The academic market in many fields has always been challenging, but in these difficult economic times, many graduate students are more anxious than usual about their prospects and looking for options beyond the tenure track. For many Ph.D.'s, a career in campus administration is both an interesting possibility and a way to remain connected to higher education.
In last month's column, we interviewed Ph.D.'s who had found satisfying careers working in academic administration for deans and provosts. This month, we would like to write about four Ph.D.'s we've interviewed who have pursued administrative careers in academic advising.
Their core responsibilities are similar: They meet individually with students to discuss their academic progress, major and minor choice, graduate-school applications, and career options. But their portfolio of responsibilities differ from institution to institution.
Veronica Aplenc, a Ph.D. in folklore and folklife from the University of Pennsylvania, works as the coordinator of academic advising at Rosemont College, a small, Roman Catholic liberal-arts college outside of Philadelphia. She develops administrative processes, assists in registering freshmen, works with students on probation, conducts graduation audits of all seniors, and evaluates transfer credits—in addition to teaching one class a semester. "This has been a great job opportunity for me," she says, "because the small college atmosphere has given me, and my boss, freedom to find a real fit between my skill set and my institution's needs."
Kimberly Torres, a Ph.D. in sociology from Penn, is now an academic adviser with a focus on preprofessional advising at New York University's College of Arts and Science. The students she works with are hoping to attend medical, veterinary, or dental school, as well as other health-related programs, and she helps them with applications and letters of recommendation. She also works with students in a freshman honors seminar and advises the university's Women in Science (WINS) chapter. WINS scholars are selected from each entering class and receive intense advising to encourage them in their work in the sciences.
"Jane Doe," a soon-to-be Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition who asked to use a pseudonym, manages four doctoral programs, a master's program, and two graduate-certificate programs in the social sciences at her large public university. She advises more than 150 graduate students, actively recruits students and arranges campus visits, manages the graduate-application process (some 230 applicants this year), evaluates graduate students for satisfactory progress and ranks them for available funding, assists with the allocation of teaching assistants, makes teaching assignments, tracks financial awards and recruitment packages, and works with the graduate-student association to professionalize the organization.
Finally, Michelle White is director of academic advisement and an associate professor in the department of academic and student development at Millersville University of Pennsylvania. She is unique in that she commenced doctoral education and an academic career as a second career. Her responsibilities include designing and implementing faculty-development programs and collaborating with other departments and units at Millersville. Along with her professional responsibilities, she engages in scholarship and service work. She has presented at numerous conferences and published articles and book reviews.
All four women took varied paths to their current jobs.
As Veronica was finishing up her Ph.D., she began to think that her degree was less than marketable. Yet she knew she found meaning in the exchange of ideas, and she was committed to education. After two years on the academic market, she spent a year working full time for a nonprofit group before landing her current job at Rosemont.
Due to geographic constraints, Jane's time on the academic job market didn't result in any job offers, either. So she defended her dissertation but didn't officially turn it in so that she could remain a student for one more year and keep her options open. Shortly afterward, she and her partner moved to the city where her university is located, and she applied for 25 nonfaculty jobs during a two-month period. "The job I currently have was the only place that even called me back, but I absolutely love it," she said. "I turned in my dissertation revisions a year later and receive my Ph.D. this May."
For Kimberly, the transition to advising was a natural one, since all of her doctoral research concentrated on undergraduates. Her research was in racial inequality in higher education with a focus on the experiences that African-Americans and African immigrants have as they negotiate elite, often primarily white institutions. As part of her qualitative study, she spent hours and hours interviewing undergraduates and realized that she could make a bigger difference in students' lives through academic advising than teaching.
Michelle began her career as a chemist and an engineer with large national companies. After the birth of her children, she worked as an academic adviser at her alma mater. Michelle was looking for a new challenge, however, and enrolled in a doctoral program in higher-education leadership and administration. She planned to teach in the field and juggled a full-time job and family duties as she pursued her degree. Finding a position as a faculty member in her field proved virtually impossible as she was tied to a specific geographic location and positions were scarce even nationally. A year before graduation, she found a temporary full-time faculty position that included advising duties, teaching freshman-year seminars, and being part of an academic department. At the end of her fourth year in the temporary job, she applied for the position she now holds and landed it.
