Have you Considered a Staff Position?
Life as a Staff Administrator in a Largish University
January 05, 2014
As you approach the end of graduate school or perhaps in your second or third year after finishing a doctorate, you may be asked if you’ve considered a staff position, like a consolation prize, as though one might simply announce one's availability and step down from the lofty ambitions of the tenure track and into a humbler but still eminently suitable position for one's graduate-student abilities. You may also have the sense that this is a step into the dark side, that university administrators are blood-sucking parasites who are at best useless, and at worst, are responsible for draining the resources of a stressed system away from the work you’d rather do: teaching and research. It is not a glamorous choice.
In my experience, though, it's not quite like that. While the skills and experiences of graduate school can certainly act as a stepping-stone into academic administration, it is neither automatic nor is it a step down. I would argue that administrative work can provide a way to make your own positive, meaningful, and intellectual contributions to academe. Administration offers the chance to observe and participate in the heart of the university; to grapple with its challenges and take a share in how policy is shaped; to work with intelligent people; to research, write, continue learning; and ultimately, to earn the right to be taken seriously—including by yourself.
This essay will describe my experiences as a member of the continuing staff at the University of Toronto. I finished my doctorate in English seventeen years ago in 1997, and at this point I am approaching mid-career. While I have found the process of entering and advancing within the administrative ranks to be very different from my experience of graduate study, I want to outline some of the ways that my experiences as a scholar have enabled me to survive and thrive as an administrator.
I spent nearly seven years as a doctoral student. I studied medieval English drama of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, a highly interdisciplinary field that connects with music, theatre, other forms of literature, history, and religion. During my time as a student, I was involved with a theatre group that performed the plays I studied, and although I was not much of an actor, I was a good director and producer; I also modernized performance texts and created costumes and props. Near the end of my studies I was a research assistant for a scholar of W. B. Yeats and a freelance copy editor for a translator of Tolstoy. When I graduated, there was no contract teaching available, so I spent another few months as a temporary office assistant for a land holding company making photocopies. I worked all day, every day, for months, pushing the green button, counting and collating, and dealing with paper cuts. This was a deeply unpleasant experience.
In the following year, I got contract work with my alma mater as an adjunct instructor of Effective Writing. A second year of adjunct work followed, and then a third year. Most of my course assignments were unrelated to my research. I applied for dozens of jobs, spent a pile of money to present a paper in the U.K., got it published, and nothing happened. After my third year, the department informed me that its policy was that adjuncts could be offered no more than three years of work, and I could consequently expect no further employment. I went back to my temp agency and landed in a railroad office. My job was to renew the leases on the sidings that went into factories.
There was a lot of emotional backwash that came with these experiences. I became isolated from my friends and former supervisor; I felt ashamed. I had assumed that I would enter a tenure-track position, but my field was shrinking, and the many jobs that had been predicted (William Bowen and Julie Ann Sosa, Prospects for Faculty in the Arts and Sciences: A Study of Factors Affecting Demand and Supply, Princeton, 1989) as the result of retirements had failed to materialize. I went through a depressed period in which my studies appeared meaningless, a wasted decade. I believed that my failure to become employed in a tenure-track position indicated that I was personally a failure, and that all of the values I had associated with that goal—the life of the mind, the pursuit of ideas, the desire to write—were likewise gone forever. I hadn’t just lost a specific job path, I had lost a vision of myself.
In desperation, I signed up with Bernard Haldane Associates, a commercial employment-grooming agency. I paid $3,000 for a long series of personality and aptitude tests and a coach who gave me weekly assignments in which I wrote about specific situations in which I had been effective, shown leadership, met deadlines, and the like. In this process, I learned that I was introverted and detail-oriented, willing to work long and hard to get a project done correctly, creative when I am imaginatively engaged, and capable of managing multiple deadlines. Those short writing assignments on topics like “I demonstrated my capacity for organization and time management when I…” helped me think about how my experiences in the classroom, in theatre, research and writing could translate into marketable job skills. In retrospect, I probably paid far more than I might have—I signed for a year’s worth of coaching and used only a few months—but I was stumbling around blindly, and the chance to think about my skills and experiences in an analytical way was really helpful to me at the time.
With my coach’s encouragement, I moved to a better temp position in the marketing department of an insurance company. Initially, I was assigned to order promotional items with the company logo. But as I found my feet, I began to do copy-editing there too, and I ran a conference booth to distribute my items. Within six months, it was clear that they liked me, and I was promoted out of my temp agency to an in-house contract.
