to be somewhat demoralizing if you don’t grow a thick skin. Particularly if the people who treat you badly are the same people you would have hung out with at conferences, and considered to be colleagues, if you’d pursued that academic route.

So those are my pros and cons. But there are also a couple of other things worth knowing, if you are thinking of making the leap.

You will be surrounded by colleagues who also have PhDs and have made the same choice.

They are not going to judge you for it or consider you a flight risk (only doing this until you get something better) or a failure (only doing this because you couldn’t make it as an academic). After all, they’ve been in your shoes.

You are smarter and less useless than you think!

Grad school takes intelligent, driven people who are curious and passionate, and crushes every last bit of their self-esteem. No matter how many rejection letters you get from tiny colleges in the middle of nowhere that you wouldn’t want to teach at anyway—if you managed to make it through or even into a PhD program, you are probably not a stupid person. You can write! You can manage long and complicated projects! You can communicate with all sorts of different people! You are not completely unemployable, I promise.

Not all universities are the same and resources matter.

Not surprisingly, working at a college that is cash-strapped and under enormous pressure can be very stressful.

Finally, my sense is that you can do this for a couple of years without burning your bridges as long as you keep your connections and continue publishing. If you just need a couple of years of financial security, or want to try something different, chances are you can present your administrative experience as a plus if you do leap back into the academic job market. Or at least that’s what I’m hoping…

I’ll finish off this mini-series next week with a discussion of what kinds of administrative jobs there are out there, to try and break apart the idea of ‘The Administration’ as a monolithic block. In particular, I’ll focus less-obvious options for working with students beyond being an academic advisor.



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