Lessons I’ve learned from goin’ admin


When I created this site, I was feeling some Associate Professor doldrums. The intervening eight years have brought a lot of professional growth, and I’m very much a different person than I was back then. I had been tenured for a few years, after 10 years on the tenure track, and I wasn’t quite sure where I wanted to go. I have always been appreciative of the great liberty that faculty have to choose their priorities and directions, but not as secure about whatever direction I was heading. (And at the time, NSF didn’t have a program specifically targeting Associate Professors hitting this stage in their career, eh?)

I was enjoying teaching (in most moments), and I had a lot of research in the hopper, and I didn’t want to do anything other than keep professoring. I had pretty much said so at the time. I didn’t want to be distracted from my classes or from the people and stuff in my lab, by doing admin work.

But then, 2.5 years ago, I changed my mind. I moved into a part-time admin(ish) role. And now, all of my teaching load is reassigned to directing my university’s Office Of Undergraduate Research. This is exactly the thing I said I didn’t want to do. Now that I’ve been doing mostly admin for some while, I thought I’d report on what I learned about myself, about academia, and about doing administrative work in general. Here are some unordered observations.

-What’s the biggest surprise? I actually like doing this work. I think I’m not bad at it, and I wasn’t at all sure this would be the case (in light of the Peter Principle). I genuinely think that when admin work is done well, it makes a difference in the lives of students as much as what we do in the classroom. I think it’s really easy for some folks to lose sight of being student-centered, but at least at my institution, I genuinely believe that most people who have stepped out of the classroom to do admin work are doing it for the students. I don’t think I was cynical enough to truly believe otherwise, but it’s encouraging to see it from the inside.

-What do I miss the most? Without a doubt, it’s teaching and working with a set of students over the duration of a semester. The students in our department are generally and absolute joy to work with. It’s not as if I don’t interact with students, but it’s not quite the same to not be teaching in the classroom (or in the LMS, during the pandemic). That said, I don’t feel a massive itch to get back to the classroom, because I feel like the other work that I’m doing in its place is important, too. And my colleagues in my department are so great at what they do, so it’s not as if our bio majors are getting shortchanged because I’m not teaching at the moment.

-In what ways have I been well prepared to do admin work? Well, I think running my own research lab, and supervising cohorts of researchers, has equipped me in a lot of ways. In perhaps every kind of job, the most critical part is building relationships with other people. When students are doing research in my lab or in the field, the science is the relatively easy part — it’s managing people that’s hard. I have plenty of experience screwing up and making bad decisions that result in poor group dynamics, and not being an adequate supervisor in different kinds of ways, and not being able to detect problems until they become too late. I think I’ve learned from a lot of those mistakes over the years. Those are translatable skills, not only for supervising professional staff members who I supervise, but also for collaborating with teams on other kinds of projects.

What’s the hardest part and how was I unprepared? Even though I thought I had a good handle on how our university bureaucracy worked, I underestimated the how difficult it could be to reckon with roadblocks in processes and hierarchies. I’m not kidding when I say that I am spending the majority of my time in this job trying to build new pathaways around procedural impediments. Sometimes those impediments are policies that were created for good reasons but also have some horrible unintended side effects. Sometimes those impediments are actual people who you don’t work for, who don’t work for you, but they still have a lot of control over things you need and it’s not in their interest to move a finger to help you.

-What did I know was going to happen, but it’s still overwhelming? So. Many. Meetings. I’m not saying I go to too many meetings, but I do go to a lot of meetings. I wish that some of these meetings were run more efficiently, but nonetheless I’d say that most meetings I attend are useful and important. Even if it’s just part of building a relationship with someone in a different part of the university so that we can work together more smoothly. The meetings honestly don’t seem to be more frequent on zoom than they were in person, thank goodness. As this pandemic draws on, I’m seeing the consequences of missing out on casual face time with a variety of people. We tend to be all business on zoom (and I prefer it that way), but conversation in the interstitial spaces, and bumping into people on campus, and stuff like that doesn’t happen anymore. A lot of this is the glue that keeps organizations together. And now we’re just gliding on the basis of relationships that were formed prior to the pandemic, and forming new ones is different. I mean, I know people in other fields who have coworkers on different continents, and maybe there’s a meeting once or twice a year. But I’m not sure in the long term we could run an effective university like this?

What’s an essential skill for this job? Having a sense of scale and priority. It’s particularly easy to get sucked into a problems that cannot be resolved, to spend a lot of time on a pet project that won’t have much impact, or to paper over substantial difficulties without reckoning with the root cause. I think these can be problems for teaching and research as well, but because measuring genuine progress in administrative work is ever so nebulous, so I feel that it’s more problematic in this realm. And I think a lot of people — a lot of smart and well intentioned people — are apt to navigate through the day, and through the year, by taking the path of least resistance rather than strategically choosing priorities and making sure their effort lines up. Yes, it’s important to be well liked, because nobody wants to do anything with or for a person who they don’t like. However, the pathway to being well liked and respected isn’t by trying to please everybody all the time — it’s by being kind rather than trying to be nice, and by accepting the reality that political capital shouldn’t sit in a reputational bank account, because it needs to spent to make learning conditions better for students. I think a lot of folks don’t get this. They’re building goodwill for themselves rather than for the institutional mission, trying to insulate themselves from criticism, and are quick to adopt false modesty as cover for opportunism. One of the reasons that I think I’m not horrible at this job is that I’ve managed to win over the respect of people at the university who I admire most, for their dedication to student success and their savvy at resolving problems in a way that builds capacity for other people and the institution.

