What's it like being a university staff lifer?
April 11, 2013 8:34 PM   Subscribe

After three and half years as a university staff member, I'm trying to figure out my next step. Tell me about your college staff career and help me decide whether the field is right for me, longterm.

I'm a communications/social media person with about ten years total experience in my field and three and a half years as university staff. I worked two and a half years at University A, left the job to move across the country, applied to a variety of communications jobs, and only got interviews at schools, colleges, and nonprofits before accepting basically the same job at University B.

Now that I've spent a year at University B, I'm starting to think about my professional future. When I'm ready to move on, I expect that the easiest next step will be another job at a university, but I'm not sure that's right for me. Can you help me decide?

Here's what I like about university work:
--Good work-life balance
--Access to campus amenities (gym, cultural programming, etc.)
--Working with students

Here's what I don't like:
--Salaries seem low in general, and low compared to similar jobs in other industries
--Lack of room for growth (For instance, everyone else in my department has had the same role for more than a decade. Stability is good, but I don't want "promotions" that are in title only.)
--Stagnation and bureaucracy--I run into a lot of "we do it this way because we've always done it this way" situations

So, three questions:
1. What has your experience as a longterm staff member been in terms of career growth, salary growth, and job satisfaction?
2. What should I consider as I decide whether to continue as a university staff member?
3. If I opt to move away from university staff jobs: Given that I previously had a terrible response rate applying anywhere other than educational institutions, how can I best market myself and my experience to other kinds of employers?
posted by serialcomma to Work & Money (10 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I am a lifer (11 years).

1. My experience has pretty much been the same as you've mentioned. Work-life balance is great if you're a peon/person who only works 8-5. I never have to think about work outside of work and I've done overtime once. Access to amenities is fantastic. Benefits are good. Salaries...well, nobody gets raises any more anywhere, so I don't know if that's any different from the rest of life. Bureaucracy-- yup, you run into "we've always done it this way," but now what with all of the upgrades in technology + budget cuts, things change a LOT more than they used to say, 5 years ago. Things are changing on me all the time.

As for stagnation and lack of room for growth: The only way you are going to get promoted (usually) is if you find another job at the university. If you want to go up the ladder, you have to office hop every few years, and if you want to be a BIG shot, apply at other colleges. The lifers like myself don't want to go into management, so we stay. I have tried to find jobs in other offices periodically (my previous job was one that was obviously going to get taken away due to technological advances in a few years), but never got anywhere because my previous job experience is something that wasn't really needed anywhere AND my current job skills weren't considered transferable. My office eventually had me "temp" in a couple of other sections before finally having me transfer to a third section (slightly to somewhat related to my old job, which was getting eliminated due to technology) within the last year. I'm still at the same level though, but in my previous position I got level promotions a few times. At this point in time, it seems like the only way anyone is getting a different job is if it's something they've already done for work before, and our computerized HR system deliberately weeds out for this in the application process as well.

2. Do you want to raise in rank? Do you want to be management? Can you stand being in management? I'd probably kill someone, so it's not for me, but this is pretty much as good as I am ever going to get for the rest of my life here. (Which is sad, but again...haven't found anything else I CAN do and this is a one-industry town.) Are you willing to hop from office to office or possibly college to college every 3-5-ish years?

3. I really couldn't advise you on that one, other than the usual "tailor your resume to emphasize everything you do that is similar to the job you're applying for" thing.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:44 PM on April 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

Hm, forgot to mention that I used to be a reporter before working here and now have a non-writing-related job. I was told that I could not get a communications job here without a minimum 10 years experience and I had 2, so that area of work has been SOL for me for getting back into it. Your field ah...may be why this is so hard as well. Nobody seems to want writers any more, or they're first out the door or some crap like that.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:00 PM on April 11, 2013

I worked as a university staff member for 7 years.

5 years in, I realized I wasn't going to be able to do anything else unless I took advantage of the tuition reimbursement benefit my university offered to go to grad school. So that's what I did, and now I'm a professional making twice as much with more interesting work and about the same life/work balance and benefits (I work for a municipality now, not a university).

Does your employer offer tuition help? If so I recommend using it to get yourself qualified for better jobs.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 9:06 PM on April 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

I don't know that I'll be a lifer, but I've been working at a university for ten years.

Disclaimer: It's a state university and we're a union shop, so my experience may be different.

I agree with jenfullmoon overall - career growth is pretty much nil unless you move to another department or another university. Some department heads at my university have worked their way up, but it takes decades and I think happens less frequently now that it's easier to run national searches the higher-ups try to change that "we've always done it this way" attitude by bringing in people who have not always done it that way. Pay is low, but the general consensus is that the benefits help to make up for it. I get more paid holidays than my private-sector friends and I have better insurance than many of them. I have a chronic illness, so the insurance is part of what keeps me there.

