Starting a career in higher ed administration: do your research

September 20, 2019

Someone who has worked their way up to being a faculty member or researcher in higher education may become interested in moving into administrative roles.

How does one get started? Jerry Halverson*, PhD, Senior Core Faculty at Capella University, explains what’s involved.

Administrative roles in higher ed

First of all, what exactly are the administrative roles offered in higher ed? You may already recognize several of these titles:

  • President
  • Vice President
  • Dean
  • Provost
  • Director of University Housing
  • Career Service Program Manager
  • Development Officer
  • State Compliance Administrator
  • Integrated Curriculum Administrator

Administrative roles exist in many college and university departments, including:

  • Advising
  • Academic Departments
  • Enrollment
  • Career Counseling
  • Legal Affairs
  • Curriculum Design
  • Housing
  • Occupational and Environmental Safety
  • Public Relations and Marketing
  • Alumni Affairs  
  • Libraries
  • Human Resources
  • Institutional Research and Planning
  • Business and Financial Services

Whatever the department or job title, the administrator’s main job is to manage the college or university in all its facets and keep it running as smoothly as possible.

Informational interviews: learning what administrators do

Halverson encourages people to research what administrative roles entail before deciding to enter the field. “Some have only a vague notion of what administration really is,” he says. “And sometimes, egos drive our buses. We want jobs that seem to have both high prestige levels and high compensation.”

“Anyone interested in administration has really got to do basic research about what interests them,” Halverson says. “Informational interviews are invaluable. It’s important to talk to people who are doing the jobs you think you want to do.”

Halverson suggests identifying the specific administrative roles that are of interest and reaching out to people in those positions to set up interviews. The kinds of questions to ask: How did you prepare for this job? What do you like and dislike about it? If you could start over, would you take this position again?

“What we think a job to be is seldom what that person actually does,” Halverson says. “That’s why this type of research is so important.”

Keep in mind that getting an appointment with people in these positions, especially at higher levels, can be difficult. Halverson urges patience and tenacity in securing an informational interview.

Understanding leadership

Another key factor to consider is what it takes to be in a leadership position. According to Halverson, there are five key skills necessary for any potential leader to have (or to develop):

  • Conflict management. “The most basic responsibility of a leader is to manage conflict,” says Halverson. He notes that there are two extremes that exist within any university setting: preservationists vs. innovators. “These two are always vying for position, and it’s up to the administrative leader to balance the needs and wants of both,” he says. “Some people love this type of responsibility. Others don’t. These are wonderful jobs, but they’re not for everyone. How will you manage increased tuition? Increased expenses? Campus scandals?”
  • Change management. Universities, like every other organization, need to evolve continually to meet the changing standards of the times and the students they educate. A good leader will need to be able to evaluate current practices and policies with an eye towards the future.
  • Risk-taking. Managing change can sometimes mean taking risks. People who are risk-averse could have a difficult time being an effective leader. Strong leaders need to be able to analyze potential risks for pros and cons and make thoughtful decisions.
  • Proactivity. A good leader proactively looks for solutions to present and future issues, rather than waiting for them to arise.
  • Listening. A leader who does not take time to hear what affected parties have to say is not likely to make decisions that will be viewed in a positive light. Effective leaders know they don’t have all the answers and will reach out to others who can help round out the picture.

Administration can be an excellent move for researchers or teachers who want to stay within the academic system but are ready for a change. Understanding what the different administrative roles require is essential preparation for making this career move.

Learn more about Capella University’s online education programs.

Multiple factors, including prior experience, geography, and degree field, affect career outcomes, and Capella does not guarantee a job, promotion, salary increase, or other career growth.

*Interviewee Jerry Halverson passed away in 2019. He is greatly missed by his Capella colleagues.


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