I have worked in higher education administration for over a dozen years. Frankly, I know that no one grows up answering the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” by saying, “I want to be a higher education administrator.”
But as we know, people do end up in the field, so how in the world did I end up serving as a higher education administrator? The question is not a bad one. Sometimes when people ask me, I can tell that the subtext is: “I’m sorry — you obviously tried to secure a position as a faculty member, but failed.” A second common subtext, less sympathetic, reads something like: “You are just one of the hoards of people who contribute to the administrative bloat plaguing every institution of higher education.” There is a third common subtext, reserved for old family friends, which goes something like: “Sigh. I know your parents had such high hopes for you.” Granted, these three are overall less than positive. But there is a fourth subtext that is positive. It attends the question when posed by young professionals who hope to serve in the ranks of higher education administration someday. They ask it when they are wondering what others’ paths have been so that they can figure out their own. Since I am asked several times a month for informational interviews by PhD’s hoping to become college or university administrators, I know that there is a lot of interest in pursuing this path. I hope these five blog entries will be useful!
Now solidly in middle age, I understand that I chose this life for very personal reasons. When I was a graduate student preparing for generals (aka comprehensives), it struck me that the life of a professor, the one that I was now apparently headed for, had many positive aspects to commend it. You spend your days in institutions of higher learning surrounded by smart colleagues who understood the life of the mind and the intellectual pursuit of knowledge and inquiry for its own sake. The probability was high that you would engage with texts for that deeply satisfying moment of realization and resonance when you struck upon something extraordinarily intense in its truth. You got to teach some fairly smart students who were on their way to somewhere pretty interesting, for the most part. The rhythm of the life was humane; it had flexibility, free summers, short teaching hours, lots of time in offices or at home for research, reading, writing, grading, preparing lessons, and the like. All in all, it seemed a gracious and lovely life. I continued to try to visualize myself in the professoriate while I completed my generals and moved to the dissertation proposal. Then, I finally began teaching. It was then that I realized that for me, there was a deeply problematic issue; the work never stopped. There was always another article or book to write. Another lesson plan to prepare. Another paper to grade. Another exam to write. And as I came to know faculty better, I realized that they were always reading, writing, grading, preparing, reading, writing, grading, preparing, and they didn’t ever seem to take a break. They were advising graduate students on their research, spending late nights reading others’ works for the purposes of critique, having dinner parties with other faculty members, doing their own research when they weren’t sitting on committees, hiring other faculty, reviewing graduate student applications, attending faculty meetings, etc. It began to seem exhausting to me. Most of the faculty I came to know during that time didn’t ever take what I would call a real vacation but rather took time away from the university to give a conference paper or visit an archive. They obviously loved it. Not that there was anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld might say.
This was all quite admirable, and I wished that I wanted to lead that life, but the truth is that it was wrong for me. I desperately needed a division between my work life and my personal life. I couldn’t bear the idea that my professional life would bleed so profusely into my personal time. And I desperately wanted to have weekends and vacations without a paper or book hanging over my head at all times. What I take from this is that, though I was willing to succumb to obsessive-compulsive impulses enough to allow them to propel me to complete a PhD, I had an inkling that continuing to let those same impulses guide me would lead to misery for me personally. I needed to construct a life in which breaks were expected, built in, predictable, and in which the professional and personal stayed vaguely in their own spaces, where I at least had some semblance of control over any future intermingling of the two.
Having accepted this begrudgingly as my personal reality, I intentionally began to accumulate experiences in the last years of my time as a graduate student, experiences that might lead me to another future. I organized graduate school conferences, volunteered to run language tables at undergraduate dining halls, served as the graduate student liaison to faculty in the department, took odd jobs translating software and articles and did a great deal of proofreading. I knew that something would begin to resonate for me if I cast a wide enough net. I also started attended events designed for PhD students who wanted to seek work outside of the professoriate, and it was there that I learned how to translate my experiences as a graduate student into skills that would serve me outside of the Ivory Tower.