About a year after I stopped teaching, a position came up at my alma mater. It was administrative, but it sounded interesting: as Assistant to the Director at the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, I would manage a non-circulating research library, fellows, a small academic press, and a series of events. My coach taught me how to write an application letter that responded directly to each of the points in the job description with a bullet-point about myself. Suddenly, my theatrical, editorial, teaching, and dissertation experiences came into focus as skills in event and people management, multi-tasking, budgeting, researching, and writing. My experiences as a student and a teacher became useful in providing a basic understanding of the organizational structures of my potential employer and in managing student workers. And my obscure thesis topic was pretty close to the 16th-century focus of the library's collection. My temp experiences supplied the job description’s requirement for “demonstrated administrative experience”; my theatre experiences (especially as producer) met the need for “budgeting oversight, monitoring, and implementation” and “ability to work under pressure”; my teaching experience fit well with “organizational skills” and “maturity, tact, judgement, and diplomacy”; and my freelance editing and work on the dissertation translated into “excellent communication and analytical skills, and strong organizational and time management skills.”
I landed the job. After a year in the alien worlds of real estate and insurance, it felt like going home. I had an office, benefits, a union, and a pension plan. Adult life at last! But how did I get there? It wasn't due to my academic scholarship on the performance of religious plays in 15th-century Northern England; it was because I convinced the Centre that I could adapt, make things happen on time, and on budget. My temp experiences outside school and my work with theatre and freelance editing all made me into promising beginner administrator material. I largely bypassed my life as a scholar and found employable value instead in all of the other things I had done.
Life as an alt-ac, university staff administrator was quite different than life as a graduate student. As a student, I was treated as a potential colleague, encouraged, mentored, and given significant amounts of time for personal growth. As a staffer, the lines of the hierarchy came into sharp focus, but so too did the mechanics of the structures and relationships that make the university work. It was a secret insider’s view of the back of the machine. I made coffee, took meeting minutes, shelved books, reorganized storage spaces, developed filing systems, and supervised dozens of student workers. But I also got to buy rare books and meet major scholars and make conferences happen. I worked like crazy. Sometimes I was treated like a secretary (with all of the 1960s gendered Mad Men implications), sometimes as a lifesaver, and occasionally, as a wise woman. My status seemed to fluctuate with the situation.
The option to continue to research and write scholarly articles about medieval English religious plays remained open, but I found it impossible to think like a scholar from the vantage point I now occupied. For one thing, I was far too busy. My schedule was now a solid forty-hour week, plus a regular range of events, lectures, and conferences that I had organized and therefore needed to attend. But more importantly, I was still depressed. I needed to let go of the dream of a tenure-track job that had gripped me for years: it had become toxic. I found my way out by getting interested in the specialties of my library's rare books collection: Erasmus, the Reformation, the very early printed books that I could play with in my occasional quiet moments. The life of the mind, it turned out, was still there.
After my first year on staff, my former thesis supervisor, who was connected with the Centre through her college affiliation, suggested that I go back to grad school part-time for a library degree. (There were also internal political factors that made this an attractive idea for the Centre, but her suggestion was benevolent and well-intended.) Free tuition was a benefit; I could professionalize what I was already doing. It took six (extraordinarily busy) years to complete a master's in Information Studies. My return to grad school provided a safe place to do some necessary intellectual growth, and as my interests morphed from early print to communications theory to digital humanities, I found that I was also starting to think in scholarly ways about the university itself, its history and structures, how it planned for its future, and made its decisions. Very gradually, I concluded that not only was I not going to be a professor, but also that I was probably not going to be a librarian either. A year from the end of my degree, I learned about a new humanities institute that was being established, thanks to a generous donation. I applied for and landed my current position as Associate Director of the Jackman Humanities Institute. Now staff work is much more than the sheer necessity of earning a living: I have a role in shaping things.
