Academic Careers You May Not Have Considered

If a tenure-track faculty position is not in your future, you should consider many different types of jobs, David McDonald advises.

May 21, 2018
 
 
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When students talk about careers in academe, they most often mean tenure-track faculty positions. Yet, at most institutions of higher learning, less than half of the employees are faculty, and at many institutions, less than 20 percent are.

If you enjoy working on a college campus, but a tenure-track faculty position is not in your future, you should consider many different types of jobs. Some are considered “academic administration,” a vague term for non-faculty roles that have an unfortunate and undue association with inordinate bureaucracy. In fact, many of those roles engage in research or teaching in unexpected ways. As you read through the following descriptions, consider how the different roles and offices engage your favorite parts of working in academe or remove elements of tenure-track jobs you’re hoping to avoid.

Tenure-like Roles

People teach through colleges and universities in many different ways beyond a traditional, tenure-track faculty position. Similar to an Assistant Professor title are Adjective Assistant Professor (or Assistant Adjective Professor) titles in which “Adjective” is replaced by another word, such as “teaching,” “research” or “extension.” Teaching Assistant Professors will, no surprise, primarily teach courses and advise students. They may also write grants and publish papers on the scholarship of teaching and learning. Research Assistant Professors will focus on conducting research without teaching.

One caution for these positions is that if a postdoc is nearing their five-year limit, they may be promoted to Research Assistant Professor as an extension of their temporary appointment. But other people hold these positions permanently, so make sure you read the fine print. Last, Extension Assistant Professors conduct outreach and communication between the university and government, law, private industry and so on.

A related set of positions includes those of Professors of the Practice, or PoPs, many starting at the Assistant PoP level. These positions are similar to Teaching Assistant Professors in that their primary responsibilities are teaching and service. They may also operate core facilities for a department or university, or direct cross-departmental centers, initiatives and programs. Many will obtain educational grants and publish papers on how to improve college teaching.

Lecturer positions again focus on teaching courses, including coordinating related lab courses and training teaching assistants. Compared to Adjective Assistant Professors and PoPs, lecturers are less likely to take a larger leadership role or need to publish. Strong candidates for these positions, in addition to teaching experience, will have an understanding of evidence-based practices in teaching and experience with different student-centered educational practices, such as active learning.

Adjective Assistant Professor, PoP, and Lecturer positions will vary greatly among different institutions in terms of the official job descriptions. Be sure to read through all of the details to have an idea of how these positions fit into the department. Ask questions about how you will be evaluated. Will it be based on teaching evaluations, grants funded, papers published, teaching innovations used and the like? Some of these positions will also be modeled after tenure-track positions (tenure-like or tenure-parallel) in that there will be clear timelines and expectations for promotion to Associate and Full levels.

Teaching can occur in other ways at a college or university. One example is an office of continuing studies or adult education. There is a growing market for courses and certifications for alums or other adult learners looking to transition careers or develop personally and professionally. These can be longer programs or one-off classes, held in-person or online.

Teaching experience in different formats, particularly demonstrating effectiveness in teaching online courses, is a strong asset for these positions. An understanding of adult intellectual development compared to that of college or graduate students is also essential.

Another example of a different type of teaching position is in digital education and instructional development. Some universities are hiring people to assist in the design and implementation of their courses using the latest methods and technologies.

Library Affairs

More than a repository of books, academic libraries are a hub of research and communication. Librarians can specialize in specific subject areas -- which means Master’s or Ph.D. training with research experience can be strong credentials. You may find opportunities to consult with researchers, teach students and engage with scholarship. Some positions may require a Master’s degree from a program accredited by the American Library Association, but others may be more flexible.

Similarly, archivists preserve and organize a wide variety of source materials. You can obtain certification as an archivist to show employers your commitment to the field. This interview with an archivist and the Society for American Archivists have more information about careers in this area.

Research Administration

While individual faculty or departments may be responsible for obtaining funding, universities can provide support to improve the chances that a grant will be funded. In fact, since universities often claim a portion of grant funding for administrative overhead, they directly benefit from these sources of support. Offices such as these can go by many names including research support, research administration or research integrity/ethics. Expertise in different subject areas and strong grant writing skills are important to work in these offices.