-While some faculty are inclined to snark that administrators are pulling down absurdly high paychecks while doing less work, this doesn’t seem to bother me that much now that I’ve had more direct exposure to understand what these folks are dealing with. In my limited experience, the admin critters at my university are honestly working hard, throughout long hours, and it’s not because they love the work or are narcissists, it’s because they know it needs to be done. Thanks to the California public employee salary database, I can find out how much they’re making. Yes, I do think the huge step up in pay in the higher tiers is not warranted. For the ones who are actually working their butts off and are talented and doing good job and are as student-centered as I’d hope they would be? There are other things in the world that I resent more. Also, the folks who aren’t horrible at the job have a professional skill set that a lot of faculty have never developed and don’t seem to want to develop.

-While I am doing administrative work, I am most definitely not an administrator. My position is a bit weird. I’m faculty on a 9-month position, and my teaching is reassigned to run an office (but not my research or service expectations). My pay didn’t go up when I took this job, and I am making a point to not put in any more time than I would than if I was teaching a full load of four lecture courses per semester. I also am off contract over the summer, so nobody can credibly expect me to read or respond to my emails in that time. It’s good to still be faculty. But the drawback about still being faculty is that I lack some of the authority that I need to do my job well. While good people skills can go a long way, sometimes to get stuff done you just gotta be in charge. And I’m not officially in charge of that much.

-I think that most faculty who have become administrators should, once in a while, return to the classroom. I do know of an occasional dean or associate dean who occasionally taught, for the fun of it. Almost everything we do in a university is in the service of what happens in the classroom. It’s important to stay grounded. If I recall this correctly, from when I worked more closely K-12 teachers the Los Angeles Unified School District, I learned that teachers who earned their administrative credential and moved to the central office are expected to go back to do classroom teaching once every several years. That’s a good thing. (Also because, in my experience, the ones who moved on to work in HQ were also spectacular in the classroom, so nobody’s getting hurt by this.)

Has it helped me figure out what I want to do next? Well, sort of. I don’t see myself running an Office of Undergraduate Research for the rest of my career, though I’m glad I’ve done what I’ve done. Professionally, II realize that first and foremost, I am a scientist, and so whatever I do, I’d like it to be more in the realm where I’m dealing with education/research/infrastructure related to science. It’s a social imperative to communicate about climate action and biodiversity, and I want to create more opportunities for students in the field, and work to build more equitable communities. So it’s exciting that I just became an ELP fellow, which will help me build that roadmap. I’ve hit a level of stability where it’s most rewarding to facilitate the success of others. There are a many possible avenues where I can do that, and I’m still figuring this out. Has my publication rate taken a hit in the last few years since I’ve spent more time on admin? For sure. Does that bother me? Not really, except for realizing that there are still a bunch of students who are long deserving of co-authorship and I’ve been letting them down. This pandemic and the conditions in the US haven’t really given me the bandwidth to write like I would have imagined when it all started, but one of these months, we’re going to turn the corner on all of this.

*So why did I change my mind? First of all, my attitude changed: I got tired of waiting and hoping and asking for change to happen, and I decided that I was going to have to do it myself. Second, I found myself so wrapped up in service leadership duties, my time was already being sliced apart into so many different kinds of service anyway. I wasn’t even an administrator! The tasks weren’t momentous, but they really add up. Stuff like being chair of the departmental tenure committee, serving on university senate, academic advising for pre-teaching students, serving on grant panels, associate editing for journals, external tenure reviews, committees for professional societies, and stuff like that. It adds up. I don’t think for a minute that I’m busier than any other full professor who hasn’t turned into driftwood, but I’ve come to realize that if my teaching duties are reassigned to administrative work, then I would be capable of compartmentalizing that work into the time that I otherwise would spend on teaching. I’ve done a pretty good job of compartmentalizing work, and not letting it get personal keep my synapses for the task on hand. So that I can simply let how I structure my calendar reflect my duties and priorities.

3 thoughts on “Lessons I’ve learned from goin’ admin

  1. Great piece Terry!
    As most ECRs, I think I look at admin folks with admiration and a humble thought “I could never do this”. It was interesting to read about your experiences and paradigm shift! Thank you for sharing.

  2. I’m glad you keep updating this blog because I enjoy reading everything you write. It makes me feel as if I’m back to learning from you in the classroom. 😊

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