Image: Boys hopping a freight / Library of Congress
Two years ago, I was finishing up my final semester on the faculty at the University of Georgia. When I graded my last paper, I didn’t think I’d see a college campus again for a long time. Little did I know, after a year on the job market, I would soon return to university life in a position markedly different from the professorial life I left behind.
Teaching wasn’t bad. According to student reviews I was a decent teacher, and I actually enjoyed it, but the classroom wasn’t quite the right fit for me. I knew remaining in a career for which I lacked passion wasn’t fair to myself or to my students, so I decided to move on. I supported myself with freelance writing and odd jobs for about a year, but I missed campus life — the community, the thirst for knowledge, the excitement and energy. It didn’t take long before I was again searching for a way to return to that environment. But no more adjuncting. That part of my life was over.
After a few months of personal reinvention and intensive résumé tinkering, I was gainfully employed once again. My return to campus was complete. Only this time I was on the administrative side of the university flowchart.
Now I’m a year into my new position, and I’ve learned a few things about the transition from faculty to staff. Anyone considering a similar leap may want to keep these thoughts in mind. Of course, experiences can vary, depending on the department and job description, but these tips should help.
Be willing to collaborate. As an adjunct professor, I was more or less in charge of my own little world. I designed my syllabus, created paper prompts, and ran my classroom exactly the way I wanted to, without much input from others. That was pretty nice. I’ve always preferred working autonomously, and I’m fine with making my own decisions.
Unfortunately for me, that level of solitude is completely unrealistic as an administrator. Every day, I have to talk with my coworkers and collaborate on projects. People stop by my office. They send emails. They call on the phone. I can’t ignore them — even if I might, um, disagree with their ideas. It’s part of the job: Work well with others or risk being replaced. Almost every project has multiple collaborators, and I frequently can’t move forward with my work until someone else completes their bit.
If you lack patience or can’t stand group work, admin life will drive you nuts. I’m learning and getting better, little by little.
Commit to a fixed schedule and work space. Gone are the work days spent in coffee shops and on couches. Do I miss being able to work from anywhere? Take a guess. Most of my week as a teacher required only about 12 hours of defined scheduling. Nowadays, I can be found in the same place during the same 45 hours every week.
That has taken some getting used to. I haven’t worked a traditional 40-hour schedule in almost a decade. All in all, I don’t mind. Sometimes it’s good for me to be forced to take a shower and get out of the house in the morning. (Don’t look at me like that. You know what I mean, Mr. Boxer Shorts and Ms. Yoga Pants.)
Understand the power politics of campus administration. Let me start by saying you don’t necessarily have to embrace the political machinations of campus life in order to be successful in an administration, but it sure doesn’t hurt. And if you hope to advance in your career as an administrator, it’s probably essential to understand how power dynamics influence decisions within the organization.
Within any institution, there are colleges, offices, departments, and units. They all operate independently, yet overlap in such a way that they need each other in order to succeed. Because of that interdependence, it’s rare for anyone in one sphere to place overt demands on someone in a different sphere. Politically, it’s too risky to blatantly challenge the autonomy of the other office or unit.
Instead, people ask for assistance, or they might offer help first in hopes of a returned favor later. Frankly, it’s a lot like the way government operates, which makes sense considering the prevailing concept of shared governance on campus. As a result of these overlapping spheres, power flows around the university on more of a favor system at best, and on a passive-aggressive tug-of-war at worst.
Of course, it’s not all sycophancy, manipulation, and ego-stroking. Our motives aren’t always selfish. I’m only pointing out that university politics are a different animal. As an administrator, you will rarely dictate orders nor will they be dictated to you. I have had to get comfortable with this political system where we all coexist and help each other in order to be helped. It’s a lot different than working solo or acting as part of a traditional management hierarchy.
My first year as an administrator has been a learning experience. So far, so good. I’m on a campus again, but the work life is nothing like it was during my time as a faculty member. I look forward to sharing more thoughts here about my new role as I settle into it. I’m also interested in hearing from others who have made a similar transition. What lessons have you learned? How is your new job in administration different from your old one on the faculty?