Secretary or accountant? Career issues in forties
August 9, 2016 9:05 AM   Subscribe

I am a fairly high-level university secretary. My job is slowly being deskilled. I need a plan for the future. Problem - I am already 41. Other problem - difficulty in getting out of the secretarial track. What to do?

It's clear that in the future, skilled, mixed-role jobs like mine will be eliminated at my employer - the skilled functions will be given to accounting, design and event personnel with degrees while the coffee-making/meeting-scheduling will be given to low-paid low-skill workers.

I would like to stay here - the benefits are very good, it's close to home and I like the culture.

I am worried about trying to get out of the secretarial track. That's very difficult anywhere but particularly difficult at this institution, even with retraining - people just don't want to hire former secretaries, no matter how applicable your experience or shiny your grad degree.

Also, I'm 41. It would take four years to complete an accounting certificate because it's a 54-credit program. I have completed a few of the intro courses but have most of it still to do.

Another option would be to try to figure out something to make me more attractive as a secretary or program assistant - there will still be some of those jobs in the long-term, I think. An MA? Some other kind of certification?

I enjoy accounting, but the accounting certification program is pretty brutal. I don't want to do it if I'm going to come out the other side having spent a lot of cash on tuition but unable to get a job because I'm too old.

I have no supervisory experience at all - all my jobs have involved working directly for several researchers/program directors/etc.

Questions: is it too late to retrain in a different area and have plausible hope of being employed? If it is, what can I do to make myself more likely to continue in skilled secretarial work? What can I learn and what kind of volunteer experience can I seek out?
posted by Frowner to Work & Money (20 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
If you've worked for researchers, do you have any interest in doing more research administration type stuff, like working in a sponsored projects or grants office? That usually doesn't involve too much accounting (the actual grant accounting is usually done by someone in finance), but it does involve some specialized knowledge of navigating and similar portals, reporting, tracking things, coordinating between various parties in and out of the university, gathering institutional information, contract management, etc.

It does not usually require a Master's, though some places do offer that. There are one-off type trainings and courses available for some aspects of this role.

It's something that I don't really see going away any time soon. In fact, with the increased emphasis on transparency and making research data more available and such, I think this role will only grow.

Also, by today's working standards, 41 is hardly too old to transition to just about anything, so don't sell yourself short in that regard.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:17 AM on August 9, 2016 [18 favorites]

I'd second what Lutoslawski wrote about grant administration.

In addition, is degree program administration a possibility you'd consider? For instance, our department just lost our undergrad coordinator, who was basically a walking expert in our undergrad and grad programs, and in particular navigating and using the archaic software that seems to run our university. She also handled some secretarial type things, but her main role was program admin. Anyone with those skill sets is always going to have transferable skills within our U. I don't think this was a certification or degree-specific position, just on-the-ground knowledge. Is there such a role in your department, or a nearby one, that you can offer/ask to take part in?

Certainly not too late to retrain! You're a wise soul, you'll fit.
posted by Dashy at 9:29 AM on August 9, 2016 [7 favorites]

I have a vague guess about which institution you're talking about, and if I am right, it is huge.

Watch the internal job postings. For things that you could see yourself doing in 5 years, look at what they are requesting for qualifications. For things that you're really interested in, see if you can finangle an informational interview with the hiring manager or ask someone who does that job out for coffee. Ask what the job really requires, and how they got to where they are.

Lutoslawski is right that 41 (or 45) isn't too old to transition to something else, but unlike changing majors at 22, it's more important to have an idea of where you're going to end up after your transition. Are you looking at accounting because you like it? Or are there job openings right now that you could do but for the fact that you lack an accounting degree/certification? Do those departments that have those openings also employee people who are more accounting-adjacent (I'm displaying my ignorance here, but I'm thinking of the lawyer<>paralegal relationship, where the paralegals are skilled employees but require less education/certification to do their jobs)?

