Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Frontiers of University Administration

Last week, David Perry highlighted a striking trend in American higher education: the expansion of administrative positions at colleges and universities and the simultaneous "fall" of tenure-track faculty. Two quick caveats are required to understand this trend before getting to the crux of my post.

First, some call this growth "bloat," which fails to acknowledge that a chunk of the additional personnel were hired to meet enrollment demands and spur completion. In other words, as Perry acknowledged, not all administrative expansion should be thought of as excessive. Second, "administrative" is an umbrella term that disguises precisely where growth is happening. In my experience, certain areas have massified to a greater extent than others. For example, when I was job searching a few months ago, it was impossible to miss the plethora of new positions in development and fund-raising. I had to learn a whole new vocabulary just to understand the job descriptions.

Although I recognize that the number of administrative positions is relevant and intersects with the the state of the academic profession, I don't think it captures the major transformations currently afoot in administration. If you want to learn about the relationship between administration and corporatization, keep your eyes fixed on two increasingly widespread phenomena: 1) efficiency-based restructuring and 2) contracting with private companies to develop administrative technologies. These practices are remarkably under-studied, and they are often absent in conversations related to the nature of change in higher education and the advent of disruptive innovation that's all the rage these days.

Starting with the first phenomenon: efficiency-based restructuring. Many institutions are looking for synergies between units that justify cost-cutting mergers. An example of this at my own university was the decision to create a center for innovation in teaching and learning by combining the center for teaching excellence and an e-learning office. A few experts in big data will be hired in the process, but the move also frees up office space and reduces the need for some administrative positions. Efficiency wasn’t the only objective in this process—it was a signature initiative for the provost who, like many chief academic officers, seems to be gunning for a presidential appointment.

Another example of efficiency-based restructuring is a model of shared services being explored at the University of Michigan and the University of Texas at Austin. Not coincidentally, both universities were advised by the consulting firm Accenture LLP, which is not the only consulting firm cashing in institutions' pursuit of organizational efficiencies. A friend at Booze Allen recently told me that his team is getting into higher education consulting. The shared services model looks to identify and eliminate administrative redundancies, typically through the centralization of certain administrative functions that are shared by many units. This model has been hotly contested by faculty at both institutions, partly because it oversimplifies the work done by many staff people and could result in substantial loss of grant money. So, rising numbers of mid-level managers in higher education is not the only example of failed corporatization. Many constituents at colleges and universities oppose the type of lay-offs required to achieve the efficiencies proposed in restructuring. 

The second phenomenon is contracting with private companies to develop or implement technologies that improve the administrative functioning of campuses. Right now, our university has a number of contracts with companies in order to digitize paperwork, streamline the collection and analysis of information, and measurably cut the bureaucratic red tape that is said to inhibit change. One of these products is an online portal that collects information on faculty in order to facilitate annual reporting to the state, generate standardized CVs, and eventually streamline the promotion and tenure process. Other products are designed to replace the antiquated applications that were created in-house to manage student information, course registration, and financial aid. A booming business has emerged to capitalize on various administrative functions in higher education. We don't have any sense of how much money is being spent on these and similar products, or if they even work as advertised. It seems rather odd that a research university with some of the brightest minds on earth would rather pay a company than encourage its own people to develop new technologies.

Why don't we hear more about these phenomena? Higher education's reform-industrial complex has not nearly been as concerned with administration as instruction. Innovation and disruption, it seems, are solely applied to teaching and learning. Frequently, innovation revolves around cutting costs by putting students in front of a computer, instead of in a classroom with others. I have yet to see a panel, summit, or conference dedicated to “re-imagining” administration. The reality is that many of the innovation evangelists have no experience in administration and may not have a strong sense of where to introduce new ideas. Administration is also less politically-charged and sexy than how much students are learning and whether tenured faculty are superstars or deadweight. Thus, these two phenomena are largely occurring under the radar.

In thinking about administration in higher education, we should set our sights on more than just counting the number of administrative jobs. There are major shifts taking place in administration, and they represent the frontier of university operations—we know little about them, how much they cost, or whether they work. And these trends are just as important and say more about corporatization than the number administrators. 

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Non-Death of American Manufacturing and Its Role in University Decision-Making

Last year, I spoke with a range of university executives for my dissertation. Because of the nature of my project, we frequently spoke about the state of the U.S. economy and what it means for their decision-making. One theme in these conversations was that the economy had shifted from production line manufacturing to information processing. We were, as one executive put it, in the midst of a new industrial revolution with information technology. Some called this the knowledge-based economy.