The people in these positions should also manage deadlines and be comfortable collaborating with faculty members. There may also be opportunities to train students, scholars and faculty members by hosting professional development workshops in writing and responsible conduct of research. Throughout the research process, technology transfer offices work with researchers and legal teams to secure patents and explore options to commercialize their findings. See groups such as the National Organization for Research Development Professionals and the Association of University Technology Managers for additional information and opportunities.

Diversity and Inclusion

Many universities are grappling with ever-evolving issues of diversity and inclusion with students, faculty and staff members. There are opportunities to manage programs to increase admission and retention of underrepresented students through outreach, experiential opportunities, professional development and changing institutional policy. Some institutions have groups dedicated to diversity and inclusion that consult with other offices about their hiring and promotion practices.

This area could be a good fit if you are interested in advocating, engaging in difficult conversations, bringing diverse groups together and teaching. An understanding of law and policy can also be helpful in these roles. The National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education has resources to learn more.

In addition, on the campus-life side, many institutions have various identity centers to engage students on topics of diversity and inclusion. These can include but are not limited to centers for race/ethnicity, women, LGBTQIA+ and international students. Jobs in these offices are geared toward the different curricular and co-curricular needs of all student identities, so there are strong components of teaching, advocacy and counseling involved.

Student Affairs

The broad category of jobs at a university that focus on serving students outside the classroom is often called “student affairs.” Identity centers can be included in student affairs, as can residence life/housing, career services, global education and study abroad, health and wellness, and recreational activities. Think of student affairs as all of the education and experiences that students encounter outside of the classroom.

People who work in these areas are often drawn toward teaching “real life” skill sets, such as cultural competence, leadership, self-reflection and career development. While some positions require a Master’s degree in higher education, many are open to candidates with advanced degrees in other areas if they have strong interest and experience. Learn more from Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education or College Student Educators International.

Academic Affairs

The counterpart to student affairs is academic affairs, which encompasses all of the learning that happens in classroom settings. To support their instructors, universities invest in academic advisers to help students navigate their courses for majors, minors, certificates and electives. Research-intensive universities may have staff members who connect students with research experiences or to conduct their own interdisciplinary studies.

Institutional Research and Assessment

Colleges and universities amass huge amounts of data on students, alumni and employees throughout their time on the campus (and beyond). People in various positions ask the question, “How can we leverage these data to understand if we’re accomplishing our educational missions?” Through thoughtful design, data gathering and analysis, institutional research groups can create evidence-based practices in higher education. Some are focused on assessing student learning in the classroom. Others leverage larger data sets for in-depth research and reporting to accrediting agencies.

As higher education institutions face growing pressure from the public, media and government to demonstrate that they are worth students’ time and financial investment, assessment of educational practices and outcomes is becoming increasingly important. For more information, visit the Association for Institutional Research and read this article.

Campus Relationship Building

No college is an island, and many offices are charged with building and maintaining mutually beneficial relationships for the university. Alumni associations engage with alums for more than just donations; they also connect alums with current students and provide some services for lifelong learning. Universities also have relationships with private companies to develop recruiting relationships for students and to engage with the needs of changing industries.

On the educational side, institutions conduct outreach to local schools and museums to better connect learners of all ages with researchers and high-quality education. Nearby communities can partner with universities for engagement/outreach opportunities and promote service projects with students’ neighbors. And in the broadest sense, communications offices share information from institutions with local, national and international audiences -- whether it is about new research, students’ accomplishments, or policy recommendations.

Final Thoughts

Each college or university has a different organizational structure and history, so it is worth exploring institutions in the geographic areas where you want to work to see how your interests suit the opportunities they may have available. This interview has additional resources as well. Overall, you can find a wide variety of opportunities in higher education beyond tenure-track faculty roles. Consider what activities from graduate school you’ve enjoyed the most (analysis, grant writing, teaching, mentoring and so on) and how they connect with these different options. Then go start meeting people in offices across the campus to learn more.

Bio

David A. McDonald is assistant director of graduate services at Duke University Career Center and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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