But What if You Can’t Quit Your ‘Dead-End Job’?
Advice from a faculty coach on how to revive your static career.
How do you know you’re in a dead-end job? And if you could ascertain that, is the solution necessarily to find a new position?
It’s hard to answer those questions because what constitutes a “dead-end job” is highly subjective. Early in my administrative career, I was happily ensconced in a position only to have a well-meaning mentor suggest it was a dead end and that I should consider changing jobs. Conversely, I’ve been surprised to hear people in positions that seemed glamorous and enviable — at least to me — confess that they felt at a stalemate.
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How do you know you’re in a dead-end job? And if you could ascertain that, is the solution necessarily to find a new position?
It’s hard to answer those questions because what constitutes a “dead-end job” is highly subjective. Early in my administrative career, I was happily ensconced in a position only to have a well-meaning mentor suggest that it was a dead end and that I should consider changing jobs. Conversely, I’ve been surprised to hear people in positions that seemed glamorous and enviable — at least to me — confess that they felt at a stalemate.
When you hit that wall, careerwise, your immediate instinct is to blame the position — or the institution that created it — as the source of the problem. And sometimes that’s the case. Higher education has always been a daunting place to work, especially for people who are untenured, who work in staff roles, or who come from underrepresented or less-privileged backgrounds. And certainly, institutions could do more to help their people articulate what professional growth looks like in a particular career arc, and support them in moving forward.
In a recent essay in The Chronicle, Kevin McClure called higher ed “a land of dead-end jobs,” and argued that “colleges have done a spectacularly bad job at managing talent.” A follow-up piece, summarizing more than 150 reader responses, described their frustration with “limited career options: They can simmer in silence, pursue more credentials, or leave.”
But for any number of reasons — financial, family, field — you might be unable to quit your job or leave academe. And as plenty of former academics can attest, such as this professor does, the grass is not always greener outside of higher education. The issue is: You feel stuck, unable to advance or grow. And changing the institution or the job itself may feel unlikely or downright impossible. Discussions of the structural underpinnings of workplace dissatisfaction in academe are important and necessary, yet offer thin gruel for people hungry for immediate, practical career guidance.
So which aspects of your predicament can you control? What changes could you make to improve your own situation?
As director of faculty mentoring and coaching programs at Duke University, I talk with faculty members and administrators who are looking to grow in their current role rather than go back on the job market or leave academe. Time and again, I’ve seen how coaching can help people find ways around and through “the wall.” The more complex and constrained that you perceive your outward circumstances to be, the more you stand to benefit from refocusing on things you can actually influence: your own mind-set and actions.
If you’ve spent your career in higher ed, you might think that its plethora of nonlinear career paths is unique. In fact, career paths in most job sectors today are less neat, predictable, and linear than employees would like them to be. Writing for the Harvard Business Review in 2018, Dorie Clark noted that “it’s been decades” since linear career paths were the norm. And not, she argued, simply because of “layoffs or outsourcing or robots.” Rapid changes in market conditions, combined with the need for many employees to continuously “upskill” to stay relevant, means that career paths will “appear diagonal or horizontal,” and advice “from companies on how to move forward … is minimal, because they just aren’t sure.”
Neither are a lot of colleges and universities. While quitting your faculty or staff job, or acquiring more credentials, might be the appropriate next step, those aren’t your only options. In the advice that follows — for those of you “simmering in silence” and feeling trapped — I offer ways to reframe the notion of a dead-end job in academe. In many cases, you have more agency and choices than you realize.
In his landmark 1999 essay, “Managing Oneself,” Peter Drucker pointed out that modern knowledge workers could no longer take two long-held assumptions for granted:
- That organizations outlive workers.
- That most people stay put (in both careers and in organizations).
Drucker acknowledged that higher-education institutions could well outlive their workers, but he observed, presciently: “Even if they survive … they will change their structure, the work they are doing, the knowledges they require, and the kind of people they employ.” The paternalistic organization that planned lifelong career paths for its workers, argued Drucker, was a relic of the ‘50s and ‘60s, and modern knowledge workers would be increasingly expected to manage themselves and their own careers.
So if the plethora of nonlinear career paths at colleges and universities is simply mimicking a larger national trend in other industries, is the laissez-faire approach to individual career development an acceptable status quo in academe?
My answer: No.
Like all organizations struggling to retain talent post-pandemic, colleges and universities would do well to invest in the professional development of their people. And to be both proactive and transparent in making those opportunities available to the many, rather than a few. People who are drawn to careers on a college campus often have highly specialized skill sets that take many years to develop. It can be difficult to upskill or retrain relatively late in a career, and switching institutions very often requires geographical relocation — something that’s also more difficult midcareer in academe, when people are likely to have established families and put down roots.