I never thought I'd still be working for the university ten years later, but Life Happens and then at some point you realize you have nearly enough time put in to be vested in your pension and the job market sucks generally so you might as we stick it out at least until you're vested. I am way overqualified for my job (not unusual for university staff), and I find that I am most content in my work when I have plenty of outside interests and don't have think about work from the moment I'm out the door. I know and have known some true "lifers" - people who started working at the university directly out of high school and stayed for 30 or 40 years - and the happiest of them have very full lives outside of work.
posted by camyram at 4:34 AM on April 12, 2013 [6 favorites]

I've been a staff member since 2001 - not sure if that qualifies for "long-term" or not, but hey, in case what I know is helpful...

Background here is that I've moved through four different university roles in that time, three with the same university (which I shall call Nerd U) and one elsewhere (Big U).

Career growth: This is going to be very dependent on what you in particular do, and the culture of your university. My earliest couple of jobs at Nerd U. were very much early-career staff jobs, with no growth path and not much of a salary bump path. I learned a lot there precisely because I was early-career, but they were not lifer jobs by any means. They were the sort of job you take for 2-3 years while you're figuring out where you want to go to grad school, or what you want to really do when you grow up. Where I am now, there is not a lot of career growth in terms of title (basically, I am going to be what I am until my boss retires and then maybe I'll be the New Her). But my department is extremely aware of that and is very committed to fostering professional development within that structure. They are very willing to fund and make time for my attending conferences, workshops, taking classes, studying for certifications - whatever I want to do to continue learning new things and developing new skills. If I want to take my job in a somewhat different direction from what it is now, I'll be able to do that if I can make a case for it, and they're pretty open to people making those cases.

Salary growth: Eh. The trade-off at pretty much any university, as far as I know (and I know a metric ton of academic staff lifer types) is that you get amazing benefits, for middling pay. But it's not BAD pay - I'm comfortable, everyone else in my department is comfortable. I'm not going to buy myself a yacht with my next paycheck or anything, but it's fine. If you have grand lifestyle ambitions, that's going to be a problem in any staff job. Yearly salary bumps are fine but unexciting. The best way to improve salary is going to be to jump around a bit within the university or to another university. (Jobs 1-2 were with Nerd U, Job 3 was with Big U, and Job 4 I came back to Nerd U. Each time I went from one U to the other, it was with a much bigger salary bump than my existing job would have been able to give me. Then again, my partner was with technical services at Nerd U and his paycheck was sky-high, and he got amazing bonuses. So this may be a function of what you do, specifically, and how well your university funds that area.

Job satisfaction: For me, this is largely a function of who I work with. I was really unsatisfied in one staff job because management was awful and soul-crushing and that nearly made me leave academia altogether - but it was really just that job, that guy, and that time in my life. More recently, I've worked with amazing people, doing things that are interesting amid the tedium any job will have sometimes, and my job satisfaction is great. In my department, the people I work with feel the same way. There's a group of us who were hired in the past few years, we're all about the same age, and we all love it here and have discussed the fact that we may just all hang out here forever as lifers, take over when our assorted bosses retire, and run the hell out of this place. Find a good place to work and a job you find interesting, and your job satisfaction will probably be fine.

Stagnation and bureaucracy: There's definitely a lot of that - my GOD, you should see what it took for us to revise a policy last year. Apparently the university has a policy on creating policies, and a policy committee to ratify changes to the policy on policies, and stakeholder meetings to discuss policies on policies on policies - it was either a sitcom or a Kafka novel, I'm not sure which. But that's the big university-wide stuff. Within my particular office, people are very open to doing things different ways, trying new improvements, etc. So the university-level bureaucracy doesn't affect me nearly as much. Of course some of that might be that Nerd U is a relatively small, private school, with a lot of money floating around. They can do whatever the hell they want, ultimately.

2. What should I consider as I decide whether to continue as a university staff member?

The salary/benefit trade-off, for sure. If I had kids, maybe I'd feel differently about my paycheck versus my access to a free bus pass, gym membership, etc. (On the other hand, my coworkers who have kids are endlessly effusive about the childcare facilities here, flexible scheduling, etc.) Actually, think about flexible scheduling, too - my impression is that generally speaking, academic staff jobs are a lot more flexible about you having a life outside work than many corporate jobs. If you can get to a salaried staff job, then you get to have a life - get your work done, and no one cares if you work from home a lot, leave for doctor's appointments, come in and leave at weird times, etc. Is that important to you? It is to me.

Consider that the longer you stay, the longer there is a weird disconnect - you are spending a lot of your life on a college campus where every year you are surrounded by kids who look and act younger and younger, and you spend a certain amount of your time going "back in my day, young whippersnappers didn't act like this, get off my lawn." I've embraced the humor in being a curmudgeon about the kids. (they all look twelve, and my god, have you SEEN what they WEAR? And that MUSIC!) But I know some people for whom this environment makes them really feel their mortality, or be self-conscious about the fact that they're surrounded by the young and pretty and are themselves not the prettiest, skinniest girl around anymore, or whatever.