As Associate Director, I work with fellows at undergrad, graduate, postdoc, and faculty levels; I oversee events funded by the Institute, and I produce a major annual report. I also manage the website, and I research and write content, publicity, short reports, public correspondence, and draft policies. In the past few months, I have begun to learn the craft of the major grant application. I work with scholars in an enormous range of disciplines and with many units within the university, and my job evolves constantly as we develop new programs. I love the intellectual and political perspectives that my position provides. Seeing how the “sausage” gets made has not put me off; rather, it is incredibly satisfying to understand the mysterious processes that shaped my grad school experiences, to dip into other peoples’ research across a wide range of disciplines and ideas and methodologies, and to observe the ways that personalities and ambitions become structures and policies. As my perspectives have broadened, so too have my responsibilities. Confidentiality is now a large part of my work. I manage information, and it is up to me to be sure that applicants for funding and fellowships, evaluation committee members, our fellows and alumni, and members of the public all know what they need to know at the right time, and do not know what could hurt others or the Institute’s own position. I am now in my sixth year in this job. I don't feel that either of my runs at grad school were wasted time. I use the skills that I learned there every day.
Administration is not the dark side; it’s the interesting side, the poorly understood side. If it looks mysterious, it’s because there is a lot of necessary secrecy. Most of my fellow administrators are smart, dedicated people who want to make a better and more fair system; for the ambitious ones, there are possibilities of promotion and advancement. When the school attempts a thing that might be construed as “evil,” there are structural or political reasons, and it’s nice to know what they are. The system is not existentially evil; it’s just a big machine, and it needs drivers and mechanics. There are personal satisfactions too: my position is unionized and stable, there are regular raises and excellent benefits, and I can (usually) leave it behind at 5:00 p.m. I am not subject to the requirement to publish research, to tenure review, or to student evaluations. My vacations are not research trips.
I want to address the emotional transition to my alt-ac position. The adjustment out of the grad school dream of the tenure track takes time: that sense that an administrative career is a second-best choice for a “failed” academic does not dissipate overnight. In some ways, it felt like a betrayal to start with one expectation and to find myself in quite another (often socially inferior) context. In other ways, I mourned my lost academic career the way one would mourn a lost relationship. It was the death of an idea. The mourning process came with the usual steps: denial, rage, bargaining, grief, acceptance. It helped me to be aware that many others were having a similar experience. Learning to navigate that social landscape from the staff perspective was often a challenge: I needed to get over myself, leave the bitterness off my desk, and get the job done. Sometimes the job to be done felt like a humiliation, but increasingly, it has felt like an amazing opportunity. One of my best experiences was the chance to participate in a leadership seminar for staff members that included a nine-month mentoring relationship with a high-ranking staff member. My mentor talked me through this transitional experience and taught me how to value and enjoy the possibilities of my own position. He remains a supportive friend. I had a wonderful time in grad school (both times), but there was so much that it didn’t teach me. As I have grown into my institution, I have grown past my sense of dashed expectations and into a desire to make the place as a whole more humane and healthy for everyone. The university is no longer just growing me: I am now growing it.
So where does this leave you, if you are thinking about the question in my title? Even if you’ve considered a staff position, nothing is automatic about getting it. You'll need to reorganize how you conceptualize your experiences and navigate some major transitions. Think about all of the things that you have done as a graduate student and since then: the research and teaching, as well as the volunteer experiences and the jobs of necessity. Exchange the crippling sense of being a failure for the acknowledgement that your academic job search failed, for whatever reasons. If you can meet deadlines, communicate effectively, and manage people, money, time, and secrets, you are administrator material. Go to the HR site of your old or any other university, and think about the kinds of jobs that you see: you will find many jobs at the senior level and more that are intensively technical, but there are occasional openings in communication, advancement, research services, governance, specialty programs, and research institutes that you will probably find interesting. A surprising number of my fellow staff members are University of Toronto Ph.D.’s. My university (like many others) does not like to hire its own graduates into faculty jobs, but it does find them very desirable as administrators because its structures are complex, and it needs employees who can navigate them. Find these people and have coffee; they will send opportunities your way when they arise, and you will learn where the niches are.
You'll need to honour your own processes of healing and growth. A failed academic job search does not mean that you are a failure; it means only that, in a very competitive landscape, the job for which you had trained did not materialize. Look for the oddball opportunities, re-imagine yourself, and learn to value what you can do as well as what you know. Get curious about what is around you.
A final word of advice if you are considering or beginning work as a staff member of your university: everyone around you is equally human, whether faculty, staff or student, whether highly educated or not. Treat them all with kindness, generosity, and respect. It's a little tiny world and the hierarchies, social or otherwise, are more artificial than you’d think. Over the years, you will discover that you are in an evolving series of relations with many of these people. It helps if they like you.