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Thinking about Non-Faculty Academic Career Paths Through a Faculty Lens

Why ambitious staff move to new institutions.

March 18, 2018
 
 

This past week, I attended a terrific session at the UPCEA Annual Conference on "Building Your Professional Profile”. One of the big ideas that I took away from the session was how colleges and universities might re-think the staff career model.

Could the career paths of staff evolve to look more like those of faculty?

Until this UPCEA session, my thinking on the differences between faculty and staff career paths had been anchored around distinctions such as tenure and academic freedom. While it may be true that an ever diminishing number of faculty are tenure track (and enjoy academic freedom), it is also true that almost no staff enjoy these privileges. 

Prior to the UPCEA conference, I had not thought about was the structure of how staff and faculty career paths are different.  For tenure track faculty, the job is built around the person. A tenure track faculty member progresses through the ranks of assistant, associate, and full professor as her career builds.  The professor on the tenure track will get promoted within an institution while continuing to teach the same (or similar) courses, and while building upon an established line of research.

In comparison, the higher education staff role is based on the job - not the individual. Staff roles are based on a set of responsibilities  For a staff member to move forward in their career, they need to move to another position.  It is very difficult for staff to get promoted while also doing similar work.

Think about this for a second. Traditional (tenure track) faculty careers progression is about the person. Staff career progression is about job responsibilities. This may seem obvious to you.  I had never thought about it in this way.

This leaves aside the career progression of traditional faculty into traditional academic leadership roles, such as a dean or a provost.  In those cases, however, faculty can usually (although not always) “go back to teaching and research” should those jobs end. Staff have no such fallback.

The result of this person vs. responsibility, faculty / staff dichotomy, is that staff will often need to move from one institution to another if they want to be promoted. The way to move into a leadership position for staff is usually to go to another school. Sometimes it is possible to get promoted in staff roles within a single institution, but this is a difficult path. The folks at your school know about your strengths and your weaknesses - while the job search process is built around highlighting strengths.

The need to move from institution to institution for those who are career ambitious is particularly problematic for those who are place-bound. Moving to a different job in another state is often not possible due to family responsibilities, a non-portable spouse, or any number of other reasons.

Can we think of a way that we can make staff career paths more like traditional faculty career paths?

Are there models we can adopt where career progression allows staff to keep doing the work that they have expertise, while also getting promoted?

Will colleges and universities do more to retain their highest performing staff?

Have you had to move from institution to another in order to get promoted?

Can we imagine a scenario where academic staff careers evolve to resemble those of faculty?

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