In the knowledge-based economy, the jobs for which universities prepare students are quite different. Many of the manufacturing jobs, they argued, have been sent overseas. Increasingly, students need to train for jobs of the future, like cybersecurity and data management. This shift in the economy was cited as a reason for training students to become entrepreneurs. The goals were to teach students how to make a job, not take a job. To think creatively and not be afraid to change jobs or start anew. And to embrace a “free agency kind of employment.”

When I heard these statements, I didn’t reflect on them much. On some level, I must have agreed that the American economy is knowledge-based, signaling the death knell of manufacturing. However, I have come to realize that university executives were not reading regular updates on the manufacturing sector. They really had no substantive experience with the labor market outside of the university. Most of them had spent their lives in academe. In other words, I came to suspect that these executives were making decisions based upon a priori understandings. They operated according to assumptions about “the economy” that they either self-generated or, more likely, recycled from a grand narrative related to innovation, prosperity, and higher learning.

Let’s take a look at the status of American manufacturing. It is the case that America’s share of global manufacturing has declined, and China’s share has increased. Data also shows that the number of manufacturing jobs overall has fallen, and the contribution of manufacturing to GDP has declined. However, as many observers have noted, these metrics are not sufficient to argue that American manufacturing is dead. Many would instead argue that the manufacturing sector is in transition. Some industries are faring well, while others are struggling. There is a small revival of manufacturing, and the sector continues to produce at high rates. Nevertheless, current trends do not suggest that the number of jobs created in this revival will replace the millions lost in the economic crises of the past 15 years

President Obama has been quick to capitalize on the notion that advanced manufacturing can be nurtured to create new middle-class jobs. In fact, his administration has announced that it will create three manufacturing institutes that bring together resources from corporations, universities, and the government. One of these institutes is currently being created in the research triangle of North Carolina and will focus upon the creation of energy-efficient, high-power electronic chips. The Department of Energy is investing $70 million in the initiative. Overall, we can say that manufacturing is alive in America, but it is likely the case that good jobs in manufacturing sector will never fully recover.

The university executives with whom I spoke weren’t entirely wrong in believing that manufacturing jobs are gone. They may not have nuanced knowledge of the place of manufacturing in the American economy, but they seem to be reacting to a real trend. However, there is something to be said for the fact that many higher education institutions, at least those oriented to research and prestige-maximization, have not been training students for manufacturing jobs in a very long time. So, we can question the relevance of manufacturing jobs in their assessment of the economy and its impact on their decision-making.

Briefly, let’s turn to this idea of “free agency employment.” Again, university executives were not closely following mobility or flexibility trends in the labor market. Otherwise, they probably would have realized that they are among the worst perpetrators of inequitable, contingency labor practices. I’m talking about the adjunctification of academic labor. Setting this issue aside, university executives clearly believe that students should be prepared for a volatile labor market. It is frequently said that Americans now change careers as many as seven times over the course of a lifetime. As it turns out, this widely cited number appears to have little basis in research. The Bureau of Labor Statistics even says on its website that this is a thorny empirical question because no consensus exists as to what constitutes a career change.

What I’m proposing here is that assumptions, beliefs, and perceptions about the status of the economy are vitally important in university decision-making. This proposal throws a bit of a wrench in higher education research, particularly a popular branch of organizational theory that attributes institutional behavior to external factors. Many "open-systems" researchers today see a rather direct relationship between how institutions operate and the nature of economic change. While I don’t dispute the influence of the economy in higher education restructuring, I think we need to reveal the a priori knowledge about the economy that drives some decision-making.

It is possible that closer scrutiny of this a priori knowledge shows that there are certain economic tropes onto which university executives latch. Such tropes may originate in a set of powerful institutions, such as the OECD, and may help higher education institutions demonstrate their value to an economy structured around knowledge production. By repeating these tropes, and making decisions upon them as if they are fact, universities serve an important role. They don’t just reflect some discrete, external economic reality. They bring that type of economy into existence. This point bears repeating because it is woefully under-represented in research: higher education institutions are not merely responding to the economy, they are making the economy what it is.

We can extend this line of thought into multiple arenas. We can look at how the creation of degree programs effectively validates certain types of knowledge and leads to the establishment of new industries. We can look at how universities don’t just “place” graduates in the labor market. They co-create the labor market. We can look at how universities institutionalize and normalize contingent labor and encourage mobility. The possibilities are multiple and critically important, I think, in understanding the relationship between higher education institutions and “the economy.”

