Higher Education Career & Credentials – An Introductory Map

A senior head hunter once said to me “free advice is worth exactly what you pay for it” just before suggesting how to improve my c.v. The warning of that recruiter often comes to mind when I am asked for professional development help. I think of my unfortunate decisions and remember my awkward mistakes. Nonetheless, the obligation to assist remains. My career has been directed and shaped by the suggestions, criticisms, and generosity of others. Mentors have been essential to my professional development. All of us in higher education owe that kind of help to each other – it is, after all, central to education. It is especially valuable to those that are relatively new to higher education: the younger men and women who are the first in their families to obtain college degrees.

Many of the entry and lower level administrative and student support functions in higher education are staffed by these people, individuals whose lives have been transformed by higher education. They find great value and meaning in education. They want to forge an academic career and they want to give back. They are exactly the kind of people higher education needs. More specifically, they are exactly who underserved students need.

For those interested in teaching, the path is well-defined: graduate degree, part-time teaching and the aim is a full-time faculty position. For the entry-level professional in student affairs, financial aid, or admissions, there is no simple map to an academic career. What is the right route to follow? A recent exchange led to an interesting discussion about how to think about advancing in administration. The question was provocative: if an ambitious junior professional can pursue several different graduate degrees, what makes the most sense? A PhD? An MEd? An MBA? Or something different? My first response – do what interests you and what you are passionate about – was not deemed sufficient. I was asked for more explanation.

Let’s start with general observations. Each institution of higher education is different, though high-level similarities remain. A professional career may involve work at several institutions. It is prudent to find the time to look critically at one’s college, giving attention to power, function, and history. In other words, use a bit of anthropology, economics, political science, history and sociology on one’s own place of work. Curiosity helps tremendously. Reading about higher education, asking questions and remembering that good questions can have many answers.

A traditional higher education institution is led by a president/CEO, who often has three primary direct reports: a vice-president or provost for academic affairs, a vice president for finance and administration, and a vice president for development/external relations. These three areas define the basic functions of an institution of higher education: teaching and learning, the business end of the enterprise, and the institution’s relationship with the outside world.

There are, of course, as many variations of this structure as there are institutions of higher education. Some colleges include a vice president for student affairs at the top. Others add a vice president for enrollment management, a chief information officer, or a strategist. But regardless of they are organized, the fundamental functions are consistent. Understanding these key areas is necessary to perceiving how colleges operate. Once an institution of higher education reaches a healthy size (large enough to be sustainable over the long-term), these foundation functions separate and develop their own particular values, rules, and cultures. They establish their own ways of defining and measuring excellence and success. Appreciating the variations in these higher education subcultures can be critical to finding the right position and succeeding in it. A graduate degree is valued differently by different groups within each institution and then again, valued differently by different sorts of colleges and universities.

Academic affairs, which can oversee student affairs, is often the largest of these areas in terms of employees. Academic affairs is often the most traditional part of a college. The faculty live within academic affairs and academic values are celebrated. PhDs are the graduate degree of choice. Credentials at an élite institution tends to have more social capital in academic affairs, as does a professional profile featuring research and scholarship. Arts and science disciplines often are valued more than applied disciplines. None of these markers are guarantees to effectiveness, but they matter to many who work within academic affairs.

Within student affairs, a different set of graduate degrees and disciplines often have more social capital. Advanced work in psychology, education, or student development is a powerful signal of a chosen career path that is student-focused. Student affairs professionals, no matter their level or responsibilities in an organization, often make the time to return to direct contact with students and their issues. Application of theory has social capital. Just as administrators who come from the faculty may bond over disciplines or teaching experiences, student affairs administrators share deep interest in the lives of individual students.

On the business side of the house, an MBA is highly respected, as are business and operations related degrees. For external relations and communication, graduate degrees are usually not part of the equation. Areas of specific responsibility in these broad functions vary widely by type of institution. Each has its own particular history.

Summing this up:

  • Academic Affairs – the most jobs, the most people, and the most competition. Academic reputations and values matter (think PhD). Often the most valued part of the overall institution – it is usually to move from academic affairs to other areas (and more difficult to move from another area into academic affairs).
  • Student Affairs – student focused degrees have the most social capital. Often housed under or dependent upon academic affairs, student affairs is essential to the health of the institution – but is less likely to set overall direction or strategy. Sometimes the easiest entry point to a career in higher education.
  • Business/Administrative Affairs – business and operations expertise with related business degrees have the most weight. The path to advancement is like careers in the world of business: increasingly greater responsibilities accompanied by organizational success.
  • External Affairs – size, scope and impact vary widely by institution and top administrative leadership. Graduate degrees are not central to the position unless the institution’s history and culture call for them.

For those of us familiar with higher education, this might be basic. But for junior professionals new to academic, this organizational template and structure might be helpful when considering jobs and responsibilities. There is no one guide. Ultimately, the better career path will feel right as well as be right.

For those that are looking for new position, polish up that résumé (or curriculum vitae if you are thinking academic). Show it around and ask for criticism, which is much more useful than praise. Be curious and ask questions.

I wish you good luck with your search.

David Potash

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