The Confessions of a Ph.D. on Life as an Admissions Counselor

Rebbecca Kaplan advises other Ph.D.s considering higher ed administration, describing how -- despite leaving the scholarly track -- she lives a modified version of the career path she originally prepared for.

October 31, 2019

“It was me.”

“I did it.”

“I know where Jimmy Hoffa is buried.”

These may be more intriguing confessions, but I’ll try another: “I love admissions.”

You read that right. I am a Ph.D. taken with undergraduate admissions.

Why, you might ask?

In some ways, it’s what I enjoyed -- really enjoyed -- about academic work, just distilled.

Over a year, I educate prospective students and their families and advocates about the college-going process and provide a face to my institution. But that’s just the beginning. On any given day, I:

  • champion the liberal arts and the long-term value of a humanistic education;
  • read student essays to the point of near exhaustion;
  • advise young people on their futures;
  • grapple with issues of integrity, ethics and access to higher education; and
  • interact with some of the smartest, most curious and friendliest colleagues I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.

I routinely travel to interesting places, connect with fellow members of the higher education community and, thanks to a hybrid arrangement, continue to work closely with the professoriate.

Summers are still for planning, reflecting and attending conferences. The work is still cyclical; the year is still academic.

In short, although no admissions position requires, or probably will ever require, a Ph.D., I flex my academic training daily and live a modified version of the career path I had originally prepared for.

This work may not be for everyone, I admit. To echo then build on what other people have already observed, on the worst of days, remaining in higher education post-Ph.D. can feel a bit like finally catching the bouquet, then voluntarily signing up for a lifetime of being the bridesmaid, never the bride, in your ex’s wedding. On most days, however, I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to transition from a one-track future to another of multiple potential outcomes and possibilities.

For other Ph.D.s considering higher education administration, I invite you to evaluate the following observations and admissions from my time in the field, which you are welcome to admit, deny or wait list.

Get real: identify, then own, your skills. L. Maren Wood reminded us recently that few careers actually require a Ph.D., including many of those in higher education. Thus, those of us seeking career paths beyond the tenure track are more likely to encounter opportunities aligning with our interests, skills and values than with our academic preparation. For me, early career exploration meant homing in on what I appreciated most about graduate school and what compelled me to pursue a Ph.D. in the first place: the chance to educate, influence thought and form a community of smart, engaged colleagues.

Then, I identified what skills I thought I’d gained from the experience. They were roughly the same, just worded slightly differently, as the ability to communicate persuasively on complex topics and positively manage ideas, projects and relationships. That exploration gave me the compass I needed to chart those opportunities that best aligned with what I knew I could, and wanted, to offer.

I also had a frank conversation with myself about those aspects of academic life that left me wanting. If I found scholarly life isolating, admissions has provided the ideal antidote by putting me in contact with the public and allowing me to foster positive relationships for a living. I struggled with that reality at first: I prefer relationship management to research and thrive in team-oriented environments. I actually like working in an office.

Admitting that to myself has allowed me to pursue and thrive in opportunities beyond the traditional academic career path. Since completing my Ph.D., I’ve transitioned to launching a Spanish-immersion program at a small liberal arts college and led a grant-funded recruiting initiative for a major graduate business school, and I now find myself in a leadership role in undergraduate admissions.

Identifying and articulating what skills you bring to your search, and the type of work environment you believe you will thrive in, will anchor your new career search, not the Ph.D.

Adapt: this is unfamiliar familiar territory. Once you have begun a new path in higher education, keep in mind that work cultures can vary greatly from one office to another, even within the same industry and institution. It’s tempting to think that higher education operates homogeneously and that what works well culturally in one office will work equally well in another. It simply isn’t so. Higher education institutions share a common goal to educate postsecondary students. But beyond that, offices around the quad will have their own written -- and more likely, unwritten -- cultures. Just as you would advise an undergraduate student studying abroad for the first time to do, you should observe, identify and adapt to these differences in a way that considers your identity and training.

In my own case, a notable difference between traditional academic employment and higher ed administration has been one of Outlook -- with a capital “O.” I learned early in my career to be detailed and accurate in my online shared calendar, and that in doing so, I could work from virtually anywhere on campus, thanks as well to a relatively flexible office culture.

This new expectation seemed like patent micromanagement compared to academic work culture, which might only ask faculty to be accountable to the occasional office hour and department meeting. But the longer I’ve worked in this setting, the more I’ve come to understand why keeping an up-to-date calendar is so important, especially in environments like mine that depend so much on team support. In adapting to this new practice, I’ve held on to some of the freedoms that I previously enjoyed about academic work.

Recognizing the cultural norms of your new workplace and adapting to them on your terms will allow you to maintain a sense of self as you navigate unfamiliar familiar territory.

Build bridges: collaborate across the quad. To that end, Ph.D.s pursuing diverse opportunities in higher education should embrace their former lives as graduate students or working academics and the vantage point those experiences have afforded them. Leveraging this versatility of thought, involvement and perspective will allow you to see, and seek out, opportunities for interdepartmental collaboration. Once you understand the culture and needs of your office, what are those of other offices on the campus? Where do drivers and interests overlap? What gaps could be filled, and how could you fill them? Building bridges across the quad drives innovative and collaborative thinking and allows Ph.D.s working in higher education administration to offer creative solutions.

In my current role, I lead faculty engagement initiatives for the Office of Undergraduate Admission. This office, like that of so many other institutions, has formed a mutually beneficial relationship with its faculty members, who support admissions outreach and recruiting efforts with the hopes that intellectually vibrant students will continue to fill their seats. This role draws on my experiences as a hybrid academic and routinely asks me to master each group’s vocabulary to ensure that we, faculty members and admissions counselors, speak the same language as we advance toward our shared goals.

Admitting -- not shying away from -- your academic background will allow you to build bridges across your campus and exercise a wider skill set and range of experiences.

Here’s another admission to consider: for me, gaining new skills and a new network, intra- and extramurally, has been as rewarding as those I had originally hoped to polish in graduate school and as an academic. I can now add program development, corporate outreach and partnerships, and marketing communication to my skill set. In my admissions role, I dare say, I remain the lifelong learner I’d always hoped to be, just in another form.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s life post-Ph.D. -- and a broadened definition of opportunity and success -- that I’ve fallen for.

This was my admission. What’s yours?


Rebbecca Kaplan is associate dean of undergraduate admissions and an instructor in the department of Spanish and Portuguese at Emory University.


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