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Inside the EdTech Reform Circus

Today, I begin what I hope will be a useful look inside the circus of technology-based higher education reform. My goal is to see higher education through the eyes of education technology evangelists, corporations, startup companies, innovation gurus, consultocracy elites, reform funders, and investment capitalists. What are the main issues in higher education? What are their proposed solutions? Who are the major players? How are they related and whom do they represent? The idea is to better understand how this influential group is shaping the higher education reform agenda, map the ties that bind them, and unpack the ideologies that guide them.

My plan is to begin attending the various conferences, summits, meetings, and panel discussions devoted to identifying problems in higher education and presenting "innovative" solutions. This should be relatively easy for the time being, as many of the take place in the District. I'll start next week by attending an event called "Hack the University," co-sponsored by the New America Foundation and Arizona State University. For the record, I'm not opposed to change, and I don't believe colleges and universities are perfect. I also recognize that there are individuals active in this space who genuinely care about the future of higher education. However, I am concerned about how the conversation is dominated by individuals with no real experience with the realities of higher education work, many of whom stand to benefit, either personally or professionally, depending on how the reform agenda is framed. For example, a tech company that assigns badges based on mastery of certain competencies is likely to support any number of events critiquing the use of credit hours as a metric of learning.

I decided to take on this project last night, after scrolling through the list of speakers for the Education Innovation Summit. This is not the first time I have walked down this path, but I'm hoping to stick with it. The reality is that this is a huge undertaking, a bit like trying to wrap your arms around an elephant. To help launch the project, I'm beginning here a list of the major players, which I'll continue to update.

Education Technology Evangelists:
Jeff Selingo, Chronicle of Higher Education
Anant Agarwal, President of edX
Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University
Daphne Koller, Coursera
Thomas Friedman, New York Times
Henry Christensen, Harvard University
Daphne Koller, Coursera

DeVry Education Group
Apollo Education Group

Startup Companies:
Khan Academy

Innovation Hubs:
Arizona State University

Consultocracy Elites:
McKinsey and Company

Reform Funders:
Gates Foundation
Lumina Foundation
Thiel Foundation

Investment Capitalists:
GSV Capital

Think Tanks:
Clayton Christensen Institute

The Minerva Project


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

What Have I Jumped into Now?

By now, those of you who regularly read this blog have ascertained that I will be entering academe professionally in a few months. Based upon my obsessive reading of higher education news, I understand that this is an enviable position. Many (though not all) doctoral students across the country are jumping through the seemingly endless string of hoops in pursuit of this objective. Recently, I was reminded to count my blessings, as I met still unemployed peers in my field who applied for the job I accepted. As a result of these messages and encounters, the feeling I have going into this job is entirely unique. There is enormous pressure surrounding a tenure-track faculty job, and little space to voice concern, worry, or even doubt.

I'm consciously creating space in this post to examine this phenomenon, at risk of receiving unsympathetic responses. As a preface, let me convey that I get it. I am lucky and have little reason to complain. I have a job, and there are others who will gladly take my place. Let me also say that I'm happy with my decision. Simply put, I can't imagine any other career for myself at the moment, and part of me is overwhelmed by the sense of anticipation and excitement. However, another other part of me is ridiculously nervous and concerned. One reason for this is that, despite working in an office of faculty affairs, researching the academic profession, and interacting with countless professors, I still don't know everything about the job I am starting.

I heard from a colleague that, in his first year, he thought he knew what it meant to be a professor and what the job entailed. But he soon discovered that he didn't know the half of it and faced a steep learning curve. It is always the case that we jump into new careers without fully knowing what we are doing, or if we will like it. Many people would respond to this scenario by saying, "You don't know until you try!" and "You'll just have to see how it goes." I have found, nevertheless, that this sentiment of "give it a try" is rarely applied to academic positions. The assumption seems to be that this is a natural extension of graduate school, and you should already have experienced it and evaluated your feelings. Guess what? That type of certainty eludes me, and I fully intend to approach this job with the mentality that, if it isn't a good fit, I can seek employment elsewhere. This may be dangerous thinking, but I have taken to heart an idea I read the other day: "it's tenure-track, not tenure-trapped."

Another source of some worry is that I'll be moving a different type of institution. I have been at my current university for close to 7 years. I know its inner workings, and I know where to locate resources. I have friends here and a support network. Beyond questions of familiarity, moving to a new institution has other implications. I was trained at a research university. For the past year, I have processed dossiers at my institution and understood tenure largely through the lens of research productivity. In other words, the place where I have trained and learned about the academic profession has not necessarily prepared me for the expectations of professors at my new institution. I will be evaluated at my new university based upon my teaching performance first, followed by my research. Although I have been told that my new institution, like many comprehensive universities, is creeping towards a research-oriented mission, I have concerns that I am socialized for faculty work at a research university.