Through word of mouth while translating and proofing a software product, I learned of a cross-cultural communications consulting firm, which offered me a position based purely on the recommendation of the owner of the software company. That led me to try my hand at consulting. Consultants seemed to have distinctly separate personal and professional lives; they worked with very interesting and mostly smart people; they took great vacations and even had time off on the weekends, and they used their brains to confront interesting problems on a daily basis and devise creative ways to help people solve them. This profession seemed to meet many of my criteria. And it immediately revealed itself as an exciting world. I traveled, worked at a fast pace, thought about interesting problems, and met some very lovely, funny, smart and did I mention very funny people. And it paid well! What could be wrong? My consulting gigs involved addressing cross-cultural communication issues in the workplace. We worked with “co-located” and “non-co-located” teams in organizations that were “globalizing” and needed to figure out the best ways to approach not only their new personnel but also their new marketplaces. This was during the big globalizing boom of the 2000’s, and one had the sense of being in the midst of something big, something momentous, something vital.
But that sense of vitality flagged over time because it turned out that, for me, focusing on the “bottom line,” i.e., turning my energy, my time, my brain toward figuring out the best ways to help a corporation be profitable left me cold. I didn’t care a whit about it, no matter how hard I tried to convince myself that it was a good and noble cause. And as I tried to shoehorn myself into this profession, I became ever more depressed. Again, I begrudgingly realized I had to find another realm in which to focus my energies. But if an eye toward the “bottom line” is a non-starter, where to turn? I kept thinking back to the academy. It had given me so much, and I had such a sense of well-being there. And when I looked over the skills I had acquired over the previous ten years as a graduate student and consultant and the things I had enjoyed during that decade, it dawned on me that returning to the Ivory tower as an administrator might strike precisely the right balance for me. As a non-profit, I didn’t have to worry about the ennui that set in when I had to think about corporate profits. As an administrator, I could keep my personal and professional lives separate. And I would return to the place I had so loved, where the probability of an intensely satisfying intellectual moment was high.
Coincidentally, several positions opened up at the institution where I received my PhD, and I applied and was offered the position of director of studies of a residential college. This was in 2001, and since then I have been at three Ivy league universities, in positions that have focused very much on advising undergraduates. I would not have been offered any of the positions had I not had a PhD in a field conferred by the faculty of arts and sciences of the three institutions, so the PhD was without a doubt my admission ticket to my current career, which I love.
Advising encompasses everything from ensuring individual students’ academic progress toward the degree, with all that that entails, to maintaining the integrity of those degrees by enforcing rules and guidelines – all the while remembering to apply an appropriate amount of compassion to every individual student and individual situation.
I want to return for a moment to the idea that a professional life in higher education fit me for personal reasons. It still rings true that I want my evenings, weekends, and vacations for myself and my family. I love spending an evening in a carefree way, whether it is dining with friends or watching stupid TV and digesting the day or planning the next, without a book or paper to tend to. I savor my weekends for seeing movies, visiting museums, traveling, going to concerts or the opera, getting together with friends, and yes, even reading. I plan my vacations months in advance – and the list of books I will take with me to read by the pool or ocean.
Has it always turned out that I have a ton of time to myself or for my family? No, absolutely not. Higher education administration has become ever busier over the past decade. I can speculate on the reasons for that at another time. But in general, am I happy that writing papers, grading papers, and creating exams are not on my to-do list? Yes. Absolutely. Am I happy to be participating in the higher education enterprise? Yes. Absolutely. I believe fervently in the life of the mind, in helping young people discover themselves through intellectual inquiry, and in ensuring they make the best possible decisions they can in college in order to have a strong foundation on which to build the rest of their lives. This has become my mission. Do I bristle when people ask me why higher education administration? Yes, if I suspect it’s for one of the first three reasons. Ultimately, I may never be able to explain better than this why I chose this life. But I know that it gets me up in the morning. It sustains me. It offers me a life that I can believe in.
Susan Nowak says
Well said! I totally respect what you choose to do. It has its own challenges and benefits. Whatever works for you is the important decision.
Happy New Year!