Switching Sides, Part 3

April 21, 2009

Four Ph.D.'s talk about turning away from faculty careers to work in academic administration

Julie: In 2006 and 2007, we wrote about nonfaculty career paths for Ph.D.'s in academe. The economy was stronger then, and Ph.D.'s who were considering careers in campus administration were leaving the research and teaching track for a variety of reasons, including disappointing outcomes on the tenure-track market, changed values, or family issues.

In recent months, we've seen how the economic turmoil has resulted in far fewer faculty positions this year than last. That's why we are back to writing about "switching sides," with this month's column focused on administrative careers for Ph.D.'s in the office of a provost or dean.

Jenny: It's true that universities are slowing their hiring of administrative staffers, too. However, when you're job hunting in a recession, it's smart to widen the number of roles you would consider, which increases the number of options available to you. A career in academic administration may feel like a second-best option to Ph.D.'s who hoped to find teaching jobs. But the Ph.D.'s we spoke to recently all noted that working closely with a dean or a provost has provided them with a bird's-eye view of academe as well as a chance to influence undergraduate education — both things they had originally hoped to experience in a faculty position.

Julie: For this column, we interviewed four Ph.D.'s: Rob Nelson, who has a Ph.D. in history from Rutgers University, is the director of education in the provost's office at the University of Pennsylvania. Roosevelt Montas, a Ph.D. in English from Columbia University, works as associate dean and director of the Center for the Core Curriculum in the undergraduate college there. Ryan Poynter, who received his Ph.D. in French and African studies from Yale University, is now associate director of academic affairs at New York University's College of Arts and Science. His colleague there is Ruth Shoemaker Wood, who has a Ph.D. in education from Penn and is now assistant dean of students. We decided to interview both Ruth and Ryan because their positions show the variety of work that can be found even within a single institution.

Jenny: The organization of a provost's or dean's office will vary from institution to institution, as will the job duties and titles. Some offices will have only tenured faculty members working in positions of authority; other offices may have staff members with a wide range of backgrounds. Your position title as a Ph.D. in those offices might be assistant dean, associate dean, or director. Because of the variation, you will most likely have to work hard to craft your application materials to fit the requirements of the particular institution.

Julie: One of the things we discovered in our interviews with the Ph.D.'s was the incredible range of their duties and responsibilities. As Ryan says, "My work involves a little bit of everything, which is one of the pluses." His main charge is to work with the dean on curricular matters, with a focus on new courses, majors, or minors. He also works on large-scale projects such as the recent integration of the former Polytechnic University of Brooklyn into New York University to create the Polytechnic Institute of NYU. This year, he's spent a good deal of time working on the development of NYU Abu Dhabi, as his dean is the chair of its coordinating group. Ryan is also one of the main coordinators of the university's freshman-seminar program; his office runs 70 seminars that help connect undergraduates with research faculty members and local leaders.

Jenny: At Penn, Rob's work also covers a wide range of tasks, or, as he put it, "My title is director for education in the office of the provost, which is sufficiently vague enough to cover almost everything I do." He coordinates orientation for new students, undergraduate-research and fellowship programs, and Penn's College House system. He also works on a variety of projects for the provost that involve technology (e.g., online-course evaluation) and facilities (e.g., renovation of a student-center annex).

Julie: Ruth, an assistant dean at NYU, told us that the wonderful thing about her job is the way that it exposes her to both academic and student-affairs issues involving undergraduates. One of her primary responsibilities is to help undergraduates in all fields develop research projects and connect with faculty members. She and her supervisor, the associate dean for students, oversee the university's Presidential Honors Scholars program (the top 5 percent of the university's entering class is invited to join the program through which students participate in honors courses, research, and study abroad, and learn more about New York's cultural resources. These students also take a freshman-honors seminar). Ruth also works on disciplinary issues, often related to academic dishonesty. She also sometimes handles financial-aid appeals and works a lot with the campus counseling center.

At Columbia, Roosevelt oversees the operation of its core curriculum. That, he says, "includes the high-minded aspects, such as intellectual coherence, potential changes to syllabi, and thinking about the core's place in the curriculum, as well as the nuts and bolts: staffing, recruitment of graduate students and faculty to teach the courses, dealing with cases of academic dishonesty." He also teaches a section of a yearlong literature-humanities course in the curriculum, which means that he still has some student-advising duties.

