Joining the Dark Side, Part 3: Starting Down the Path

UnknownIn my last two posts (here and here) on moving into administration I have discussed the question of why – what motivates people to move into administration, and what costs or consequences they face in doing so. I hope these pieces help folks think about whether a move towards administration might be for them, whether now or in the future.

Now I want to turn to a more practical question: how? Assuming you’ve decided that you would like to move into a position in academic administration, how do you get there from here? I’m assuming for the sake of this discussion that “here” is a standard, garden-variety faculty position – tenured or tenure-track, with whatever load of teaching, research & service is typical for your institution.

I use this as my starting point because, well, that’s where I started. It’s not absolutely necessary – I know some excellent academic administrators who have taken other paths. But the vast majority of department chairs, program directors, assistant/associate/etc. deans and the like started life as tenure-track faculty. I think there’s merit to that system, on the whole.

There are two parts to the How question: how can you prepare yourself to be successful in an administrative search in the future, and how can you go about getting an administrative position now (or in the near term)? These are distinct enough that I want to deal with them separately. Today’s installment is about Starting Down the Path – that is, what you can do now to prepare yourself for success in landing an administrative job later. The next post will focus on winning the job once you get to that point.

A lot of folks will tell you that you should wait until you get tenure before you take on significant administrative duties. That is almost certainly true, both because most levels of administrative responsibility expose you to political pressures that “ordinary” faculty can ignore, and because pre-tenure you should be busy trying to get tenure. Tenure (and, ultimately, promotion to Full Professor) are necessary (if not sufficient) to succeed in getting administrative positions, at least significant ones.

That’s not to say that you can’t start to prepare yourself now while you’re working on your tenure case, however. Herewith, a number of tips to consider; feel free to add more from your own experience in the comments!

1)    Be strategic in your “service” choices: Many tenure-track faculty view the “service” leg of the faculty triad with barely disguised disdain, and try to get away with as little as possible. I once served on a committee whose primary job was assigning faculty to committees for their “service” component – the number of requests we got for the Library Committee was staggering. Don’t make this mistake – service on important committees can provide valuable experience, especially if it gives you campus-wide exposure and experience. One of the biggest weaknesses of faculty is that they often only know their own department. Use committee service as a means to break out of that mold, meet people across campus, and find out how other folks do things. Also, contrary to myth some committees really do accomplish important work – find one of those and get on it.

2)    See a departmental need and fill it: Good administrative experience can often be had close to home. Look around within your department – what needs doing that nobody is doing? Does your department need a webmaster? Does the chair need help arranging schedules or keeping track of curriculum modifications? Figure out what’s not working well and offer to provide a solution. Your chair will likely love you for it, and you get to gain experience doing something you’re good at and enjoy doing (since you picked it). As a junior faculty member I stepped up to serve as my department’s webmaster (we had no webpage when I got there in the late 1990s), which gave me a really good overview of the whole department very quickly.

3)    Be an entrepreneur: Even better than filling a need is creating something new, especially if that something takes off. Have an idea for a new course that will draw lots of new students? How about a new certificate program, or even a new major? Find out from your chair what the department gets rewarded by the university for (is it credit hours generated? Student headcount? Recruiting new students?) and invent something new that will earn goodies for your department. Again, your chair will love you and you will then get to take control of the thing you just invented and run it…

4)    Find opportunities to be in charge of things: Whether it’s a new thing you just invented or something ongoing that needs someone to shepherd it, it’s always good to find opportunities to be “in charge” of something. One of the keys to convincing somebody later on to give you an administrative position is that you have Gotten Things Done. Visible success is your biggest friend here. Even if it’s just a once-a-year departmental honors ceremony, as long as people see you do it well it will help.

5)    Don’t forget your broader professional network: It’s easy to get caught up in the doings of your own department and college. But don’t forget that professional organizations like the International Studies Association, the American Political Science Association, and others are a gold mine of opportunities to get experience. Program chair (though a lot of work) is a particularly good way to show a lot of folks that you’re capable – plus, you meet a lot of people at different universities this way, which may open up other opportunities later.

6)    Find work that is visible at higher levels: If your ambition is to move up the administrative ranks at your current institution, it’s never too soon for senior administrators to start noticing you. Find ways to get involved in projects or work that is visible at higher altitudes – that awareness and name recognition will come in handy down the line when the chair or assistant dean slot opens up.

In all of this, there are really two primary rules of thumb: visibility and accomplishment. If you can make things happen that other people care about, and do so in a way that others can see you doing it, then you will be setting yourself up for success in an administrative search later in your career. This is true whether you’re planning on sticking to your current institution or willing to look elsewhere – visible (and real) accomplishments are the coin of the realm in administration.

Alongside all of this is the necessary background work of building relationships. People are chosen for administration based in large part on their perceived competence, but also on a host of intangibles: is this person trustworthy? Positive? Good to work with? A team player? Efficient? Does she care about the institution? Is she flexible enough to understand different points of view and different ways of doing things? All of these things go into an overall impression that is crucial to winning an administrative search, especially an internal one.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of suggestions. I have left untouched (as too large a topic for a blog post) the question of what kinds of skills, competencies, and experiences you want to get under your belt. In one sense, these are too numerous to mention. In another, they are the basics of working within any organization: good communications skills, a habit of being highly organized, the ability to manage a complex project, and the capacity to get along and work with people from different backgrounds who have very different ideas. If any of these things strikes you as impossibly daunting, go back to my previous post – administration probably isn’t your cup of tea. On the other hand, any experience that helps you build on these is a useful one – especially if you can been seen doing it.