Now that my dissertation is complete, the pressure of my pending position has already started to bubble up. Although I recognize that I should take a break and enjoy life while I can, there is a voice in the back of my mind telling me to start working on publications, tweaking syllabi, and building a public presence through social media. After all, many people have told me that the first year is insanely busy, so why not take advantage of the time I have this summer and be productive? The issue with this is that, honestly, my brain could probably use a break. I'm also not currently being paid to work on publications or courses. This has never really stopped me from producing in the past, but it causes me to worry at this early stage that I'm already burdened by a tenure monkey on my back. And it's not just tenure-related pressure. I want to do well, like my advisers and the hot-shots in my field. Taking a break is, perhaps, a luxury.

Which leaves me with one more thought. I've been harboring some doubt about whether a job where taking a break seems like a luxury is a good thing, worthy of such celebration. Faculty work is prestige-driven and can be competitive. I realize other jobs have their disadvantages, but I sense that I am beginning a career that is renowned for its stress, isolation, high divorce rate, and propensity for "breaking" people. And that's scary.

I have no doubt that I can adjust, learn the ropes, and figure out some semblance of balance in the coming years. Alternatively, my faculty life may be a complete disaster and end quickly. I suppose what I'm proposing is that we ensure the narrative about tenure-track jobs doesn't stifle expressions of concern or possibilities for failure. We may be fortunate to have jobs, and we may think we know what have jumped into, but those of us with job offers still confront anxiety-producing unknowns.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

No, You Don't Understand "Soaring" College Costs

I read yet another article today attempting to explain "what's behind America's soaring college costs." These articles have proliferated, especially since the economic crises that began in 2008. The problem with many of these articles is that they are brimming with faulty assumptions and often end up misinforming those who don't have a firm grasp of higher education finance. I'm going to pick apart this latest article, which appeared in The Atlantic on Friday. In response to Mr. Keenan, I say: "No, you don't understanding 'soaring' college costs." My point here is to suggest that journalists either stop writing these sweeping "explanatory" pieces on higher education finance, or do better research to truly understand its complexity and contribute to reasoned dialogue.

1. The article begins by claiming that concerns over America's $1.1 trillion debt burden have been "subdued." This may be true, if you have been living under a rock. Student debt is a major educational and, as the article notes, economic issue, and it is has received mounting attention from a range of stakeholders. No one with any connection to higher education would argue that the financial aid system is functioning well, nor would they naively say student indebtedness is a non-issue. Of course, this first point is somewhat trivial, so let's move on to some of the more flagrant problems with the article.

2. According to the author, we should care about student indebtedness because it will hinder the ability of college graduates to spend in the future, negatively affecting the consumption on which America's economic growth depends. I don't contest this point, but I think it emphasizes the wrong reason why student indebtedness matters. We should care about college affordability because access to higher education is a cornerstone of American democracy. Even though sociologists have pointed out that the higher education can metaphorically be more of a sieve that stratifies society than a pathway to social mobility, we know that colleges helped build a thriving middle class as part of a postwar academic revolution that ended roughly, and not coincidentally, around the time Ronald Reagan became president.

3. The article's main argument is that students are in debt because they take on loans, which have grown in order to pay rising tuition. Rising tuition, in turn, is caused by indulgent spending. The author blames institutions for student loan debt, although we should remember that the federal government made the decision to give financial aid directly to students (a type of voucher in a quasi-market) in the 1970s and has shifted from grants to loans. Institutions have had no control over these decisions. The author also contends that colleges are actually spending more because they know students have access to all the federal loans they want. Let's look at this closely and try to be clinically precise with our terminology. When we talk about "college costs," we must clarify whether we are referring to institutional costs or costs to students. Institutional costs are basically all the things institutions must buy to fulfill their missions, and we typically track this through measures of spending. Costs to students encompasses tuition, fees, and all other costs associated with pursuing a college degree.