If all of this sounds familiar, and you feel trapped in a dead-end job, here are my recommendations (which also happen to align with some of Drucker’s) for how to begin “managing yourself” and your career. In my coaching sessions, I’ve found that the following questions are ones that academics rarely take the time to answer for themselves.
How do your strengths align with your institution’s ever-evolving needs? Self-reflection is an important first step. It can be easy for people to fixate on their own professional needs, while disregarding the needs of the larger organization. Among the key questions you might consider:
- What are my strengths?
- What are my values? (If you have trouble spelling those out, consider taking a life-values inventory.)
- To what extent do my values inform my current work? (As you may have discovered, people tend to be miserable when their work and values don’t line up.)
- Which aspects of my work are misaligned with my strengths or values?
- To what extent can I do more of what I value and enjoy within my current role, while still meeting the needs of my institution and unit? What, if any, additional skills or training might I need? What conversations should I have with my colleagues?
- Where else (or with whom) on the campus can I do more of the work I value and enjoy?
It’s important to stay abreast of changes and trends in your workplace. If you have stayed in your lane, and fixated on your own work, this is a time to start looking around the campus. Catch up on your institution’s strategic plans and institutional priorities. Talk informally with people best positioned to see what is going on behind the scenes, and identify a space where your strengths would match an institutional need.
Are you waiting to be seen, heard and valued? You may be waiting a long time. For faculty and staff members with very particular expertise, it’s easy to get caught in individual silos, largely unaware of what others are doing, or what other people are contributing to the organization.
You may assume that your chair or supervisor knows what you are up to. But we often overestimate the amount of time or bandwidth that busy leaders have to reflect on our potential for contributing to an evolving organization. As Drucker argued, whenever you go to a boss or colleague “and say, ‘This is what I am good at. This is how I work. These are my values. This is [my] contribution,’ … the response is always ‘This is most helpful. But why haven’t you told me earlier?’”
How can you manage up, in terms of exploring possibilities for your career? If your supervisor seems unsure of a way forward for you, how can you explore this problem together (rather than get resentful about it)? What conversations can you have? If you have clarity about your strengths, values, and contribution, how can you share that vision?
Who else can be your partner in problem-solving? Supervisors can be helpful career mentors, but that role can easily conflict with their core duties of performance evaluation and organizational management. And many supervisor-supervisee relationships don’t provide enough psychological safety for people to talk candidly about their career aspirations.
For such reasons, it is important to find truly disinterested mentors and colleagues who are at once knowledgeable, discreet, and helpful. Gripe sessions can provide a good release. However, it’s critical that these confidants also actively help you solve problems and move forward. If co-commiserating truly makes you feel worse, perhaps best to limit time with co-commiserators — or work to change the tone and purpose of your conversations.
How do you feel about hearing “no”? Higher education is a volatile environment lately. Amid rapid change, people can find a lot of comfort in sticking with the “way it’s always been done.” You may find yourself in the position of asking for new forms of professional development, or the opportunity to contribute to the organization in a way that might seem novel or risky to your supervisors.
If you get in the habit of asking for things (and you should), you are going to hear “no” a lot. I’ve found, through coaching, that people often hold back asking for things not because they fear appearing presumptuous, but because they are afraid of being rebuffed.
If you allow the potential for rejection to crush your sense of self-esteem, you are going to stop asking for things pretty quickly. Expect to hear “no” at times, and don’t take it personally. How might you reframe your request, or invite a negotiation? What (and to whom) will you ask for next?
What if performance isn’t enough? It’s important for your boss to see your contributions, but it may not be sufficient. Harvey J. Coleman, a leadership consultant, has argued that only 10 percent of career progression depends on job performance. The other 90 percent? On image (30 percent) and exposure (60 percent). I’m not sure how reliable those figures are, or whether his model maps neatly onto higher-education careers, but it does offer food for thought.
How much time are you spending “head down” on work, as opposed to increasing your visibility across the organization, and building key relationships?
“Building relationships” is a phrase only less slightly daunting to many academics than “networking.” But one common theme underlying virtually every conversation I’ve had about dead-end jobs is that the professor or administrator has generally fallen out of (or never gotten into) the habit of strategic relationship-building. Career progression has become a solo endeavor, and at worst, a Sisyphean task inviting burnout and frustration. Managing your career is an endeavor, paradoxically, best done in the company of others.
My recommendations are not intended to suggest that it’s OK for institutions to ignore people’s needs. My aim here is to highlight something else unique to institutions of higher education. People who pursue faculty or academic-adjacent careers have likely spent a fair amount of time in graduate school, often leading to the completion of a doctorate. Graduate programs teach people how to specialize and do research, but they do not train people to be versatile and nimble. Those are qualities that many Ph.D.’s — myself included — learn relatively late, and often through a great deal of trial and error.
Both individually and institutionally, those of us in higher ed need to do a better job of bridging the often yawning gap between professional preparation (often based on outdated assumptions of lifelong academic careers) and the realities of today’s continuously changing institutions.