Careers in Institutional Research

October 23, 2002

If someone had told Jeffrey A. Seybert 20 years ago that he would one day become director of institutional research at Johnson County Community College, he would not have believed it. He had never heard of such a position.

Colleges created offices of institutional research more than 40 years ago to help institutions plan for bigger facilities and develop strategies to hire more faculty and staff members in response to baby-boom enrollments. Today, the offices also provide crucial information on enrollment trends and graduation and retention rates. They help institutions prepare for accreditation reviews, and compile and analyze myriad other statistics.

While there is no standard career path for working in such an office -- where directors at research universities can earn upwards of $80,000 a year -- a love of research and an ability to crunch numbers are musts. And since heads of "IR," as those in academe refer to the field, know all the ins and outs of their respective institutions by virtue of the data they produce, their expertise is also enough to promote them up the administrative ranks, as long as they have a Ph.D.

For the past 15 years, Mr. Seybert has served as the head of institutional research at Johnson County Community College, in Kansas. With seven employees, his department is large compared with most community colleges that have offices of one, two, or three people.

A former assistant professor of psychology at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, Mr. Seybert got tired of teaching and decided to look for a job where he could focus on research. When he found an advertisement for an opening in an office of institutional research, he didn't even know what the office did. "But it had the word 'research' in it," he recalls. That was in 1981.

Today, as director of the office, Mr. Seybert does virtually no hands-on research anymore, but delegates to his staff tasks involving student surveys, transfer rates, and other statistical analyses. The job, he says, is not high profile, as his office works "with the senior management team to supply data and information they need to make management decisions." Mr. Seybert reports to the college's executive vice president for academic affairs.

To work in institutional research takes a certain personality type: "You have to be careful and pay attention to detail" and "be compulsive about data," Mr. Seybert says. And "you have to have really good interpersonal skills." If analysts can't communicate their findings, then all their technical skills are for naught, he says.

Thanks to increasing accountability demands by trustees and lawmakers, colleges are willing to pay for such skills. And directors of institutional research, so accustomed to dealing with numbers, aren't as hesitant as most of their administrative colleagues about disclosing their pay. According to the 2001-2 administrative salary survey for the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, the median salary for directors of institutional research at doctoral institutions was $81,938. At comprehensives, it was $60,594; at four-year colleges, $55,825; and at two-year colleges, $59,025. A recent Ph.D. might go into institutional research in the entrylevel position of "data analyst" or "research analyst" with a salary starting in the mid-$40s.

With an annual salary of about $80,000 a year, Mr. Seybert says he's in the "middle" of what most institutional-research directors earn at community colleges. His colleagues on the East and West Coasts, as well as in Chicago, make a little over $100,000, he says.

While those in the job share similar personalities, they differ when it comes to disciplines. "People come into institutional research from all over the map: the social sciences, psychology, political science, sociology, but also business, statistics, and mathematics, areas that deal with numbers," Mr. Seybert says. If people enter the field with core quantitative skills, survey-research methodology and program-evaluation skills are "learnable," he says.

Still, "not everyone can do this job," says Richard A. Voorhees, president of the Association for Institutional Research. It requires both quantitative skills and an understanding of how to use statistics -- that is, someone who can take statistics and make information out of them.

"To say our graduation rate is 60 percent -- well, OK. Is that good or bad?" Mr. Voorhees says. "How does that compare to other institutions? It takes a considerable amount of knowledge to come up with meaningful kinds of comparisons. By itself, a statistic is just a statistic."

Although a Ph.D. is not mandatory in the field, Mr. Seybert contends that it does help. "A lot of people around you have Ph.D.'s," he says, so a doctorate gives you "credibility with senior administrators and faculty."

However, landing a directorship with a Ph.D. but without practical experience in institutional research is difficult, he says. "There's no formal Ph.D. [program] in the country for IR." And that's why Mr. Seybert sits on an advisory committee working with a handful of universities -- including Arizona State, Pennsylvania State, and Florida State Universities -- that are in the process of creating a certificate program in institutional research at the graduate level.

Like Mr. Seybert, Dawn Geronimo Terkla had no clue that institutional research even existed when friends told her about an opening at Tufts University.

