Administrative Careers in Higher Education

Liesl Swogger | March 2001

Graduate students spend many years in higher education. But as a grad student, you’re probably in the dark about educational functions that fall outside those of student or instructor. Who keeps the university running so that those whose task is to disseminate information may concentrate on that task alone? In what activities, other than degree programs, is the university engaged? For those graduate students considering careers other than teaching, but wanting to stay involved in the university system for the myriad benefits it offers, this article investigates careers in university administration, research, and scholarly publishing.


For graduate students weighing their career options, remaining within a university setting is appealing. One potential career path is university administration. However, for graduate students, whose focus is either on learning or teaching, knowledge of the jobs that university administrators do, and the responsibilities these jobs encompass, falls somewhere on the scale from vague to non-existent. Steve Otzenberger, Executive Director of the College and University Association for Human Resources, sheds light on the situation by summarizing his impression of university administration: a business within a university setting, complete with tight busy schedules and long hours.

Like the corporate world, positions vary according to the size of the organization. Barmak Nassirian, Associate Executive Director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, says that "at larger institutions, administrative positions are often more narrowly defined, and specialization in very specific functions is the norm. Smaller institutions, because of their staffing limitations, tend to define similar positions more broadly." But, Nassirian says, the key to really uncovering which jobs interest you the most is "speaking with the administrators themselves." Nassirian notes that "in addition, virtually every significant administrative profession on campus is represented by a professional association. The associations are among the most helpful introductions to the professions they serve. Browsing their websites, reading their publications, and even attending their meetings, would all be great ways of learning about the real substance of the administrative profession they represent."

Administrators deal with a wide variety of issues: management, finances, planning, research, and analysis to name just a few. Nassirian concludes that job candidates with PhDs are well suited for university administration because it requires similar skills such as "great writing skills, an analytical frame of mind, and the ability to organize facts and uncertainties." In addition to being intimately familiar with a university’s ultimate mission, Otzenberger’s impression is that humanities PhDs in particular are well suited for areas like student services, publications, and public relations and, an area that he comments is often overlooked, athletics administration. He points out that many athletics departments have positions responsible for helping athletes succeed academically.


For a more detailed understanding of university administration, the skills different positions require, and the responsibilities covered, Otzenberger suggests contacting your university’s human resources (HR) office to ask for job descriptions and copies of posted materials. Often, this information can also be found on a university’s website.

When researching various positions, keep in mind that attractive candidates are also those who have the skills the job calls for, so be pragmatic and assess the job experience that you already have. While there might be some flexibility and trading off more experience in one area for less experience in another, in a competitive job environment one will need to meet the qualifications required. The skills developed in writing a dissertation are transferable, but they do not suffice. Nassirian strongly recommends that people who want to pursue a career in university administration gain some practical experience in the field of their choice. He says that "even if it is a part-time position, some prior experience would be a decided advantage" over no experience at all when applying for jobs. This advice applies to all the careers discussed in this article.

While the original attraction to a career in university administration may be the ability to remain within a university setting, the decision to pursue an administrative career must be grounded on a genuine interest in the career. Nassirian warns against looking at administrative positions as either a potential substitute for teaching, or as a temp job while one continues to search for a teaching position. He points out that "administrative positions require the same kind of dedication as teaching positions do," and that a "lack of real interest in the job (is) a definite negative" in a job candidate. Furthermore, Nassirian states that "organizations can’t afford to invest in employees who are likely to leave at the earliest possible opportunity." Otzenberger echoes this sentiment, highlighting the steep competition for administrative jobs as an additional reason why uncommitted candidates will quickly be passed over.


If you are looking for a career that offers more flexibility, and your degree is in the social sciences, a contract research position may be more suitable. University affiliated research institutions and think tanks offer careers similar to that of professor, although without the security of tenure. As the following anecdote illustrates, research positions differ from administrative positions for three reasons: the methods one uses to find such a position, the substance of the position, and the position’s duration. In contrast to those who chose university administration, who must transfer the skills they learned in graduate school to different fields, Tom McIntosh, Senior Policy Analyst at the Saskatchewan Institute of Public Policy, applies his research skills and specialized knowledge more directly.

McIntosh arrived at his current position via a somewhat roundabout route, the origin being his desire to become a college professor. After receiving his PhD in Political Studies from Queens University in Kingston, Ontario in 1996, he discovered that there were very few jobs. "Indeed," McIntosh recalls, "it was difficult for new PhDs to even get interviews at that time as there was such a glut of more experienced people out there." After getting his foot in the door with a contract research position at an institution attached to Queens University, McIntosh discovered his next two positions through an informal network of contacts he built while at Queens. McIntosh accepted two nonacademic, contract research positions, one at the Saskatchewan Institute of Public Policy affiliated with the University of Regina, and the other with the Canadian Department of Health. Finding it difficult to "answer to two masters," McIntosh made it known at both his jobs that "I wanted only one job… and indeed I began to apply for jobs elsewhere. When that happened, both the Department of Health and the Institute took steps to offer me full-time positions (salary, benefits, the whole enchilada). In the end, I chose a permanent, non-tenure-track appointment to the Institute-I’m much more of an academic than I am a bureaucrat."