Talk to your current boss/manager about your concerns, and ask what they think would be a valid training/development path for you. Volunteer to take a lead role in the "deskilling" of your job so that you can become more expert in the systems that will be used to replace your skilled job duties.
posted by sparklemotion at 9:35 AM on August 9, 2016 [3 favorites]

My university doesn't use any position titles called secretary anymore, so I'm trying to imagine what you've been doing. Secretary brings to mind typing up documents and not much independent work. Instead, after many years of budget cuts, departments here have a few program coordinators who basically make *everything* run for the students and faculty. My department has a program coordinator in the front office doing all the day to day work there, assisting the department head, coordinating events like faculty and board retreats, and so one. I'm the academic coordinator - I do all tasks related to curriculum, courses, undergraduate advising and graduate admissions and funding, and then we also have an alumni/fundraising coordinator, which is more of a rare job but will become more and more necessary going forward I think. Also we have a business office but you've already covered accounting.

I didn't supervise for years but we recently hired a part-time undergrad advisor to work under me so I could dedicate more time to the admin tasks and less time to face-to-face meetings with undergrads. Academic advising is considered a professional career track and there are national organizations to join - it's higher status than secretary, although that depends on your institution. Other jobs on your campus might be in HR, or centralized offices like Registrar or financial aid.

I think taking your organizational skills, people managing skills and so on and moving into some sort of program coordination, if not academic advising, might be a good move.
posted by Squeak Attack at 9:37 AM on August 9, 2016 [3 favorites]

If you like accounting, bookkeeping might be a good fit and bookkeepers are always in need. If you want, there is a voluntary certification that consists of doing 2 yrs of on the job experience (which you might already qualify for) and a test.
posted by rmless at 9:38 AM on August 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks all!

A little more info: right now I plan events, update the website, make internal promotional materials, take minutes, do financial reporting, assist students, submit reimbursements, book travel, sometimes prepare grant budgets, order food, do lab orders...basically all duties as assigned.

I have no "official" financial training but I've learned a good deal - unfortunately, most finance jobs here require a degree and because very few people with my job title do what I do, there is a tendency for people in other areas not to believe that I can do what I do. That is, it's difficult for people to take my resume at face value and not assume I'm dramatically inflating it, and I routinely have people assume that I do not have a college degree, cannot run financial reports, etc. Part of what is frustrating me here is that when I present some data that I've noticed, everyone totally disregards it because they think that a secretary couldn't possibly notice such a thing - and we've gotten into a little financial mess once or twice because people didn't listen. I feel like I'm skilled but class prejudice is holding me back.

I like accounting a lot and I've gotten As fairly easily in the intro courses.
posted by Frowner at 9:50 AM on August 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you think you would like accounting, go for it! I re-trained starting at 40 to become a Technical Writer, and am now a Sr Technical Project Manager. My course work was in a community college, but I learned what I needed to and pretty much started over. You likely have at least 25 more years of employment - make them count by doing something you want to do! School was so much easier for me at that age, because I was focused in a clear goal. I think you will be surprised at how much you have to offer.
posted by dbmcd at 9:58 AM on August 9, 2016 [6 favorites]

The academic departments that I have been in really like to hire known quantities on the administrative side; people who can keep all those plates spinning are worth their weight in gold. I expect this will work in your favor if you're looking for a change within your university, perhaps into a department you've worked with in the past. And it's odd that you mention specialization because I feel like everyone here is wearing more hats over time, not fewer, so it may be a local academic culture shift that will shift again the next time a president leaves.

I agree with those who said looking into grant administration. Other areas with a lot of administrative people would be legal, HR, and student services. They might require some specialized training, but like, some paralegal classes instead of a JD.

On previewing and seeing your update: any chance of getting a job title change? Those happen quite often around here, and it sounds like your skill set is not being accurately reflected by your title.
posted by tchemgrrl at 9:59 AM on August 9, 2016 [13 favorites]

My good friend transitioned from being the Comp Lit department coordinator at an Ivy to being a lower-level finance person, largely through persistence and charm. She has a clearer promotion track. Her avocation is in the performing arts and she has two related masters degrees, but her understanding and tolerance of academia's quirks seem to be particularly helpful. To be clear, she doesn't have any additional education, although doesn't have lofty aspirations.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 10:17 AM on August 9, 2016

I've worked in a university before, in the office of sponsored research, and I agree that grant administration could be an easy shift. NCURA has some trainings that may be useful here. My job required some financial skills (basically the ability to review a budget), but the biggest skill required was the ability to work with all types of academics, talk them through processes, and keep track of lots of things.

