A 'Nonacademic' Career in Academe

June 20, 2005

Sitting in my office, my friend, a woman with a Ph.D. in English, was close to tears. "He said I shouldn't say anything in the meeting," she almost whispered, "because it would be inappropriate for staff to discuss faculty."

My friend had recently become administrative director of a small program here at Prestigious Research U., and part of her responsibility was to help select faculty participants. Having reviewed their proposals, she and the program's faculty director had been on their way to a meeting with other faculty leaders where she had expected to discuss the applicants. Instead, she sat silently, her anger simmering.

As she related the story, her hurt and puzzlement were palpable. I searched for words of comfort, but in my heart, I despaired: Hers was the only the latest chapter in a story I've seen unfolding ever since I finished my Ph.D. and came to work at the university as an administrator a few years ago.

My friend's experience and my own reveal the damaging effects of the rigid division of the university environment into two mutually exclusive camps: faculty and staff.

That separation is becoming increasingly untenable as the academic work force changes. With full-time, tenure-track faculty jobs become scarcer, a large contingent of Ph.D.'s has emerged -- people like my friend and me who are (happily) pursuing so-called nonacademic careers within academe.

The abundant literature on alternative careers for humanities Ph.D.'s generally poses two paths: academic and nonacademic. Little of the literature deals with those of us who fall in the gray area in between. But there are dozens of us here at my own university, and the same holds true at many other institutions.

The most visible of my fellow nonacademic colleagues here are professional librarians and university-press editors, but others are associate directors of interdisciplinary centers, directors of scholarship and student-development programs, student-affairs professionals, study-abroad coordinators, career counselors, diversity trainers, academic advisers, even financial managers.

From that list alone, it seems fair to conclude that my university values the versatility, intelligence, and high-level abilities of people with Ph.D.'s.

I came to my "nonacademic" career by a path that is perhaps typical. After I finished my Ph.D., I taught as an adjunct and had children before concluding that it was impractical to relocate my family to chase a full-time faculty position. After rethinking my future, I found my current job as an entry-level program administrator.

Undeniably, working here has brought a number of benefits -- many of those, in fact, that I sought when I envisioned a faculty life. I make a decent (though not lavish) salary. I have access to the library, and can have books, articles, and microfilm delivered to my office. I attend lectures. I talk with smart people about books, ideas, and new research. I have a large role in designing scholarly programs and choosing and inviting speakers for them.

Although I am not evaluated (or rewarded) on the basis of my own research and writing and cannot expect ever to receive the lifetime job security offered by tenure, I do get limited institutional support for my continuing work as a scholar. I go to at least one conference a year (on the company tab). I have business cards and letterhead. Recently I even got some time off to finish the book I'm completing for a respected university press. As a bonus, the university news service has promoted my expertise to the news media.

All in all, then, there's a lot to like in my quasi-academic life. But therein lies the problem: Quasi academic is not a recognized category at Prestigious U.

Nor is it a category factored into the humanities-career discussion, much of which implies that a humanities Ph.D.'s biggest employment challenge comes at the outset of the transition from faculty work -- in convincing someone to give you a job in the real world. Once you're hired, the logic goes, you quickly prove yourself to be a valuable team member, are welcomed as an equal, and invited to make contributions beyond what you might have expected. By that reasoning, the Ph.D. is a liability at first, but the skills associated with it soon become a plus.

But in a nonacademic job within academe, getting someone to hire you is not so hard. The problems come after you've signed the offer. The main difficulty, it seems, stems from the highly stratified environment of the university, where people are assigned to one of two large and rarely overlapping castes: faculty or staff. The highest status and the most power are conferred upon faculty members or top-level administrators who rose through the faculty ranks.

Staff members are most crucially defined as what we are not: We are not faculty members. Certain behaviors are appropriate for them and other behaviors for us.

Add to that the stigma of failure that is attached -- subtly but unmistakably by people within the professoriate -- to those who earn a Ph.D. and don't get a tenure-track job. So not only are we staff members in the lower category, we may also be assumed to have tried and failed to gain access to the higher one. We may, therefore, be seen as dangerous, because at one point we presumably wanted to be where they are, and may still harbor such irrational designs. We might, that is, try to get out of our box and do things considered appropriate only for those with faculty status.

As I've tried to find my way between the two poles, I've received numerous reminders that I should remember my place.

Sometimes those reminders have been communicated quite explicitly: An early performance evaluation congratulated me on overcoming an "arrogance" that unnamed people had supposedly observed in me. While I was pleased to have improved, I have yet to understand what specific incidents the letter referred to. Other than putting "Ph.D." in my e-mail signature, I hadn't trumpeted my scholarly writings or book contract. Certainly, any self-promotion I had displayed was modest in comparison to what was regularly tolerated (indeed, expected) among faculty members.

Other times the message has come more indirectly, mainly by treatment that renders me (like my friend) invisible and voiceless. Once in a meeting to discuss plans for programming built around a topic closely related to my research and writing, I offered a substantive and detailed suggestion about a direction in which the program might go. It was met with utter silence. Moments later, a faculty member threw out a very different idea, which was greeted with great enthusiasm from everyone in the room. I felt like I had burped in public.

Sometimes the message has come via a dismissal of the sophistication of my scholarly knowledge. Recently when I suggested a list of possible speakers to my supervisor, who is a faculty member, for a campus program related to my areas of expertise, he cautioned that the perspectives of the people I had suggested, all of them well respected in my field, might be overly parochial.

Frustrated by such messages, I once dared to complain that my intellectual contributions were not being taken seriously. My superior (a top faculty administrator) advised that such offerings were welcomed as long as I did not expect my specific areas of interest to be incorporated into programming.

The message seems to be that it's fine to continue my scholarly engagement so long as I keep it to myself. Legitimate, substantive scholarly contributions to the intellectual content of our programs are to be issued only from the faculty.

Maybe I should just abandon my hope of being able to shape the direction and vision of our academic enterprise and be content with my (in many ways quite cushy) lot.

But I still can't help wondering: In an arena where people spend so much time trying to think in nuanced ways and where we ostensibly celebrate the wide dispersal of sophisticated ideas, why is so much energy expended in maintaining fixed categories and squelching the intellectual contributions of those on the wrong side of the fence?

In an environment dominated by research agendas that often seek to right historic wrongs, question power, undermine hierarchy, and give voice to the voiceless, why are intellectual status and respect given so grudgingly to smart and engaged people who have jumped off the tenure track?

Natalie Henderson is the pseudonym of an administrator at a major research university in the South.