Administrative Careers for Humanists

an Overview

Contributed by Joanne Berens, Arno Bosse, Miranda Swanson
May 06, 2011
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Getting There

American institutions of higher education are complex engines for the production of knowledge. Community colleges, liberal-arts colleges, and research universities, both public and private, are primary contributors to economic growth, cultural life, and civic well-being. They all depend upon the skills of exceptional administrators to execute their educational and research missions on behalf of the faculty and students. Students with advanced degrees in the humanities are well qualified for alternative academic careers, which we define as positions in higher education that do not include an appointment to the faculty.

In this article we outline the reasons humanists contribute to the aims of higher education, the practical steps needed to prepare for a career while still a student, and the professionalization necessary for career advancement—whether one is a seeking a relatively short-term, but rewarding, position before applying to a doctoral program; is an artist, an actor, or a musician in need of a “day job;” or is an MA- or a PhD-degree holder about to embark upon a career in higher education administration. We offer general principals required for a wide variety of positions across campus, illuminated where appropriate with examples from our own careers in three areas: fund-raising, information technology, and student affairs.

Why humanists?

Graduate humanities programs cultivate a versatile intelligence but generally do not offer specialized training for alternative careers. Versatility and a lack of specialization make humanists distinctly qualified for academic administration. A humanist’s ability to sustain multiple points of view, to maintain the thread of an idea as it is creatively developed, to defend an idea with cogent, nuanced arguments, and to translate complex ideas for the benefit of diverse audiences all find daily application in the academy.

In addition to these intellectual qualities must be added a politician’s skills—in the original sense of the word, as a leader of the polis, a civic-minded citizen who cares for the well-being and governance of the state, which in this case is the academy. If you find yourself organizing conferences, joining student organizations, questioning policies and serving on ad hoc committees, or discussing institutional history with your department chair or dean, you already possess the type of personality well suited to an alternative administrative career in the academy. In short, if you have strong organizational, communication, and problem-solving skills, along with a desire to help others, you will find the field a good fit: faculty members and faculty leadership will value your advanced academic training and students will appreciate your understanding of their needs.

Student Preparation

The preparation you can undertake will extend over your entire time as a student. You must first determine the time needed to excel academically. Higher education administration is not a field for those with mediocre grades or abilities. Faculty and members of an institution's leadership seek colleagues who are their intellectual equals and who can be entrusted to manage an institution at a very high level. Your academic performance—in classroom discussion, in meetings with professors, in the quality of your research, ideas, and writing—will demonstrate your administrative abilities far more than any subsequent interview.

Next, you should take part-time positions that provide practical experience and help you identify and test your skills. Most American colleges and universities conduct so-called "fund-raising campaigns" on a continual basis. Working with the president and trustees, fund-raisers determine an institution’s priorities and craft stories that will appeal to alumni, private philanthropists, public foundations, and government agencies. Depending on an institution’s ambitions, a campaign may raise millions or billions of dollars over a ten year period. This money provides expendable income for immediate needs and invested income to establish permanent endowments for ongoing needs, such as student scholarships, faculty salaries, or programmatic research. As in politics or the military, campaigns require an army of supporters to succeed. Fund-raisers recruit students as telethon callers, alumni magazine writers, and alumni reunion aids, among other positions. Many top development officers began their career as students because they enjoyed sharing their enthusiasm for their school and could communicate the aims of their institution to an educated lay audience.

Information technology is perhaps one of the areas experiencing the greatest growth in higher education today. Entire fields of knowledge, such as molecular engineering, physics, and certain branches of medicine or environmental studies, would not be possible without technology; others, such as libraries, literary studies, linguistics, economics, history, and education depend on technology to store, manage, and analyze large amounts of data that would be difficult to comprehend by any other means. Faculty members who guide these projects hire students because they need versatile specialists who not only understand computer programming but who possess the academic skills to understand a project’s intellectual aims. A scholar studying Shakespeare’s pattern of word usage will benefit from an English major as a programmer; a library digitizing fragile materials needs a technician who is sensitive to books, images on paper, or sounds saved on magnetic tape as historical and cultural artifacts. Because of the growing importance of information technology in education, full-time career opportunities can appear even before graduation.

At the heart of every institution of higher learning is the bond between faculty and students. A range of student services administrators are fundamental to strengthening that bond. In addition to teaching and tutoring positions, graduate students are often recruited as admissions counselors, mentors for multicultural and LGBTQ programs, live-in dormitory counselors, career counselors, and general administrative support personnel by a variety of offices. This direct experience helps students develop skills in organization, written and oral communication, program development, and diplomacy that often lead directly to permanent and senior positions after graduation in admissions offices, academic departments, offices of deans of students, student housing, and offices for student activities, career counseling, and multicultural and minority affairs.

Professional Advancement

It is easy to advance in higher education administration if one is willing to invest time in building career credentials. Early in your career, build a network of peers within your institution to share ideas and continue to explore the range of career trajectories. Pay close attention to areas designated by your institution for expansion. Seek out leaders that you admire and turn to them for mentorship and advice.

At early and mid-career levels, serve on committees, especially those outside of day-to-day job that build institutional knowledge and develop skills. Look for training opportunities, such as courses offered through human resources or your institution’s school of continuing education, which build business skills in technology, administration, and communications (writing, editing, or marketing). Work entrepreneurially in your position to create efficiencies or identify and develop new processes, especially with an eye toward incorporating new technologies or new services. Develop your project management and managerial skills, join national professional organizations, and attend conferences in your field of specialization.

For mid-career to executive-level movement, teach courses, serve on career panels, make conference presentations, and mentor younger colleagues. Build networks outside of your institution by serving on national review boards such as the NEA or NEH and by taking leadership positions in professional organizations. If you do not hold a PhD, consider obtaining certification in project management, an executive MBA in nonprofit management, or a PhD or EdD in higher education administration. Apply for mid-level management and senior executive positions that build on past experience. An informed and enlightened management will recognize and encourage your ambitions by providing monetary support or flexible work schedules to pursue career advancement that will ultimately benefit the larger institution.

In conclusion, administration of institutions of higher education can be rewarding at all levels, even as a student worker or in an entry-level position, because of the stimulating environment this activity provides and the caliber of people who will become practitioners' colleagues and friends. More than in the corporate world, your advancement is based on your intellectual ability, collaboration, and creativity. We encourage you to join us in this immensely fulfilling and vital work.