In our interviews with all four women, one message was clear: You should only consider a job in academic advising if you enjoy working one-on-one with students. As Jane said, "I felt very diluted in the classroom and always looked back fondly on my days as a writing consultant at a writing center, where I had the ability to work one-on-one with students. In my current position, I work exclusively with graduate students, one-on-one or in small groups. It's heaven."
Likewise, if you're going to work with undergraduates, "you need to like the age group," Kimberly said. "For me, college was an intellectual awakening. I enjoy working with students at this crucial time of their lives."
Strong communication skills are essential in these positions. Said Veronica: "The most important characteristics of a good academic adviser include good communication skills, sound judgment (or the successful balance of flexibility and adherence to rules), a clear understanding of college processes, a nonjudgmental care for individuals, an ability to remain calm in any situation, and a love of learning."
Michelle said it was important in academic advising to be able to advocate for students and to develop trusting relationships across the campus.
Positions in academic advising require a master's or a doctoral degree, depending on the job and the institution. Both Kimberly and Michelle said that successful advisers come from many different fields and backgrounds. Michelle also pointed out that with today's increased emphasis on assessment, a candidate who has a strong background and interest in that subject would be a valued applicant.
It also helps to have some experience with handling budgets. Jane said her position has involved a lot of budget activities, an area in which she had little experience. "If you have a chance to handle financial activities in any capacity," she said, "you should really take advantage of it."
For people interested in advising careers, our interviewees had several suggestions for where to look for openings. The National Academic Advising Association (Nacada) offers great resources for advising as well as position openings. Kimberly also suggested checking the Web site of the National Association of Advisors for the Health Professions.
"State, regional, and national/international Nacada conferences are excellent ways to garner good information about advising as well as being networking opportunities and job-placement centers," Michelle said. "There are also numerous opportunities for involvement in the organization. The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition Conferences are also excellent sources of information and networking for individuals interested in working with first-year students."
Check the human-resources Web pages of colleges and universities where you would like to work. "In this economic climate," Jane said, "you really have to keep checking back—on a daily basis at least. There is such a glut of people looking that colleges often take down job ads after only a few hours because otherwise they'll be overwhelmed with applications."
Many Ph.D.'s are concerned about leaving the professorial track for administrative work. And Jane faced those pressures as well: "It has been tough in some ways because the faculty at my graduate institution, while supportive, have made me feel like they are disappointed that I didn't do a broader search or stay more faithful to the idea of research and teaching. Some of this is probably my own guilt, but I do think it's real. I think there was an expectation that I'd be a rising scholar in my field and that I sort of threw it away because I couldn't get my partner to follow me to a traditional faculty position located anywhere in the U.S."
In her current position at the large research university, Jane said that faculty members in her department have had varied reactions to her career choices. "Those who know I have a degree talk to me about my research and value my opinion on administrative matters," Jane said. "Others, who didn't know I would soon receive a Ph.D., have said some very snarky things to me that were clearly intended to 'put me in my place' and remind me that I am only staff. But with a background in rhetoric, I think that, for the most part, it has been possible, though challenging, to bring such folks around to my side. I love everything about my position—the interactions with graduate students, the fact that I serve on administrative committees with tenured faculty, the fact that I have immediate access to deans and other administrators."
For those who truly enjoy working with students on a wide range of questions pertaining to both their intellectual and personal growth, academic advising can be a wonderful career choice. "I firmly believe in the philosophy of advising as teaching," Michelle said. "This philosophy has enabled me to more fully understand and value the work of my colleagues and for them to understand and appreciate my work."
"It's very gratifying work," Kimberly said. "Every day brings something new. You have to have a certain stamina to work in this environment, but I really enjoy it."
Photographs by Ricky Wong for the Chronicle Review