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Ask the Administrator: Ph.D. or Industry?
April 3, 2012 - 9:30pm

An ambitious new correspondent writes:

I have taught or tutored since 1998. I was an adjunct chemistry instructor for 3 years at my community college.  I have been Coordinator of Divisional Planning (read assistant dean) for my division for 1 year.  I work with program coordinators and department chairs on student learning outcomes, program review and improvement, marketing/ PR, hiring, accreditation documents, room scheduling, collaborations with outside organizations, advisory boards, professional development, student appeals, student engagement activities, and other duties as assigned.  I am the go-to person between our division and both HR and Institutional Effectiveness.  Through my work on student learning outcomes, I even developed a very specific process for writing strong uses of results that I have submitted for presentation at a CC conference.  This position is a part-time position with no prospect of becoming full-time within the next 3 years.

My dean has been a phenomenal mentor.  About 6 months ago he encouraged me to start exploring the option of becoming a CC dean.  Since that time I have spoken with my VP of instructional services and another CC dean about what steps I needed to take to make that happen.  My VP had the most specific recommendations.  He said that the biggest holes in my resume were in direct supervision and budgeting and lack of a PhD in higher ed administration.  The other CC dean said that in order to get faculty buy-in as a dean I needed to follow the traditional path and hold a full-time position in a CC.

Although my dean actively seeks out opportunities to help me build my skill set, my current position has 2 very real limitations: no opportunity for direct supervision and it is part-time with little hope of being made full-time within the next few years.

I understand that the traditional path to deanship is full time faculty, program coordinator, department chair, dean.  Your blog and my own conversations have confirmed that.  My VP said that he felt confident that I could move directly to department chair based on my teaching experience and current role.  My dean feels that I can move directly into a dean position.

Out of the blue, I was offered a manager position in customer service and HR for a medical device manufacturing company.  It would offer me the supervisory and HR experience that I am lacking, and the pay increase would allow me to go back to school to get my PhD in CC Leadership. It is even within my general field of expertise.  However, the experience would not follow the traditional CC dean path.

My dean recommended that I take the position, but also suggested that I run the information by as many others as possible to get their perspectives.  He said that I could remain employed in his office, he would funnel projects my way to keep my foot in the door, and that anything that is required for the PhD, he would make sure that I could do at my institution.  My dean said that although he followed the traditional path, he felt that his resume lacked the industrial experience that would have been particularly helpful when working with advisory boards and writing grants.

So here is my question:

Is it better to keep my current administrative position in the hopes that a dept chair or dean position becomes available in my area or is it better to pursue a degree, fill the gaps in my experience and hope that someone will consider me for a CC dean position?

This is a good problem to have. You’ve impressed people enough that they’re trying to figure out ways to keep you around and move you up the ladder.  But you have to choose which ladder you want.

For the record, it’s simply not true that you need a doctorate in community college leadership to be a dean.  It’s one route, but hardly the only one.  At my college, for example, none of the deans has one. They all have degrees in disciplines they’ve taught.

Deans come in different flavors.  The traditional dean of an academic division typically has full-time faculty experience, and a Master’s or higher in an academic discipline taught in that division.  Your chemistry degree covers that, though your teaching experience thus far has been mostly adjunct.

But there are also deans of planning and assessment, for example.  (They’re also sometimes called deans of institutional effectiveness.)  From what you’ve written, it looks like you’re on a fast track for something like that.  (Sometimes they’re called “directors.”)  In a role like that, you may or may not have much supervisory responsibility, but your purview extends across the entire college.  Being the assessment officer for a college gives you a key role in maintaining regional accreditation -- no small thing -- and it exposes you to the entire institution in ways that divisional deanships typically don’t.  

So I’d suggest that it really comes down to what you want.  If you want the traditional deanship of an academic division, then I’d strongly encourage you to try to find a full-time faculty slot.  (Sometimes cc’s will hire people directly as department chairs, if nobody among the incumbents wants to deal with it.  Selling your administrative experience could work in your favor.)  Get some exposure to the culture of full-time faculty and to the daily realities of their world.  After a few years, you’ll be in much better shape, even without a doctorate.

But if you like the assessment focus and the collegewide scope it gives you, you’re pretty well positioned already.  

Other than salary -- which if you need it right now, settles the question -- I’m not sure what some years in industry will give you at this point.  It makes a world of sense if you want to have a career in industry, but in terms of moving a community college academic career forward, I don’t see it.  Management in a for-profit company is wildly different from management in a community college -- longtime readers have probably seen me hit that note once or twice -- and I don’t see it buying you much extra credibility.  Even the “but it could pay for my doctorate” note sounds a little off, since typically the dissertations for programs like that consist of fieldwork at one’s home institution.  If you don’t have a home academic institution, you’ll have a hard time doing the work.

One admin’s perspective, anyway.  I’m sure folks in different contexts have different angles on this, so I’ll open it up.  Wise and worldly readers, what say you?  Does one path seem clearly more likely to succeed than the others?

Good luck!

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.


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