We also had a positions called lab manager and center managers that did almost all of the things that you mentioned and basically kept the place running. The good ones were absolutely treasured, and there would be fights if someone tried to poach one to another department. If you've been working in the university for a while, you probably have your fan base out there. I wonder if a few discrete emails to other departments could result in job offer or two?
posted by oryelle at 10:42 AM on August 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think if you focus on your soft skills, you can make them apply to lots of different things and you could theoretically easily make the case for a parallel move to a different career track. In large corporate-world, where I've always worked, I've seen people transition from all sorts of unrelated careers into the field I work in (very broadly: finance). Depending on your skills and different kinds of things you might be open to, I think there are lots of areas you could move into. I work at a very large, local, Fortune 500 company and if you want to discuss /explore what kinds of things might be available to you here, feel free to reach out!
posted by triggerfinger at 10:47 AM on August 9, 2016 [3 favorites]

I second sparklemotion's suggestion to look at some of the available jobs or jobs that you hope to be available at some point and talk to the incumbents or supervisors to figure out the qualifications for those jobs. I don't interact with the budget folks at my university but I understand that some of them don't have many formal qualifications but they are very skilled, experienced, and highly compensated. And keep in mind that larger organizations have budget folks (and many other functions) in many different levels and places e.g., we have a university budget office but each college also has several budget folks and I'm sure that many of the larger administrative units do, too.
posted by ElKevbo at 11:03 AM on August 9, 2016

You're wanting to be given (rightful) credit for your strategic insights, but that function is technically above your pay grade, and you're (quite normally) invested in the work you spend your days on, you want to see good outcomes...

I think that if you want to stay at your institution, 2nd making any kind of lateral move to another department that will give you a shot (in the medium-term) at some kind of analytic or operations function. I can't top the advice you got above on that. (If you're a member of a union, also maybe get advice from your rep. Or, different direction - take a more active role in the union itself, there are jobs there, too.)

I think your idea of volunteering for projects on campus is a good one, in that you might get to know people in other departments who might go to bat for you. (So many initiatives were happening at my uni - committees on student satisfaction, adult education, improving transit options for commuting students, access to health care... go for anything that rings your bell.)

That aside, if you wanted to get the accounting qualification anyway, that seems like not a bad plan, whether you're wanting to get a finance-side job at your institution or not. It's the sort of skill you could sell on your own; if it came to it, you could definitely move into the private sector, or even open your own business, hang a shingle and work directly with individuals. (From your home, even. Tons of benefits to that.) You could work with non-profits... lots of options, it's a hard and necessary skill.

And you could do accounting, or some version of it (e.g., bookkeeping) part-time well into old age, if it came to it, as long as your vision and ability to use a computer are ok. AFAIK, accountants aren't super vulnerable to age bias. Not a lot of individual clients are going to ask what else you've been doing for the past 15 years, they'll just see your qualification and the sign on the door. If anything, perceived maturity/experience might be a benefit.
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:25 AM on August 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

This may be off base--heh! listen to me drop in those "feminine" caveats even while talking to a queer woman!--but I would look at Clinical Research Coordinator positions. The lowest level is for recent grads taking a year before med school or a psych. Ph.D., but the higher-level versions might work for you. You can certainly learn about the subject area by reading. I mean, if my boss is doing an experiment on X kind of genetically modified mouse, then OF COURSE no one gets the whole picture at the's an EXPERIMENT, that's the point.

I don't know how best to prove your accounting bona fides. Maybe an actual CPA will chime in here?
posted by 8603 at 11:32 AM on August 9, 2016

If you ever decide to leave academia, research coordinators in health care perform many of the same functions (kind of the same as grant coordinators, since most of the research is grant-funded). Also, the current finance department grant coordinator at my current hospital of employment hired someone with awesome admin skills and basic accounting skills, and mid-career-age like yourself.

I worked at the U for a couple years with job titles of "program associate" and "program support specialist" (clear job progression there, provided the higher-ups actually retired). I wasn't a secretary but focused on running specific departmental programs. Have you looked into those positions? The pay grade differential might be a hurdle if you've got lots of seniority in your current job role.