McIntosh’s work has a familiar academic feel, yet his connection to the university feels somewhat tenuous. Although the Institute that McIntosh works for is technically a part of the University of Regina, he explains that in his present position, "we are located off the main campus… and while that has certain advantages (e.g.: we are very close to the government departments and policy makers with whom we interact regularly), I don’t really feel like a part of the university. Also, because I’m not teaching, I don’t interact with students regularly and I don’t even get to the main campus very often. In that sense, we could just as easily be an independent private sector think tank." To remedy this, McIntosh retains his link with the academic community as an adjunct professor.

McIntosh’s primary interest is teaching and, he says, "I have continued to apply for full-time faculty appointments across the country." Unlike administrative positions where one needs to make a clear decision to pursue that career track, McIntosh’s research position offers him some flexibility. He holds his current position while continuing his pursuit of a teaching career. He stresses that he enjoys his job, but he has been candid with his employer saying that "I have also made it clear to the Institute and the University that if a tenure-track appointment is offered then I am likely to take it."


University Presses are also natural magnets for those with PhDs. Henry Tom, Executive Editor at Duke University Press, acknowledges that "scholarly publishing does have that cache of connecting recent PhDs with the world of scholarship of which they were a part." In publishing, the necessity of that connection is readily apparent. Tom notes that editors of scholarly journals "determine a journal’s content and must be in touch with the latest developments in their fields." For example, Kathryn Caras, Journals Manager at Indiana University (IU) Press, received her PhD in English, writing an interdisciplinary dissertation on the Victorian feminist Caroline Norton. As Journals Manager at IU Press, Caras draws on her field of expertise as publisher of The Journal of Victorian Studies.

Scholarly, rather than commercial, publishing attracts graduate students in part because of its mission. Richard Able, of University Press of New England, calls scholarly publishing "publishing in the public interest." In Able’s experience, University Presses generally consider works "from an intellectual, artistic, cultural, or scientific perspective…We publish things judged first because they are important-worth reading."

For anyone interested in pursuing a career in scholarly publishing, it is helpful to think of the industry according to its functions. Able suggests breaking publishing into five general areas: administrative, editorial, production, marketing, and operations. For the purposes of this article, editorial is probably the department of most interest, and it is subdivided into the following categories:

  1. Acquisitions: the editors that recruit authors, acquire and evaluate manuscripts, help authors develop their work to reach target audiences, negotiate contracts, and choose what will be published.
  2. Copyediting: these editors do the line by line editing, checking for grammar, consistency, spelling, etc., checking permissions, and cleaning up the manuscript so that it can be typeset and published. Today this also involves preparing the book for electronic publishing.
  3. Production: these editors are responsible for the design of the book, its typesetting, layout, integration of artwork, printing, and binding.
    Different positions suit different personalities: Tom comments that some "like the close work that copy editing allows. Others like the more ‘creative’ developmental challenge of acquisitions."

An additional distinction within scholarly publishing to keep in mind is that between books and journals. Tom notes that "journals editors and books editors conceive of their tasks differently: different forms of publication of the material they are presented with; different ways of marketing their products, etc." As a journals manager, Caras feels that "it’s essential that a person interested in scholarly publishing decide early on whether he/she wants a career working with journals or books." At the same time, she takes note of the collaboration that occurs between the books and journals fields when, for example, a special issue of a journal produces a book series.

Academics and scholarly publishers share common intellectual ground, but that alone is not enough to launch someone into a career in scholarly publishing. Experience in the field is essential. Caras notes with some exasperation that "I can’t tell you how many people think they can be an editor because they’ve edited their own papers." She stresses that she worked very systematically to arrive at the place she is now, accumulating editing experience along the way. She chose to do her doctorate at IU in part, she says, because "one of the options for financial aid offered by the English department here is a two year assistantship on the journal. I knew if I could work on the journal, I could get valuable editing and publishing experience." She also took editorial positions at a nonprofit and an alumni association along the way.

Tom began his publishing experience as an undergrad and continued as an assistant to the editor-in-chief and then as a history editor while a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Unlike Caras, Tom’s original goal was to become a professor. He remembers that "upon completing my dissertation, I was offered the job of social sciences editor at the Johns Hopkins University Press. The job market for college teaching wasn’t all that good… I thought to stay in university publishing for a few years to see if the college teaching market improved." Tom’s job experience in scholarly publishing created the foundation for a scholarly career within his discipline.

The careers discussed in this article are just a few examples of the options available in higher education. Researching a particular institution will likely uncover other unique opportunities. Generally, careers in administration, research, and publishing are widely available. As discussed, careers within higher education take advantage of the skills and specialized knowledge that PhDs hone during the years completing their dissertation. While each career path draws from different aspects of a PhD’s knowledge pool-whether it be knowledge of higher education, a field of expertise, or both-the one thing that all these careers have in common is their need for experienced candidates.


Liesl Swogger recently completed the MA program in English Literature at George Mason University. She currently serves as Editorial Assistant at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

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