3. If I opt to move away from university staff jobs: Given that I previously had a terrible response rate applying anywhere other than educational institutions, how can I best market myself and my experience to other kinds of employers?

Can't help you quite as much with this, as I haven't made that transition. I hope someone comes along with good advice!

tl;dr: I am likely to be an academic staff lifer, and I think that can be a great choice, but it depends partly on the particular positions and departments you find yourself in.
posted by Stacey at 6:48 AM on April 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

Total lifer. Been here for 16 years and I plan on being here until I retire. I made that choice based on the retirement benefits. I don't get a humongous salary, but my retirement benefits are such that the husband and I don't actually have to worry about retirement at all.

Additionally, I'm NIH grant funded. I just got refunded for 5 years, which means 21 years for me is, more or less, guaranteed. If I can do good work (which I think I do) and justify my program for one more competitive grant cycle, I'm set.
posted by Sophie1 at 7:07 AM on April 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

8 years in a couple different universities: midsized rural flagship and low-cost urban public. Attended a SLAC myself, and was minorly involved in the administration there.

Can't agree more with the previous commenters. You're not going to get rich working in education administration, but you're going to get by. And the amazing amount of flexibility in schedule, time off to take the kids to the doctor, etc. is what keeps me here. I can be sort of on the mommy track while keeping a full time job and my sanity, mostly. At the level where I am right now, I don't have to be the one on call for emergencies 24-7, and I'm fine with that for now.

It's true, if I want a raise or promotion I have to get a new job. My husband, who works in finance, can't seem to wrap his head around the notion that I don't get a bonus or even a COLA. There are not many new positions being created in higher ed admin, so to get a new job you sort of have to wait until someone vacates the one you want.

I haven't found "that's the way we always do it" to be the case across the board. I'd probably feel more secure if it were so, but I find that there are new developments, new relationships, new projects going on all the time. Not all of them come to fruition, and probably none of them to the original endpoint, and definitely never in the original timeframe, but things are always changing.

I also worked for a while at a small company in my field (same job, just for a private company), and I have to say I was thrilled when I moved back into an on-campus position. I missed being around campus, its amenities and the face-to-face contact with students.

As you decide whether to continue: check to see how long you have to work and contribute to your retirement in order to become vested. At my first job, you had to work there 5 years before being vested.
posted by Liesl at 7:39 AM on April 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

8 years in here.

I don't mind the job. It's unexciting and I would like to do more, but for a variety of personal reasons, I haven't been able to apply for all level ups that get posted. I needed the flexibility I've earned within my department and the health insurance more than I needed a better job. Still do for now. For a variety of non-job related reasons.

But, I am in the works of a self-created promotion. I had a good reason. It's beneficial to not only me but also to my boss. It's giving him grounds to get something he really wants later on. My getting this self-created promotion is the foundation for that. Now, he still has to get it approved through the offices that approve such things. But he 100% backs it.

So sometimes, I think, and maybe more in universities and colleges than other sectors, if you want something, you have to outright ask for it and think a bit more creatively. I don't know how much longer I'll stay here, but that again has more to do with my life circumstances. I actually really love where I work and the people I work with --- and that goes a long way in any job. In an ideal world, I'd bump up exactly two places on the hierarchical ladder with my current employer, and that'd I be happy with for life.

But for now, I've decided I very much need the life-work balance that I won't get anywhere else.
posted by zizzle at 9:26 AM on April 12, 2013

Zizzle's point about creative thinking reminded me of a thing about the bureaucracy - once you learn it, you can often find a way around it.

Here's how our Committee for Creating Policies About Policies fiasco ended, for example... We finally got the policy approved, and the policy says "[Nerd U] is committed to upholding federal, state, and local regulations on [Stacey's area of academic administration] and to upholding and enforcing the [Stacey's Office] guidelines in this area."

Short and sweet. One sentence.

The guidelines? Those are on our website, we own those babies, we can change them whenever we want, and they're not officially A Policy, so we never have to go through those shenanigans again. The months of work it took to get that one sentence written sucked, but we learned the system and figured out how to get our work done outside of it. That can be done, a lot of the time, with some creative thinking and a good team of colleagues.
posted by Stacey at 9:52 AM on April 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

I work in .edu IT at a small college in Providence, RI. I love it! For IT, higher ed is heaven (once you get pervasive WiFi set up).

I have been here about a dozen years, and the average time in service at my employer is eleven years (according to our President, speaking at the longevity awards last October). Lots of IT people have been here as long as I have, or even longer.

Not *tons* of movement, but if you have found a good niche, there's plenty of work as well as the chance to sort of think up new things to do within your area.

I think it's great, and in 17 years (when my youngest one has finished sucking up the free tuition), I just might stay anyway!
posted by wenestvedt at 12:01 PM on April 15, 2013

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