The Delta Cost Project tells us that, as a result of the recession, most four-year institutions actually cut spending in recent years and redirected spending to instruction. There has certainly been an overall trend of rising institutional costs, but these increases are in part due to swelling enrollments and the student services personnel required to provide a quality education. Costs to students have increased, not only because of rising tuition, but also because of the massive consumer market that has developed to prey on college students. What the author fails to mention--and this is of crucial importance--is that rising tuition is principally a factor of declining subsidies. The price of college is subsidized by an endowment at private institutions and state appropriations at public institutions. No one pays the full price for a college degree. Thus, college costs are not the culprit for student indebtedness. Shrinking subsidies are to blame, and shrinking subsidies at public institutions are a direct product of nearly four decades of government disinvestment in education.

4. The idea that federal loans are pushing up tuition basically states what we in higher education researchers call the Bennett hypothesis. Named after former secretary of education William J. Bennett, the hypothesis goes something like this: "increases in financial aid in recent years have enabled colleges and universities blithely to raise their tuitions, confident that federal loan subsidies would help cushion the increase." The hypothesis has not been validated by empirical research, though it has not been completely discredited. We hear nothing of the controversy surrounding this hypothesis, or the mixed research results, probably because the author is unaware of the debates. The reader is led to believe that this relationship is fact, not a hypothesis that has yet to be confirmed.

5. Greedy colleges, in the view of the author, have been using student money to take part in a positional arms race, building "lavish" facilities and expanding administration. The salaries of university presidents were raised as evidence of out of control spending. Two notes on this, again coming from excellent work done at the Delta Cost Project. In 2005, 15% of all new buildings in higher education were dedicated to student life, such as dinging halls, recreational facilities, and student centers. Half of new construction was for academic buildings, and a quarter for residential space. However, what is more alarming than new construction is what colleges aren't spending on facilities. Many institutions cut spending on facilities, creating a backlog of deferred maintenance that will have huge cost implications in the future. Like the Delta Cost Project said, fancy buildings "are easy targets, maybe even fair game, but they aren't what's behind the rising price of college." As for president pay, the author is right to pick up on the importance of personnel spending in higher education. Employee compensation accounts for as much as 70 percent of college spending. We can absolutely argue over how much presidents are making, but their compensation is a small slice of a huge pie. Administrative "bloat," in general, needs some qualification. Executive administrative hires have increased in step with enrollment. The explosion of administration can be traced to student services personnel.

6. Finally, the article states that "administrative bloat fueled by excessive spending seems to be diminishing what college is supposed to be about." He then cites a study which, I gather, is meant to suggest that faculty are spending less time teaching. Let's set aside the fact that this is a patent abuse of causation that makes little sense. The idea that faculty are teaching less is far more complicated than the author makes it seem. The study he cites shows that the number of faculty survey respondents (and we don't know how the study defines "faculty," how many respondents there were, etc.) saying they spent 9 or more hours teaching has declined. I read the report from the Higher Education Research Initiative at UCLA, and the author does not indicate that these are 9 hours preparing for courses. The actual time spent in the classroom has also declined slowly, but the report argues that these changes are due to the increasing use of part-time faculty, as well as "furloughs and reduction of course sections, which institutions have implemented to respond to budget constraints."

What can we take away from this analysis? I don't believe journalists and writers should stop writing on college costs entirely. However, I do think they should give up on trying to explain in brief articles remarkably difficult topics in higher education finance. If they want to dig into these topics, they should do their research and recognize the diversity of institutions in American higher education. There has been much research on higher education finance, though you wouldn't know that from reading this piece. The public relies upon journalists to help them understand issues of vital importance. At the moment, much of the writing on higher education does a public disservice.

Monday, April 7, 2014

How I Landed My Faculty Job in Higher Education

I was offered and accepted a tenure-track faculty position, and, almost immediately upon sharing the news, I received several requests from peers for tips. I decided to write a post about my experience, in case it is useful to others. I will warn any readers in the same way that I warned my peers: I’m not an expert on any of this, nor do I have extensive experience. I consulted with colleagues who landed tenure-track jobs before me and largely trusted my instincts throughout the process. Some of them were helpful, others were not. I can't help but believe luck was a major element of the process. Still, several of my tips were validated at a recent workshop for emerging higher education scholars. My comments may also be discipline-specific and not applicable outside of education fields. Lastly, I want to recognize at the outset that my experience on the job market was indelibly shaped by my identification as a white male. For a variety of reason that this post does not adequately address, faculty job searching tips are not universal.

