By William Weaver
Inside Higher Ed, April 3, 2019.
Tips for pleading your case to two key audiences.
When you interview for a staff job in academe — whether you’ve just graduated from college or grad school, are a faculty member, or work outside academe — you may need to persuade two audiences that you are a good fit for their institution: administrators judging whether you can handle day-to-day business and faculty members assessing whether you understand the academic endeavor. Here are a few tips for pleading your case.
Few get rich on an academic staff salary, unless they eventually move into the top levels of the administrative hierarchy. Thus, interviewers often suspect that recent collegiate graduates might soon leverage an entry-level academic staff job into a higher-paying position elsewhere or that more experienced professionals simply won’t take the job — or stay long — because of the salary. To convince them that you are a cultural fit and want the job despite the salary, tell a story or two describing your appreciation of intellectual life and the personalities you’ve encountered therein. (They’re secretly wondering if you can handle those.) In particular, wax eloquent about the hardworking and thoughtful staff members who helped you when you were a student.
People are often coached not to talk about their personal lives in interviews, but you should strongly consider stating explicitly why you are thinking of making an administrative career in the academy, especially if you have significant business experience. Preaching to the academic choir about the collegial environment, the good work-life balance (especially for parents), the benefits package (usually a plus in academe), the ancillary educational opportunities and so forth might just convince them that you would accept their offer over one for a higher-salary position with longer hours.
Academic institutions tend to have horizontal organizational plans, so expect to work in one of the many relatively small, short-staffed offices whose harried denizens would welcome a jack-of-all-trades type like yourself. In the interview, flagging your willingness and ability to be flexible and pitch in on various projects will impress.
Project a calm, grounded demeanor. A university isn’t a big-time financial trading firm — millions aren’t at stake with each lightning-fast, stressful decision. But it’s always helpful to convey that you will be the friendly professional in the room when the collective academic frustrations tepidly boil over.
In the interview, do administrators defer to an engaged faculty member, or do they tactfully correct a bored one about the job requirements? Which staff members seem to have intellectual ambitions and which are sarcastic about the local intellectuals?
Read the room to see: 1) who might pay attention to your work and 2) what cultural divides exist between faculty and staff (or among staff) at that institution. Such divides can make it more difficult for you to forge administrative alliances without incurring social or professional costs.
People in academe often broadcast a subliminal message that their institution is so unique and arcane that only they fully understand it. But don’t be intimidated if you aren’t an insider candidate. Some rapid comparisons between, and questions about, the administrative processes listed in the job description and the ones at your current job (or alma mater) will show that you’re a systems thinker who can help re-engineer a few moribund procedures.
Don’t waste time applying for academic staff jobs that are beyond your academic pedigree — at least one academically snobbish person will participate in the hiring process. If you do have the relevant degree but lack experience, highlight your current administrative capabilities, your willingness to learn more (e.g., database systems mentioned in the job profile) and your capacity to grow professionally under the laissez-faire supervision academic staff often receive from distracted superiors.
If you have an advanced academic degree, interviewers will already assume that you get academe and have significant analytical skills. So don’t burnish your academic credentials, despite any persistent yearnings. Instead, focus on the specifics of the job, display the energy suggesting that you will be comfortable working at a brisker businesslike pace and emphasize the professional writing and data-management skills you’ve already learned working on graduate research projects.
If you have done graduate work, especially Ph.D. work, you will also need to convince both yourself and others that an academic staff job will hold your intellectual interest. In the interview, talk about the job as a form of cross-disciplinary intellectual work — for example, the challenge of assessing student progress through academic institutions. Describe which day-to-day tasks you would enjoy and an extra project or two you could do right away for your new office. Such riffs will show that you’ve imaginatively projected yourself into the job and are already transitioning intellectually from academic work to working as a staff member in academe.
William Weaver has been an academic staff member at the University of Chicago for more than a decade. He is currently the department administrator in the department of philosophy.