Send me a Memail if you'd like to talk - I'm local!
posted by Maarika at 2:02 PM on August 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

I don't really know anything about being an accountant or much about university departmental culture, but a few things:

- It sounds like you are really undervalued in your current workplace. I am really sorry about that. It sucks. Academics can be such arrogant jerks. But given the kind of work you do there, I bet your skills and experience would be very highly valued elsewhere. What about a local non-profit or small business? Not that you can't be undervalued in places like that, but someone like you who can wear so many different hats would be extremely valuable to many small non--profits. I know you said you wanted to stay, but how great can the culture be if your coworkers don't even believe you are smart enough to do the job you do well?

- My father transitioned from a blue-collar career (EMT) to working in broadcasting at 40 (and then transitioned into public relations at 55, both fields where there is actually a lot of age discrimination). He was also a working class kid with a college degree. He was able to use what he had (in his case, knowledge of the first responder world, a gregarious personality, and leadership experience through his activist history) to make that transition work. I know from reading your contributions here that you have a lot of stellar qualities (strong writing, analytical skills, cultural literacy, your own activism) which you could leverage to make a new career successful. I think it might be useful for you to meet with some sort of career counselor to talk about how you can do that.

- Another thing to talk to a career-counselor-type person about is how to frame your current position and responsibilities. For instance, could you put a different title on your resume? I don't mean something outright fraudulent, but something that more accurately reflects the kind of work you do. The word "secretary" is pretty out-of-date and I'm actually surprised you have that title - your responsibilities sound more like that of an administrative or program coordinator. And think about how you can frame your responsibilities and accomplishments in your current position as well. There's a lot to value there.
posted by lunasol at 2:54 PM on August 9, 2016 [4 favorites]

Frowner, I hope you get to stay with your employer and make an appropriate transition. I don't know what area of the country you are in, so this may not be true where you are. But some companies/industries still use Executive Assistants to the CEO and these are people who do the kinds of things you do now and get paid well in the Bay Area, at least. My friend who does it was considered indispensable at the places she has worked and she only has a high school degree. She's in her early 40s and worked her way into this area. Not saying she could do it now. Merely tossing this out as a potential Plan B or C. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 4:27 PM on August 9, 2016

right now I plan events, update the website, make internal promotional materials, take minutes, do financial reporting, assist students, submit reimbursements, book travel, sometimes prepare grant budgets, order food, do lab orders

If you decide to leave academia, I used to work in program coordination at a nonprofit and this is exactly what I did, though at an assistant/associate level - you would want to look for Program Manager/Director roles. With your experience you would be completely qualified for a role like that one without any additional training. The one thing you might need is a way of demonstrating affinity to the nonprofit's cause, such as volunteering with an organization that works on the same cause.
posted by capricorn at 12:01 PM on August 10, 2016

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone!

I have sort of decided on a two-part plan - I am going to look into transitioning into a job that has more focus (whether that's research support focus, academic support or, ideally, something financial) while also carrying on with the accounting training. I figure that once I'm certified, even in a worst case scenario (unless the worst case is zombies, etc) I will be able to be a freelance accountant (riding the marches on my noble steed, bringing balanced books to all). And also, I find that looking into my heart, I really do like accounting.

I may be in touch with some folks who kindly invited me to memail, too. Thanks again!
posted by Frowner at 10:41 AM on August 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: And here's an update: I was prompted to ask this question by applying for what I thought was a perfect job, next-career-steps-wise, and then hearing absolutely zip about my application. About three weeks ago, I heard back from the perfect job, got an interview and got an offer. I've signed the offer letter and will give notice at my current position this week.

For the record, it matches some of the suggestions upthread about moving sort of laterally - it's an entry level accounts position which pays a little more than my current job and has a more specialized skill set (although some of it overlaps with financial stuff that I currently do). My current plan is to continue with some kind of accounting, finance or non-profit management degree part time, since I'm still doing coursework which makes sense for all three, and decide where to specialize in another semester or two.

In any case, thanks for the encouragement here - I bore it all in mind when I was interviewing.
posted by Frowner at 7:31 AM on October 11, 2016 [5 favorites]

« Older Driving my Mexican bought car into the USA as a US...   |   What is this, an apartment for ants? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.