For those of you seeking a quick reference list, I’m sorry to disappoint. This is going to be a long, meandering narrative because it is the only way I can wrap my head around the prolonged dance of landing a faculty job. Because I research higher education, I entered the search process understanding that the odds were against me. I knew that only a few tenure-track jobs would be posted and every single one of those positions would receive obscene numbers of applicants. Let us not forget that there is a whole pipeline of graduated PhDs who are still applying for jobs several years after completing their degree. So, I didn’t apply for many faculty jobs. I applied for administrative jobs, as well as policy analysis jobs. Simply put, I wanted to be employed, and I didn’t (and still don’t) believe that there is a single path to professional fulfillment. Fortunately, PhDs in education have the opportunity to work in a number of settings, making faculty jobs just one of many post-doctorate destinations.

With this in mind, I was selective about the jobs to which I applied. I did not want to work in the middle of nowhere, and I was moving with a spouse who has her own career and needs. This made it easier to focus on putting together strong applications for a few departments. I understand the rationale behind casting a wide net and applying for many jobs, even those that may not appear like a perfect fit. That wasn’t my strategy. In putting together my applications, I tailored everything I submitted to the position description, including my CV. Of course, there is only so much customization that can be done to a CV, and I agree that you shouldn’t pad a CV with pseudo-accomplishments. However, there are ways to make slight tweaks to help you align your background with the expectations of the job. One of the ways I did this was through a listing of research and teaching interests, which I could easily adjust to highlight certain research methodologies or content areas.

Beyond the CV, the cover letter and other documentation is truly where customization came into play. Before writing anything, I spoke with peers who had landed faculty jobs, and one of them was gracious enough to send me a copy of her cover letter, statement of research interests, and teaching philosophy. This was useful to me because I saw that these documents were carefully constructed essays, not generic one-page summaries. For one of the jobs to which I applied, I had to supply all three types of documents. This required a phenomenal amount of time, and it came as I was writing a major chapter of my dissertation. (Side note: don’t forget to plan for both finishing your dissertation and job searching at the same time.) For the job I eventually accepted, they asked for just a cover letter. However, what I produced was not a standard cover letter. I described the ways in which I was prepared to excel in the three pillars of the academic profession: teaching, research, and service.

I started with teaching because the school emphasized teaching over research—at least for the time being. The main idea behind the cover letter was to show how my teaching, research, and service intersect. I also sought to provide a narrative arc, so that the search committee could understand how my experiences and research were part of a bigger story—about the field and about my future. I received feedback from faculty mentors on my cover letter before sending it. They pointed out a few things that may elicit negative reactions, such as name-dropping well-known people with whom I have worked. They all requested to read my cover letter in tandem with the position description, again highlighting the importance of ensuring that your materials are in close conversation with the position as advertised. Once I was more or less happy with my materials, I submitted them, usually in mid-fall.

By December, I had basically given up on the idea of faculty job. I hadn’t heard a peep from a single institution, and I assumed that after three months, they had already made their first cut. I was wrong, to a degree. I never heard back from other institutions, but I received an email from my soon-to-be employer saying that they were still reviewing applications. Sometime in February, I received a phone call asking if I was still interested in the position and if I would interview by phone with the committee. I readily agreed, hung up the phone, then proceeded to panic. Everyone finds phone interviews horribly uncomfortable, and phone interviewing for a faculty job was new territory for me. Once again, I spoke with colleagues and faculty mentors. I also read a few articles about faculty interviews. I was able to put together a list of possible questions through these inquiries, and I wrote out a few ideas in response to each of them. I also spent hours (literally) studying the college and department’s websites. I effectively memorized the curricula for the programs in which I would be teaching and recorded the names and specializations of each faculty member in the department. Because of this research, I took note of a few “buzzwords” that seemed important to the department, such as “community.”

When I sat down for my phone interview, I kept this information in front of me. I was asked a total of about 6 questions. I recall answering the following questions.

  1. What courses am I interested in teaching or feel qualified teaching? I answered this question in the context of the program curricula and the strengths of the other faculty, demonstrating the gaps I could fill. I also made clear that I could teach the courses mentioned in the position description.
  2. What is my approach to leadership and how would I integrate this in my teaching and service? This question caught me off guard, but I stumbled through it.
  3. What is my research agenda or program? This is a basic question that seemingly everyone is asked and every PhD student should be prepared to clearly answer. My answer to this question was long because I have a lot of research interests, and I indicated that I wanted to work with graduate students on several studies.
I walked away from the phone interview, like most people, feeling less than confident about my chances. Nevertheless, I received a phone call a few days later (I was the last to phone interview) asking me to come on campus for the next round of the process.

