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Most of my clients who work in higher ed are in staff roles. The vast majority. You hear a lot about faculty and the career woes there – the dearth of tenure-track jobs, the problems for persons of color, the clashes between administration and professors, and on and on. But just like there are many career woes for faculty, there are endless career woes for staff. You just don’t seem to hear about them much.

Staff are stuck in neutral in their careers

Where I work, in my day job, much of my role is coaching high-achievers on planning and managing their careers. And so much of it is: how am I supposed to get ahead? To move up? There’s a ceiling, and I can’t get past it.

I deeply sympathize. Staff have their own career ceilings, and they are very real. Here’s my story:

I’ve been at the university I work at for 10 years. And I’ve been promoted multiple times. But I have yet to achieve the job title that I want, the “entry-level” leadership title. Despite my 17+ years of experience in higher ed. Despite my Master’s degree. Despite being ABD, a PhD candidate who quit during my dissertation. I am a walking model of some of the many career barriers so many of my clients also face. Despite their proven ability to deliver high-quality work year over year. Despite publications and invitations to speak at conferences and to publish, we staff are expected to find our own winding path upward, but it is steep, and hard, and lonely. I often primal scream inside, especially as I watch my organization hire people from outside the university or even outside of higher ed to the entry-level leadership positions that I and my clients all want.

We have given years of loyalty. Many of us even have terminal degrees. We have deep knowledge and expertise. And we are multi-skilled, talented, and driven.

But we can’t get ahead.

Some of us, it’s because we are women. Some because we are parents. And the intersectionality of those two factors cannot be denied. For me, I ask myself: (in addition to being a mom), is it because I’m “too” academic to focus on the bottom line, but also not academic enough (because I didn’t complete my terminal degree)?

What should we do about the terminal degree problem?

There are many positions I could not qualify for because I don’t have a terminal degree. Many staff opt to go the route of securing one to be able to meet the terminal degree qualification. But that’s a big ask. The time, the effort, and the thorny thicket of what to study, and how. Some programs require full-time commitment (i.e., you cannot keep your full-time job!). Others cost a great deal, even at institutions that offer deep tuition discounts for staff (the MBA). Some are scoffed at as subpar junk (EdD of Leadership) that churn out grads who go on to take leadership roles that are doled out based on terminal degree, rather than merit or experience. Almost all but the EdD of Leadership are a giant time and effort commitment for someone with a full-time job, nevermind a full-time job plus parenting, nevermind a full-tiime job plus parenting during a pandemic, when there are no safe childcare options.

And that’s just one aspect of the terminal degree problem.

Another is that different fields have vastly different “terminal” degrees. Many academic librarians complete a Master’s degree, and while that is no small feat, nor to land one of these coveted jobs, thousands of staff with at least a Master’s, if not multiple Master’s or a PhD, don’t also get afforded the much more generous pay and benefits given to academic librarians. Though we, too are scholars who publish, serve, and support all areas and disciplines in our universities. For faculty in certain disciplines, the Master’s IS the terminal degree. So why are staff, who have just as much education as faculty and academic librarians as well as loads of years of work experience to boot on top of their graduate or professional degrees….still second class, unable to get ahead or better pay and time off?

Higher Ed prefers outsiders in leadership

Many staff opt out of higher ed entirely to get ahead in their careers. For as long as I’ve been in it, higher ed tends to hire outsiders for leadership roles. It’s utterly unfair to those of us who have put in our dues, who have deep institutional knowledge and relationships. But it is a proven trend. So one option is for staff to leave for the private sector, for nonprofits, for entrepreneurialism, for federal agencies, and so on. Until higher ed starts giving staff a return on their own investment, I advise my clients that this is always a good option to consider. They’ll make more money, and have more advancement opportunities, and often more benefits.

Many staff remain reluctant to try this route because it feels like starting over, green. And that’s daunting, and frightening in an unstable economy especially. Which sectors will survive? If I’m the last one in at a company, wouldn’t I be one of the first out if things go bad for my employer? Even knowing that higher ed itself is increasingly unstable, and pointing out that more and more higher ed postings are contract positions….many staff have a valid reticence about going this route.

I would advise them, too, to stay abreast on such changes within higher ed by reading more higher ed specific media, but that brings me to the next problem.

Higher Ed media neglects staff careers

Even media dedicated exclusively to the higher ed sector almost never cover staff, and rarely cover professional staff ceilings and career dead ends. The Chronicle of Higher Ed is for faculty and academic leadership. As far as I’m concerned, they’re absolutely notorious for having stories with headlines that include “staff” when what they mean is administrators or instructors – professors who have moved beyond their faculty roles, or academics who teach or have 12 month contracts. Positions held almost exclusively by academics with terminal degrees. I’ve seen an ever-so-slight uptick in articles about staff, especially this year, as the pandemic has unfolded, but they’re still few and far between. In the recent “Staff Get Little Say in Campus Governance and that Must Change,” the author points out that the Chronicle’s feature “The Future of the Academic Work Force” features…..almost no staff representation. I had noted that as well. Where I work, there are about 12,500 full-time employees. Over 7000 of those are staff, not faculty, adjuncts, instructors, etc. So it continues to be a complete disappointment that even in stories about the work force, staff are rendered mostly invisible.

So if we are not in the Chronicle, the premier publication for higher education, where else can we staff read up on their industry? Inside Higher Ed fares a little better, as it covers the sector more holistically. What is trending, ideas about different programs, and advice for those of us working in higher ed. But it’s still skewed almost entirely towards faculty and leadership. Especially when it comes to career guidance. I’ve seen more frequent stories about careers for staff in the New York Times and the Atlantic than in higher ed specific media.

What will it take for staff careers to get the attention they deserve?

To be honest, I don’t know. That’s one reason I started my practice. And why other academic career coaches have done the same. I can advocate, and urge others to take note, but I help individuals, as I tailor solutions to my clients’ needs up against systemic ceilings and barriers. I still don’t know when it’s going to be our turn. For our career paths to be considered, supported, tracked, and advanced. For our uphill climbs to be made less steep, and for supports to be put in place to help us climb.