Beyond ‘Publish or Perish’: The Many Paths to Administrative Careers for Academics

Jennifer Long photoby Jennifer Long, Associate Dean for Finance and Administration, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University


The View from 35,000 Feet: Evaluating the Field

Academic administrators are often asked for career advice and we want to be relevant and helpful. While interest in Europe and Eurasia remains strong and placement data for programs are quite good, “our area” is susceptible to the vicissitudes of U.S. foreign policy toward the region, international events that portray the region in a less-than-flattering light, and is a wide and diverse region that is increasingly difficult to define as “an” area. Advising students on the skill-set they need means staying up to date on a variety of professional sectors that don’t always overlap easily. Add to this mix the cuts in U.S. government funding for scholars and programs focusing on Europe and Eurasia, and the situation seems challenging.

Addressing these issues to provide practical information was the purpose of the panel, “Academic Careers Outside the Classroom: Becoming an Academic Professional,” at the 44th annual ASEEES Convention in New Orleans last November. Joining me on the panel were Lynda Park (ASEEES), Jeff Pennington (UC Berkeley), Matthew Rosenstein (U of Illinois), and Chair William Pomeranz (Kennan Institute), to share our experiences of our own paths toward career development as well as our advice to students. While some of the themes were familiar, we were also able to put forward ideas that those in the audience could use as they plan what to do with their hard-earned degrees.

One of the first issues discussed was why one would consider an academic career outside of teaching: the difficulty in securing a tenure-track position and the changing nature of higher education were two motivators. Since many who in an earlier era would have continued on the path toward teaching at the college and university level are now finding that path narrowing, the panel’s discussion focused on other options at universities and programs and how graduates can best position themselves to take advantage of opportunities. We concluded that there are many avenues for those who would choose a career as an academic professional and offered practical advice about how to accomplish this goal.

The View From the Ground: Improving Your Chances of Securing the Position You Want

Panelists’ own career paths highlight the different ways to “get where you’re going”: while some of us completed the PhD, others walked away at the ABD moment to pursue opportunities that presented themselves, either full-time positions or work abroad.  The first lesson is that students should be open to these types of opportunities, as one never knows the impact they could have on career development. For some the “road not taken” will quickly fade from memory, but for others it brings real regret.  

A second theme that emerged was that students/graduates should continually seek to add to their skill set – start with a realistic assessment of what you’re good at and then add to it where possible.  This starts with thinking beyond just applying for teaching or research assistantships. Consider positions that will include administrative or management responsibilities. Think about internships related to your field, even those that are unpaid, if that is financially feasible (know that you might be able to earn academic credit for unpaid internships). Research Institutes like the Kennan Institute offer the ability to be paired with a researcher and to engage with a serious intellectual community.  Perhaps you might be able to work with or lead a student group. The attention to detail required for event planning, the Excel skills needed for budgeting, the supervisory experience of managing student workers – these are all relevant to a multitude of employment sectors and helpful additions to a resume. Short-term jobs or small assignments will give you experience and may provide opportunities down the road: write book reviews and, if you travel, write a blog. Social media skills are now a critical part of every job, so grab opportunities to build these skills and use them. Put together a diverse tool kit and then make sure these skills are reflected in your current resume. (Related to this, don’t forget that if you’ve been awarded a research grant then you should make sure these skills are part of what you say about yourself!)

Panelists highlighted the importance of building your network:  taking the time to do homework on the types of places, gatherings or conferences where one can meet those in the field of choice, making the time for this effort and then making the most of these opportunities are all crucial to career success. Get to know your professors: ask them to offer you mentoring advice, to share their contacts and to introduce you to colleagues at events or conferences. Faculty understand that part of their job is to prepare and promote  the next generation and the vast majority are happy to help. Treat your fellow students as an important part of your incipient professional network, which means showing them respect and utilizing opportunities to partner with or critique each other as a way to develop your professional skills. Joining professional organizations like ASEEES is crucial to plotting a successful career path. Participating in productive groups like this can both offer networking connections as well as help keep you up to date on trends in the field and opportunities. ASEEES conducts webinars on a variety of useful topics and there are professional development panels at the annual conventions. If you have not already established an account on LinkedIn, now is the time. Graduate programs, professional associations and employers are using this tool to promote themselves, advertise positions and screen applicants, and establishing your presence in this medium is crucial. Remember to utilize social media and networking in its most positive ways, always being mindful of the data trail you leave behind.

The first step to finding out about positions is to take advantage of resources at your institution. Academic programs are excellent sources for job-related information, providing general ideas about career paths, specific job posting and resources affiliated with your particular degree program. Your next stop should be your school’s Career Center.  The information they readily can give you about jobs and employers, including searchable databases, makes it easy to begin your job search. Many career centers also track employment data, which you can use to identify students or alumni who have worked for specific employers.  You could then reach out to those individuals to gather “insider” information.  Counselors also offer individual sessions as well as workshops on general presentation skills, specialized talents like case-based interviewing techniques and “The 30 second pitch.” Career counselors will also work with you to tailor your resume to accurately reflect your diverse skills and valuable experience  and help you draft cover letters that are appropriate for the different positions for which you may be applying.

Crucial advice for job-seekers: research the organizations to which you are applying and customize both your cover letter and resume/CV for each application. Ask if you can have an informational interview, which is an opportunity to “pick the brain” of a current or former employee. Informational interviews help you identify which skills and experiences the employer values most, which in turn, is very helpful when crafting a tailored cover letter.  Panelists offered numerous examples of applicants who had not taken this advice – addressing the letter to the wrong organization or individual or communicating in the cover letter a lack of understanding of the job being sought. While this advice is clearly in the “common-sense” category, it’s worth noting how easy it is to stand apart from the rest of the applicant pool by taking this advice. This is related to the general advice of utilizing specialized resources like career counselors – different employment sectors have their own criteria for scrutinizing applicants and identifying what skill sets they’re seeking. What gets you ahead in the private sector may be very different from the non-profit sector, and it’s important to be aware of these differences when one is applying. Seeking out advice that can help you achieve this, and having someone proofread your documents before you apply, can be that simple action that gets you through the door.

Finally, the panelists’ own experiences underscore the value of considering academically-related careers outside of academia: professional organizations, think-tank,s and academic program management. These are options that deserve serious consideration.  Panelists felt it important to reiterate that students in our field have a wide variety of options for career choices and can be well-positioned to take advantage of them, with research and preparation.  Adopting these recommendations for the job search and utilizing other available resources are the first steps to building a successful career. And with the changes in the Eurasian-European field generally, current graduates are poised to be able to make significant contributions across employment sectors. Despite the obstacles we currently face, graduates can call upon a wide variety of resources to successfully embark on a fulfilling career after graduation.

This article originally appeared in the August 2013 edition of NewsNet.