My on campus visit included a dinner with the search committee, followed by a full day of meetings and a job talk. Interestingly, I didn’t do much additional preparation for the on campus visit. I figured out what to wear by asking colleagues. There are a few blog entries on what women should wear. I wore a jacket and tie for both days of the visit, and although I was overdressed for the dinner with the search committee, I don’t regret it. Be sure to take note of the weather, bring extra clothing in case of disaster, and pack an umbrella. The major preparation for the on campus visit was creating a job talk. I created a PowerPoint and elected to focus on just one aspect of my dissertation research, as I only had 30 minutes to present. As was true in my cover letter, I sought to position my research in a set of bigger questions. I did not narrowly focus on this research project, but demonstrated how this study is part of a series of questions that intrigue me in the political economy and governance of higher education. I practiced my job talk obsessively, until it became second nature. I also practiced my job talk in front of my co-workers and few friends in order to get their feedback. My whole approach to the job talk was to indicate that I’m comfortable and confident talking about scholarly topics to a room full of strangers. I talked about my research like it was vitally important—because it is! One slide in my presentation linked the issues I was talking about to developments at the institution I was visiting. This is probably only possible for fellow higher education PhDs.

What I found most refreshing about the on campus visit is that it was extremely conversational. I was not directly interviewed, per se, at any point during my visit. I met with the search committee, the department chair, the dean, and graduate students. For the most part, it felt like I was talking with other educational scholars about things that interest us. It helped that I knew about many of the people with whom I met because I had read their CVs. I asked as many questions as possible, and I tried to express my enthusiasm for goals that are important to the department and the college, such as internationalization. My one take away from the campus visit is that I was being assessed as a future colleague. My record got me to this point, but I think personality played an important role in landing the job. This is frustrating to think about because it means that landing a faculty job sometimes comes down to factors over which you may have little to no control. The graduate student meeting was the most challenging for me, mainly because the graduate students asked tough questions about my qualifications. It caused imposter syndrome to rear its ugly head.

In case it is useful, here are a few questions that came up during my on campus visit:
  1. What are you reading right now? This was apparently a favorite question of the dean. I didn’t mention this, but I actually found and read part of a book he wrote. 
  2. What are your experiences with adult learners?
  3. What are your experiences with teaching technologies?
  4. What are the specific courses you could teach? They actually handed me a list of courses and asked me to identify those I felt comfortable teaching.
  5. What were my thoughts on collaborating with other faculty members on research of mutual interest?
  6. Does my research require funding, and how do I foresee funding it?
There were a few questions that made me uncomfortable. I was also asked frequently about my personal life. Although a few people told me to not talk about my spouse, it felt disingenuous to leave her out of the conversation entirely. I read the situation and was sensitive with my choice of language, but I wanted to make it clear that my personal life was just as important to me as being an assistant professor.

When I left the institution, I had a very good sense of the timeline and how an offer might arrive. The dean emailed me about 10 days later asking if I could chat. I knew based upon our conversation that this meant he was offering the position to me. We chatted by phone, and he spelled out the full offer package. He put the offer in writing to me after we spoke and gave me as much time as I needed to think it over. There is some disagreement over how to receive advice on a faculty job offer, but I elected to share it with a few faculty mentors. The consensus was that it was a fair offer for this type of institution. Since it was a public institution, I looked up faculty salaries in my department through a local newspaper database. I knew this information does not always reflect the full compensation of some faculty, but it was enough to see that my offer was comparable to other assistant professors in my department. In the end, I did very little negotiating. There are three reasons for this. First, I found that the offer satisfied my needs. Second, the dean explained to me in detail how he arrived at the offer package, which helped me understand areas that could be negotiated. Third, I had no counter offers and no other promising leads. My one regret is that I should have waited until after my wife had visited the city to accept the job. This is apparently standard practice at many institutions.

Here ends my story. I have no doubt I missed a few details. The important thing that I learned throughout the process was to seek help—this is not like any other job search! Do your homework—being able to understand the department, college, and institution is incredibly useful. It cuts down on surprises and helps you adjust your expectations and interview responses. I also want to stress a piece of advice I received from a senior scholar and tried to follow: be yourself. There was something in your materials that they liked about you, so trust in who you are and what you have to offer.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Insights from AERA Emerging Scholars Workshop

This week, I was fortunate enough to take part in a workshop for emerging scholars of AERA - Division J (higher education). It was a wonderful opportunity to meet late-stage doctoral students in higher education, as well as a few people who, like me, are embarking on new careers as assistant professors. Facilitating the workshop were two senior scholars in the field, James Antony of Yale University and Susan Gardner of the University of Maine. Over the course of the workshop, we discussed various facets of an academic career, particularly the processes of applying, interviewing, and negotiating. Many of us took copious notes throughout the workshop, but in the spirit of diffusing the knowledge more broadly, I am sharing a few of the insights I learned here.

