From Doctoral Study to … Institutional Research

Kevin Van Aelst for The Chronicle

August 30, 2017

In a new series of columns, "From Doctoral Study to …," the Career Talk columnists explore nonfaculty options for Ph.D.s who want to work in higher education.

Julie: On campus, the "institutional research" office is commonly known as "IR," but precisely what it does is not always well understood. This month our series on nonteaching careers in academe turns to the IR sector of campus administration and the job opportunities it offers for M.A.s, A.B.D.s, and Ph.D.s. We spoke about this sector with four professionals who gravitated to the field from a range of disciplines, including the biological sciences, humanities, and the social sciences.

Jenny: What they share is an interest in — and fluency with — large data sets and the software used to analyze that information. In their work, they tell stories with data.

"IR requires one to understand and analyze complex data sources, and generate output that is compelling to decision makers who aren’t necessarily statistically savvy," said David Jamieson-Drake, assistant vice provost of institutional research at Duke University. "So a knowledge of data-processing languages such as SQL; statistical-analysis software such as SAS, SPSS, and/or R; and, on the output side, data-visualization software such as Tableau, are all necessary." It’s a technically demanding field, but he noted, "you also need to be a good storyteller."

Most of those we interviewed didn’t learn these skills as a necessary part of their coursework, but studied them out of interest and inclination.

Julie: Over the years, we’ve talked with graduate students who’ve heard the term "institutional research" but have no idea what it is, as well as with students who have spent time working in IR offices and know the field well. Wikipedia defines IR as "a broad category of work done at schools, colleges, and universities to inform campus decision-making and planning in areas such as admissions, financial aid, curriculum, enrollment management, staffing, student life, finance, facilities, athletics, and alumni relations."

Jenny: IR offices vary as much as institutions do. At a small college, the IR staff might work directly with faculty members on a range of projects. At a large university, IR staff may work mostly with senior administrators. There are a variety of the jobs in the field, but usually with three overriding themes: compliance, evaluation, and assessment, said Jed Marsh, vice provost for institutional research at Princeton University.

In this column we will focus on working within an institutional-research office. In a follow-up column, we will talk about evaluation and assessment career paths in other contexts on campus outside of the IR office.

Julie: Let’s start with compliance — something graduate students may be unfamiliar with. Every institution that accepts federal funding is required to report on its activities to the federal government’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), through the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, commonly known as Ipeds.

A great starting point for anyone interested in IR is to learn what IPEDS data are, and what they look like. You can get up to speed by watching the tutorials collected under the "Overview of IPEDS Data" on the NCES website. You may also want to gain familiarity with data sets such as those of the College Scorecard and the Survey of Earned Doctorates, with organizations such as the National Student Clearinghouse, and with accreditors such as the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

Anyone interested in the field and embarking on a series of informational interviews with people in IR would do well to study those resources first.

Jenny: Like it or not, making data-driven decisions in higher education is here to stay. As a doctoral student, you’ve likely had contact with your IR office or with issues of evaluation and assessment during your degree program. Most doctoral students and recent Ph.D.s are familiar with student evaluations of teaching. What were once open-ended evaluation forms that some students took the time to complete are now designed to get specific information and with completion required at some institutions before a student can receive a course grade.

Most recent Ph.D.s have also completed forms for the national Survey of Earned Doctorates. And if you’ve ever filled out a survey about the student experience on your campus, or what you planned to do when you graduate, you will have a sense of some of the issues that IR offices try to understand.

Julie: The Association for Institutional Research (AIR) has existed since 1966, and provides a forum for professionals doing this work to discuss common concerns, stay on top of trends, share data as well as best practices, and post position openings of interest to its members.

Stacey Lopez, associate vice president for institutional research and analysis at the University of Pennsylvania, advised anyone interested in learning more about careers in IR to look at AIR’s information-rich website as well as the websites of local IR associations. Some travel grants are available to help new career professionals and scholars with the cost of attending the association’s national conference. Many affiliated organizations have regional conferences that may be easier (and cheaper) for interested students to attend. Lopez highlighted the collaborative nature of the field and the regular peer benchmarking done by its professionals.

Jenny: A look at the AIR website shows plenty of job openings in the field. In addition to technical skills, our experts told us they look for candidates with a sense of curiosity, with excellent presentation/communication skills, and with an ability to research questions independently, which means creatively and validly mapping those questions onto data sets not necessarily designed for the purpose. Translation was a word that several of our interview subjects used: "You have to be able to take the data and translate it for nondata people," said Marsh, of Princeton.

Beyond the position’s responsibilities, the hiring process in IR is similar to that of most positions in academic administration, which we wrote about in the first column in this series, "From Doctoral Student to … Administration."

Julie: Not all doctoral students have experience working with data. But Lopez stressed that R is free and SAS has tutorials built in. Almost everyone in graduate school uses Excel, but it has advanced functions; learn them. Plenty of online resources are available to help you learn the various software systems, and many institutions offer noncredit courses on those systems and in coding that can help you figure out your interest and aptitude. It’s very important to understand how databases work and learn data-visualization tools such as Tableau.

Jenny: We talked to our interviewees about new developments in the field. One trend several of them noted was their institution’s desire to know more about the professional paths of their graduates — and how much they are earning. Tracking down that information has been a continuing challenge for institutions, as Julie and I know from our work in career offices.

As Jamieson-Drake of Duke noted, there is a pressure on academe "to be quantitatively accountable for outcomes information that institutions don’t have direct access to, and no captive audience for, such as salaries and employment status of alums after they graduate. Surveys and social-media data on this question are all subject to response bias of differing kinds. Really only IRS data are comprehensive and unbiased." This goes hand-in-hand with another trend he identifies — that of "federal and state governments seeking to repurpose education along utilitarian lines and the higher-education community, particularly the humanities, trying to keep the scope expansive."

Princeton’s Marsh mentioned a final challenge: With higher education under scrutiny, IR offices increasingly work with the media to make sure reporters have a context for the data they are publishing. Hence, a very important function of IR work is being able to develop a narrative from the collected data.

Julie: We always ask Ph.D.s, "What do you like about your job?" This group of IR interviewees all mentioned their continued excitement about working with data. They all highlighted the opportunity to use data to inform university policies.

"I like working with people," Jamieson-Drake said, "and helping them understand and solve the interesting problems they have."

Marin E. Clarkberg, director of institutional research and planning at Cornell University, who transitioned from a faculty position to her IR role, said: "The best part of the job is probably the reason I entered academia in the first place: I love interacting with smart people. I get to work with the academic leadership and that’s a pleasure … more satisfying to me, personally, than teaching young adults."

Jenny: Our interviewees all remarked on the healthy IR job market in academe. A typical career path, Marsh noted, is to start as an analyst, gradually move up the ranks to vice president, and possibly do some consulting in the field upon retirement. However, there’s a lot of room for growth and even possibly moving into different labor sectors. "The future of the field is very positive," Jamieson-Drake said. "IR is rapidly developing its decision-support tool set," which, he said, can be used in any company or organization that is "information-driven."

For those who enjoy working with data (from "soup to nuts" as Clarkberg put it, "from webpage design to survey writing to data analysis to public communication of the results"), IR careers offer both a range of entry-level opportunities, interesting ways to move the ladder, and a robust professional network — all things to look for when you’re considering a new career path.

Jennifer S. Furlong is director of the office of career planning and professional development at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Julie Miller Vick recently retired as senior career adviser of career services at the University of Pennsylvania. With Rosanne Lurie they are the authors of The Academic Job Search Handbook (University of Pennsylvania Press), 5th edition.