The alternative academic career path has recently caught a lot of attention from all angles of academia, in part because of the state of the job market for PhDs and in part because more and more alternative academics are talking about their career paths. However, this does not mean that many in academia know what an alternative academic career entails, especially when oftentimes alternative academics are filed under “staff” or “admin.” These misconceptions open the door for other erroneous views, such as the idea that staff and faculty are on opposite sides of the academic table. We seek to dispel some of those myths in an attempt to bridge the gap between staff and faculty as well as clarify what some alternative academics do.
1. Who are administrators anyway? Many faculty seem to think that anyone who’s not faculty is an administrator. But for example, in Brenda’s Women’s Center, the violence prevention coordinator is not faculty but not an administrator either. Liana’s official title is Program Associate at her school’s writing center. In reality, between the two ends (administrators and faculty) there are a lot of other jobs that provide services to faculty and students. Unfortunately, when conversations about funding in higher ed turn to the financial “bloat” that administrators add, many of these student services get lumped in. Would faculty who complain about said bloat want to eliminate the victim services position (which would not save the university a huge amount of money)? If so, are they willing to fill out orders of protection? Interview young women who’ve been raped, stalked, and sexually assaulted or harassed? If we want to support and retain students who have survived sexual violence, someone has to do this work. If not trained staff, then who? This detail often gets lost in the conversation about bloat.
2. Administrators are evil. Is it true that there are some bad administrators who are self-serving and only out for themselves and don’t care about the institutional good? Yes. But then again, there are faculty and staff who are like that, too. The majority of administrators with whom we interact are well-meaning people. We need to dispel the notion that faculty automatically equates to “good” and “admin” to “evil.” There are faculty who don’t care about students, and there are staff who genuinely try to make the lives of students better…and who get their funding slashed every day. One can disagree and argue about the value of student activities, but the fact is that the people who work there are for the most part genuinely interested in helping students.
3. Administrators don’t know teaching. Faculty members are an important part of the learning process that goes on at universities, but staff members are also part of that process. Many staff members teach; for example, Brenda teaches several courses at her institution. Liana taught before coming to the writing center, and leads workshops on writing on a regular basis. The work they have done in the classroom influences their approach to their work with students outside of the classroom. Moreover, the, the co-curricular work we do is vital for the education of students.
4. Administrators do not engage in research. Plenty of alternative academic folks continue to publish, attend conferences, and conduct research. Although this does not apply to all staff positions, many do or are interested in academic research that influences their work with students. Although faculty may receive more support for their research endeavors, many staff continue to challenge themselves intellectually through research. Our daily jobs can be intellectually stimulating without the pressure of the “publish or perish” culture. We admit, however, that this can easier for staff in non-science fields, as scientific research often requires a lab affiliation.
5. Admin hours are M-F, 8-5. This myth implies that staff jobs are somehow “easy” because we “only” work 40 hours per week (opposed to the 60+ hours some faculty members can put in). While it may be true that one’s schedule is (sometimes) 8 (or 9) to 5, those work hours tend to be jam-packed with meetings, research, appointments with students, workshops, etc. It is also true that many staff jobs require more than 40 hours per week and/or evening and weekend work. In Brenda’s case, for example, evening and weekend events can easily add many hours to the week. And it doesn’t matter if she was at work until midnight for an event — if orientation is at 7:30 a.m. the next morning, she is still expected to be there. Email still needs to be answered and if you spend the majority of your day in meetings, then the email will be answered in the evening or on the weekend. Liana oftentimes has to work evenings and weekends in order to meet the needs of different student populations across three campuses.
Alternative academic positions are a legitimate option post-graduate school but one of the reasons graduate students may feel ambivalent about this alternative track could be related to the idea that staff and faculty are portrayed as being opposed to each other. In reality, it does not have to be an either/or proposition. Libraries, student support services, educational technology all fill in the gaps between opposite ends of the spectrum. Moreover, many alternative academics who are admin or staff turn to these careers because they want to work with students. Eliminating some of the myths around alternative academic positions can help legitimize these careers as well as help faculty, staff, and administrators work together for the good of students.
Co-authored by Liana Silva and Brenda Bethman.
This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.