Jenny: Our interviewees were drawn to administrative work for a variety of reasons. Before graduate school, Rob worked as a student-activities adviser and an academic adviser at Rutgers. After finishing his Ph.D., he applied for both tenure-track and administrative jobs. The position at Penn was one of the first he applied for, and he was happy to accept it. Similarly, Ruth had experience in both the academic side of things (teaching and research) and student advising. After working at a consulting firm that focused on higher education, Ruth realized she missed having direct contact with students, and began to look for a position that balanced her love of advising with her interest in higher education as a whole.

Julie: As a graduate and undergraduate alumnus of Columbia, Roosevelt was greatly influenced in his intellectual formation by the university's core curriculum. Roosevelt also had an intellectual interest in higher education, especially liberal-arts education. As a graduate student, he acted as chair of the student caucus of the University Senate. After graduation, he became an academic adviser in Columbia's School of General Studies, and worked with students in the postbaccalaureate pre-med program before transitioning to his current job.

Jenny: Ryan made the transition to administration only after considering a wide range of nonacademic careers. He had been on the academic job market for two years and was at a turning point. "I wanted my next step to be a positive one," he says. "I was looking at careers that would give me more control over my geography and work-life balance. I also wanted to move to New York City."

One of the first things he did — and a smart move for any job seeker — was to start using his alumni network from Yale. He began to contact any Yale graduate he could find who was in a position that seemed interesting — in publishing, foundation work, or consulting. He found a temporary position at a magazine through a Yale alum and considered a career in that industry but began to pursue an administrative career at a university because he thought it would offer more stability.

After about four or five months of job hunting, Ryan landed a job as assistant director of preprofessional advising at NYU. It was an environment that valued his Ph.D. His new colleagues were impressed with his teaching experience, which was relevant for an advising position. He worked with prelaw and some pre-med students for about 10 months before moving to his current position in academic affairs.

Julie: All four of our interviewees stressed that these types of positions require that you have a strong interest in how academe functions. "Ph.D.'s looking for careers beyond the tenure track should know this is not for everyone," Ryan says. "You need to have a general interest in how institutions of higher learning work that goes beyond your own field of expertise." Similarly, Roosevelt says, "my interest in undergraduate education — curricular policy, access to education, and the social history of undergraduate education, intellectual interests I pursued somewhat in graduate school — have served me well in this position."

Jenny: Some of the necessary skills they cited include many that doctoral students possess: strong writing skills, critical reading and thinking skills, an ability to work with people (often developed through teaching). One of the most important qualities, Ruth says, is to "believe in a liberal-arts education and to be convinced of its value in the larger world." Rob stresses that for his job, "the combination of student-affairs experience, classroom-teaching experience, and research experience is crucial."

Julie: The four people we interviewed suggested several resources that are helpful to people seeking jobs in academic administration, including The Chronicle, because, as Roosevelt says, "it is important to have an understanding of the wide range of issues facing institutions." Additional resources they recommended: the Association of American Colleges and Universities (for great workshops for professionals in the field); the Reinvention Center (it focuses on undergraduate education at research universities); the American College Personnel Association; and NASPA — Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

Jenny: Ryan also mentioned a book that we often recommend, So What Are You Going to Do With That? Finding Careers Outside Academia, as "an amazing resource. It really speaks to the concerns that Ph.D.'s have about leaving the academy. These concerns are shared by many, but when you're a Ph.D. student with these questions, you can feel quite alone. This book was very, very helpful to me. It made the uncertain path exciting rather than scary."

Julie: Each of these four Ph.D.'s has parlayed the skills and strengths they developed as doctoral students, as well as their personal familiarity with higher education, into positions in a dean's or provost's office. Rob recommends strategically getting involved in the administrative path while still a graduate student (although, he admits, he didn't do that himself). "When Penn looks to hire people to work in advising or student affairs, we want to have candidate pools that include those with Ph.D.'s and some student-affairs experience, and those with strong student-affairs experience and some demonstrated academic or intellectual life."

Next month we will talk about careers in academic advising, an area with which all four of our interviewees have some experience.


Julie Miller Vick is senior associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jennifer S. Furlong is associate director of graduate-student career development at Columbia University's Center for Career Education. They are the authors of "The Academic Job Search Handbook" (University of Pennsylvania Press), reissued in an expanded edition last summer. If you have questions for the Career Talk columnists, send them to