So, You Think You Want to Be an Administrator?
Each fall, academic job seekers focus not just on the new semester in front of them, but on where they will be for the fall semester in the following year. Departments start getting piles of applications for faculty jobs, interviews get scheduled, and by the time spring comes, everyone hopes to have negotiated contracts and be looking toward a summer of planning.
That dynamic works for many faculty jobs, though fewer in the days of electronic ads and apps, but increasingly, candidates are considering administrative positions — because they are in crowded fields, because they are geographically limited, and (I have heard this one often) because they are easier to get. This last reason shouldn’t be a reason, if you are considering applying for administrative positions in higher education. Why? Because it isn’t true.
Applying for administrative jobs, getting them, and doing them isn’t easier than faculty work, but it is different. I learned how different the application materials had to be in my own job search last fall, which included both faculty and administrative jobs. I had good readers and a lot of training in rhetoric but no clear-cut advice. Instead, I asked myself some hard questions about the audience I would be writing to and how they differ from search committees for faculty jobs.
This piece isn’t going to discuss the pros and cons of choosing to seek academic administrative jobs, nor is it seeking to direct the necessary soul-searching that many will go through before switching their career emphasis. What it will do is give you some concrete advice to help guide a re-evaluation of your application materials if you will be this fall where I was a year ago.
Skills Into the C.V.
Having done administrative work in academe before, I keep a section in my C.V. called “Administrative Experience.” It has had a number of titles over the years, but when applying for administrative positions, those jobs — paid and unpaid — that have often just taken lines in a section on service need to get some space and move to the front of your C.V. Why? Because the most important thing to this search committee isn’t your long list of publications and conference presentations. It is the skill set you have developed for work outside the classroom. So you have to show them that work and those skills. No search committee member will look deeply into your C.V. and find those things for you, so you need to think back to that resume you made years ago for your first internships or your first jobs out of college. Yes, you will also need bulleted lists headed by action verbs; that is where you show your skills, name them, highlight your abilities. The other academic qualifications you offer are icing on the cake of your history. The center, for these readers, is what you are able to do for them, based on what you have done already. And the best part? If you have done work outside of academe, it gets value in this search and should make it to that list. Headed a committee for a local organization? Coordinated a huge project for a campus group not connected to your department? Put it in, make use of it.
When I was writing my first faculty application letters, I was told to highlight my unique qualifications and skills, what I would add to the department through my teaching and research interests. I was told that they wanted to see who I was as an academic and thinker — and they were looking for what they didn’t have. Okay, many administrative jobs want that, too, but it isn’t all about you. (You will find this in the interview, too, but that is for another time.) Instead, your paragraphs need to come back to them: what you can and will contribute to the school and why it is beneficial to the program, department, school, position, and people you would serve and work with. So, if you will be doing faculty development, what have you done before that qualifies you? How do you build relationships with faculty in productive ways that will allow you to reach out? If you will be managing people, how have you done that and what will that mean for this new job? Certainly, if teaching will be part of your work, a paragraph about your work with students — much like a faculty letter would require — should be there, too. But beware the urge to spend a good chunk of your time talking about your scholarship, and if you feel it is necessary (as it truly is for some administrative jobs), remember to contextualize it in terms of what it adds to your work in the job you are applying for. Most often discussion of your research in faculty job letters explains how it connects to your teaching in order to make it clear that you are a cohesive and focused professional. Enough said. For administrative jobs, however, that is not enough. Ask yourself with each paragraph, “What difference does this make to what they would want me to do?” If each part of your letter makes that explicit, you will show off your qualifications while also making clear that you “get” administrative work and the job you are seeking.
References and Letters
It can be extraordinarily hard to see disappointment on the face of someone who believes in you, and while I didn’t have to do that in my job search, I have heard from friends and colleagues that it can happen when telling advisers and other faculty about administrative applications. That happens because of the differences between the jobs, the way administrators are sometimes viewed in academe, and because it might mean you will never earn tenure. But you have to tell your referees about the types of jobs you are seeking. Why? The letters you send with an administrative application and the people you ask to stand as references need to be able to show that you as a viable candidate for the job in question. To do that, they need to think about how to translate training and work that may have been designed to prepare you for faculty positions into the skills and abilities necessary in someone with a different kind of job description. In fact, it is the same kind of translation you have to do to reframe your C.V., rewrite stock letters, and prepare for interviews. So, as you tell current and former bosses, faculty advisers, and the like about your decision to pursue non-faculty work, you should plan to tell them why you are doing this; why you would be a good fit for such work. And, of course, provide them with that revised C.V. — maybe even a letter. The better they can speak for you, the more it adds to your application. That part is just like applying for faculty jobs; it’s just what they have to say that is different.
These guidelines don’t work smoothly for all administrative jobs or all candidates, I know. For more senior positions, your scholarship is likely a centerpiece of why they would want you — or a basic requirement of the job. And for faculty jobs with administrative components, much more of that “unique you” job application is expected because you will be a faculty member, housed in an academic department with faculty colleagues. However, for a wide range of positions in academic administrative that also draw on the skills that a Ph.D. would have, shifting your thinking about who you could be in academe is the first and most important step. Get there and you’ve done a lot of the heavy lifting — at least until they hire you and the real heavy lifting begins.
Monica F. Jacobe is associate director of the Institute for ESL & American Studies at the College of New Jersey.
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