1. There is no "path." A recurring theme throughout the workshop is that we need to think more broadly about what a successful career means and how we get there. Rather than become preoccupied with the extent to which our first job is perfect or positions us well, we should focus upon doing good work no matter where we are. As James put it, "Bloom wherever you are planted." The reason that this insight was useful to me is because I often think that senior academics and higher education leaders have followed a similar trajectory, one that is rather traditional and involves little meandering. James and Susan both illustrated that there is no single path to follow and opportunities arise for which you cannot possibly plan. Don't count on a linear, sequential plan.

2. Seek out synergies in faculty life. One of the advantages of being a higher education scholar is that it is possible to make all three pillars of the profession (research, teaching, and service) align so that, instead of wearing and switching several hats, you can sport just one. As examples, James and Susan suggested serving on committees that intersect with your research interests. If you research doctoral education, take part in university service that draws upon and refines your expertise. The idea is to turn committee work into something productive and avoid segmenting life. "Something magical may come out of committee work."

3. Pay attention to context, beware of comparison. Many questions were raised during the workshop that cannot be answered without knowing the precise institutional parameters. That is, James and Susan often answered our questions with, "It depends upon the institution." They urged us to do our homework and not apply our experiences at one type of institution to questions regarding a different type of institution. Along these lines, a strand of thought running throughout the workshop is that comparison should be approached with some caution. This is particularly true when it comes to CVs: two people can be equally successful academics and have very different CVs. Startup packages at a research university should not necessarily inform negotiations at a comprehensive college.

4. Practice your pitch. All of us have already been asked, "What do you do?" Many of us are still searching for a good answer to this question, the magic bullet that somehow ties together our diverse interests. James and Susan suggested we write down a clear answer to this question, as it will come up frequently at conferences and in committees. Most importantly, when talking about your research and teaching, James pushed us to talk about it with some verve. Don't downplay your work. Convey your excitement and show that you believe it is important.

5. Work at the level to which you aspire. This point requires a preliminary caveat. The idea of switching schools was raised often, and it seemed to me that faculty mobility is more of a possibility than I realized. That being said, several people made the point that you shouldn't take a job just to get somewhere else. If you have aspirations to be at a certain type of institution or reach a high-level administrative office, position yourself for options by working at the standard of the places to which you aspire. Even if you decide never to leave, you will have excelled and added value at your institution, which is always a good thing. Again, simply do good work wherever you are.

6. Surviving the search. I wrote down a number of notes regarding the search for a faculty position. I'm going to throw out a few of them in list form. This is in no way, shape, or form exhaustive. I'll write a post with my experiences on the job market in the future.

  • Don't pad your CV - stick to things that are truly in development, under review, or in press
  • Give up on the 1 page cover letter - faculty jobs are multifaceted, and your skill set is too developed for a single page; at minimum, cover letters should cover research, teaching, and service
  • There are widely varying levels of search sophistication - there are few rules, and someone you encounter will likely be an idiot who asks an offensive question
  • Your negotiation does not stop after the offer - while remaining sensitive to context, don't be the person who doesn't receive anything because you never asked

7. Don't get caught up in the hype. This insight struck me because I often feel as though academic life is a never-ending quest for prestige that entails a fair amount of shameless self-promotion. And that can be uncomfortable, particularly for introverts. James reiterated that what matters most is that we stay true to ourselves. Working at a research university and publishing is one means of doing work that matters. However, it is certainly not the only way. In fact, most of us will likely end up at institutions that are not research universities. Colleges and universities of all types need intellectual, research-driven professionals. We should rise above our socialization as doctoral students at research universities, it seems.

8. Community! This wasn't verbalized during the workshop, but it was patently evident. One of the true joys of working in higher education and engaging in scholarly work is finding others who understand your experience in some way and help you process what I have come to see as one of the most strategic, mysterious, and folkloric careers imaginable. Quite simply, we need one another to collaborate, commiserate, and remind us that we are part of a long tradition of advancing knowledge and training the next generation of thinkers.

I'm grateful for the experience at AERA and look forward to seeing where we end up in the future. We can expect that higher education will undergo a phenomenal amount of change in the coming decades, meaning we can all plan for a fair amount of meandering as we continue our careers. Amidst all of the pessimism and critique of higher education, I saw a room full of leaders and scholars capable of bringing about dramatic change for the better. It makes me more excited than ever to be working in higher education.