Yet another job search question-- higher ed edition
February 19, 2020 8:16 PM   Subscribe

Tell me about applying to coordinator-type jobs in higher ed.

I am job searching, and I find myself living in an area that is... not incredible for jobs, but rich in higher learning institutions.

I see positions come up all the time that I think I could manage just fine as someone with 5+ years in nonprofit program management. Usually things with a bit of admin, a bit of grant management, some strategic planning, some subcontractor wrangling, some writing, some data management, etc. This is an example of what I'm talking about. Here's another.

As someone who has been working for scrappy nonprofits for years, the idea of working at a place where there's room for advancement, decent benefits, tuition waivers, perhaps a functioning HR department-- it sounds tempting. (But I'm happy to be convinced otherwise.)

I've applied to a few of these jobs, but I've always sort of got the feeling that they're hard to get if you don't know someone (even more so than other fields), and that a lot of them go to graduating students or folks already affiliated with the school. Is that true? Should I bother to apply to these jobs as someone with a B.A., a background of working in nonprofits, little experience with academia, and some of the program/project management skills I listed above?

posted by geegollygosh to Work & Money (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The first one you linked is an example of what may be common for a lot of those: it looks like it is tied to a specific grant. A grant might last for a few years and be complex enough to need a dedicated admin, but when the grant ends, the position probably does, too. I just say that because it may reduce the "room for advancement" idea somewhat. Getting your foot in the door, impressing people, and networking can help turn one opportunity into others, but there will be that lack of long-term stability. Other than that, I agree with all of your points on the benefits of working in academia. The second link looks like a "normal" (that is, not grant-funded) admin position, which would probably have the stability and room for advancement as well.

Unless it is onerous, I do think it's worth applying. I think you're right that your background is very relevant.

I could see hiring committees favoring alums or existing employees, but I doubt it's a massive bias. I can't offer much evidence beyond a single anecdote, but it's positive: I was involved in hiring for a grant-funded admin position like the first one you linked, and we hired someone with no affiliation with the school (from across the country, in fact) while the short list included a local alum who was quite qualified as well.

Also, one thing that I've seen happen is that existing employees of the institution are hired into admin positions like those. Typically, that's because the new position is a step up for them in some way. But of course that means they've vacated their old position, so from your perspective there is still an open position there somewhere. You may have more luck getting into an institution in a lower-level position and then moving up from there, but with your experience and background, I think it's also worth applying to higher-level positions.

Anyway, I say go for it, and good luck!
posted by whatnotever at 8:43 PM on February 19, 2020 [2 favorites]

At our university the administrative staff are unionized, which leads to rules around hiring giving first priority to applicants who are already members of that union, second priority to applicants who are members of another union at the same university, and last priority to external candidates. The hiring committee is not even told whether applicants from groups 2 and 3 exist unless they deem all applicants from group 1 to be unqualified. If something like this is going on where you live, it would explain the apparent inside track for applicants already affiliated with the school.

Getting even a short-term contract would give you experience with the (often baroque) admin database systems used at the school (as well as institutional knowledge) which hiring committees often see as a huge plus.
posted by heatherlogan at 5:12 AM on February 20, 2020

My university research group hires people all the time without prior connections. However:

1) We are required to conduct a "search" and interview three people even if we have someone in mind already, like a current employee increasing their hours or someone who previously worked for us as a grad student. But all is not lost if you apply to something like that: if we really like someone, we will keep them in mind for future positions, and I once even managed to wrangle part-time work from a professor when I was interviewed in this kind of situation.

2) However, because of our specific focus, we rarely hire people permanently without academic research experience of some sort. Even though 90% of what I do, someone with the skillset you list could do just as well, that last 10% requires a real understanding of research fundamentals. If your BA gave you at least some of this, that would help.

We DO hire data collectors without research experience though, and some of them have wowed us such that we move them into the kind of job you want.

3) There are other entities at my university that would directly hire administrators just like you, but generally they go through a different civil service hiring procedure.
posted by metasarah at 6:01 AM on February 20, 2020

I think some of your questions are very dependent upon the discipline and the institution (whether public or private, large or small, R1 or teaching based, etc.). The points about positions tied to grants or positions indicated as "term positions" are very valid.

I have worked in similar positions (in Humanities) for many years. My major frustration in seeing hiring is that often preference went to candidates with higher or terminal degrees in the discipline, even if what was actually more important to the position was administrative capacity. That said, I managed to land in my position with only a bachelor's, so it can be done. And it sounds like your background is very relevant to the kinds of things you are looking at.
posted by pixiecrinkle at 7:00 AM on February 20, 2020

I've worked at universities for about 20 years cumulatively, and been a hiring manager as well. For large universities especially, already knowing your way around is an advantage, I won't lie. Not one that supersedes all other qualifications, but it's definitely a tick in the box if all other things are equal. A large R1 like where I work is like a small city with its own government and bureaucracy, and academia is its own little world (or at least really likes to think of itself as such). Most of the people I work with now worked their way into my department from somewhere else here. (We have a reputation as a nice place to work, which several other areas of the institution are... not so much, so we attract a lot of internal applicants.) And a lot of us started here as administrative assistants or help desk staff. But that's on the academic support staff side of things.

Research is different and I have experience there as well. Metasarah is right about that 10% specialized knowledge being pretty important. The warning about soft money applies as well. I was incredibly lucky to have gotten 10 years out of a grant-funded research assistant position, and I looove not being on soft money anymore wheeee! Those positions also tend to have very little room for advancement without pursuing a PhD in the subject. I was an RA for ten years and there was literally nowhere to go from there. I already had an MA, that's what enabled me to get the job in the first place. I didn't get a promotion, a raise other than COLA, or any change of job title for a decade. So that sucked. Do not recommend as a long term career strategy.
posted by soren_lorensen at 7:12 AM on February 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

I work in this general area and second everyone's comments that internal hires/promotions are the most common. I would say definitely apply, but know that there's this huge lurking variable so a low interview rate or interviews but no offers is NOT necessarily that you're a bad fit or under qualified. The benefits you mention is exactly why even lower-level staff jobs at big unis are weirdly competitive and tend to often have "overskilled" people in them.
posted by nakedmolerats at 8:16 AM on February 20, 2020

The first one indicates they want someone with a strong background in the sciences, and the second one wants someone with higher ed admin experience. I think you're going to need to aim lower if you really want to break into academia, and then work your way up, take courses, etc.
posted by mareli at 1:00 PM on February 20, 2020

For what it's worth, I just made this transition (or will soon! starting the new job soon). I worked for a (large) nonprofit where I provided grants management support and found when I was interviewing for the job at the university, in their research administration department, that my skillset seemed to translate over nicely to what they seemed to be looking for. Particularly, USG grants management experience and compliance knowledge, broader administrative and organizational skills, and a sort of "customer service" background in terms of advising other staff on grants management related issues. I had been stalking the website of the university for over a year, and did notice that a lot of positions seemed to require you to already be a part of the union or already working there. My understanding is that a lot of large universities have similar departments to the one where I'm going, that service the entire university with grants management assistance. The new position is not grant funded. As others have said, I'm not 100% sure about opportunities for advancement in this arena - seems like there are a number of people in the department where I'm going who have been there for quite a while in the same position. Also, it seems a little more finance/compliance rather than content-focused, if you are looking to write grants or actually do research. But just to say, yes it's possible to make that transition. Good luck!
posted by knownfossils at 7:07 PM on February 20, 2020

« Older Help me feel better about being steamrolled   |   How do I get data off of an old hard drive? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.