With an Ed.D. in education from Harvard University, Ms. Terkla was working as a co-principal investigator and part-time instructor at her alma mater in the early 1980s and was planning on becoming a professor of education. But when she had trouble finding a job in the Boston area (she was tied to the area because she had just had a baby, was raising a 3-year-old, and her husband was a tenure-track professor at Boston University), she decided to apply for the job at Tufts, as director of analytic studies.

When Ms. Terkla began her new career, she had only a part-time receptionist. Since she became executive director of institutional research six years ago, the office has grown to include an assistant director, three research analysts, and three part-time undergraduate research assistants. And while her office still conducts surveys for the undergraduate side of the university and its admissions office, its responsibilities have expanded to include research for the institution's graduate and professional schools.

Although she heads the office, Ms. Terkla still keeps some projects for herself. "I look very closely at graduation and retention numbers, just because my graduate dissertation looked at the impact of financial aid on undergraduate persistence," she says. So the topic is "near and dear to my heart." She also looks at the university's faculty salaries.

Ms. Terkla says her hands-on work is unique among many of her fellow directors, who gave up crunching numbers long ago. "Typically, what happens in management is you move up and get away from all the things you were trained to do," she says. "I was never trained as a graduate student to deal with personnel issues, hiring and firing, what happens when people get sick, and managing an office budget. A lot of skills I had to develop through on-the-job training or going to classes."

The best part of her job, she says, is that "the entire university is my laboratory. I have a lot of independence and am able to be creative." She earns roughly $100,000 a year, wants to continue her career at Tufts, and could see herself moving up to the vice presidential level at some point.

Asked whether people tend to stay in her field for a long time, Ms. Terkla says she sees two trends: people like her who make a lifetime career of it because they're researchers at heart, and others who leave because they find numerous opportunities that spring from a job in institutional research. Former IR professionals find jobs in finance or with accrediting associations, or they climb the administrative hierarchy in academe. Some opt to work for state governments in departments of education, or for private consulting firms that provide research assistance to institutions that lack IR offices.

Some experts in the field even land presidencies. Richard A. Yanikoski, who has been president of Saint Xavier University, in Chicago, since 1994, served as the director of institutional planning and research at DePaul University from 1978 to 1982 and had never planned on seeking the top job in higher education. His goal was just to understand the intricacies of a college operation, not to run one. But because "the job gives you a perfect window to look at those details" and because "your findings have practical importance," he found he had unwittingly put himself in a position to climb the administrative ranks.

After his work as IR director at DePaul, Mr. Yanikoski was promoted to associate vice president for academic affairs, then served as acting provost, and then returned to the faculty for a few years before taking the helm at Saint Xavier.

Landing a presidency directly after leading an office of institutional research, however, is a difficult leap to make, since "roughly half the job of a modern presidency is fund raising," Mr. Yanikoski says. "Typically, an IR person hasn't got a clue about that."

To serve as president at most institutions, "you need to have the credibility of the faculty, who would expect you to be an accomplished scholar," Mr. Yanikoski says. And while most IR directors would fit that description, they would not necessarily understand what the life of a faculty member is really like.

"The fact that I was a faculty member, a department chair, and acting provost, meant to people here [at Saint Xavier] that I would be sensitive to their concerns, that I wasn't going to be just a business manager," he says.

Still, Mr. Yanikoski says his years in institutional research were crucial to his success as a university president. During that time, he says, he learned how to be a "good consumer" of information, since people in institutional research -- especially in a midsize or large institution -- will be asked to do all kinds of studies on short notice. "It teaches you the discipline of getting to the root of issues quickly and finding the pertinent information, summarizing it concisely, and delivering it on time to the decision makers," he says.

"In my office in a typical 60-minute period, I'll have faxes, phone calls, e-mails, visitors, budget requests," and a stack of accumulated correspondence, he says. "I do not have time to sit back and meditate over this the way a typical faculty member would. As president, you have to make decisions almost by the minute."

All of which leads him to conclude: "There was no single aspect of my career that better prepared me to serve as president than those IR years."