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When will it be higher ed staff’s turn?

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.

Higher Ed Women & Career Coaching

Many, though not all, of my career coaching clients are women. I think about why that is alot. It seems like higher ed women seek out career coaching more frequently than men. And a big part is probably because they are more willing to ask for and accept help.

But I also know it’s because women continue to face more upward obstacles than men.

Anecdotes and my clients don’t necessarily add up to data trends, but almost every client I help right now is a mid-career woman looking for growth, advancement, more pay, and a bigger role. Single women in their 30s looking for a chance to lead. Mid-career parents looking for work that will help them move from transactional tasks into long-term planning and strategy roles. Women who have put in 15 or more years in their fields….still waiting for their turn to lead.

In the graduate-level leadership courses at work, I look around at the cohort. I see a room full of men in their late 30s/early 40s and women around 52. Why is that? It takes women too long to advance.

I help my clients look for employers locally if they can’t relocate. I help them research potential employers across the nation if they know what their targeted “next” is but have to go find it in another higher ed. I help my clients think and talk through their personal needs so that they can articulate what it would take to feel more supported holistically. I help connect them to entrepreneurial mentors for those who want to learn more about doing their own thing.

Women are trying to problem solve these issues for themselves. And to some extent, I think people feel most empowered to own and succeed in their careers with confidence when they steer the path. But my inbox is chock full of women clients desperate to gain some foothold ahead where they work now. They have been trying. They have been proving themselves time and again. They have been bending over backwards to do, and to be “enough” to warrant a promotion. And many of them, while parenting during a pandemic, while also teaching college students themselves.

Let’s not forget that career coaching also costs money. And it is well worth the investment as it is just that. An investment in one’s future, an investment that helps you achieve what you want out of your career. But it’s not lost on me that my women clients are doing and giving more than they should in an effort to get rewarded and advanced, aching to be more, to do something more meaningful – but spending a greater proportion of the less they earn to problem solve this for themselves.

I am grateful for the opportunity and honored to be anyone’s career coach. I believe that women clients in particular seek me out because I get it. I have scrappily scrambled my way upward, and it’s still hard. I know what it’s like to get passed over. I know what it’s like to have to take a lateral move because there is no up. I know what it’s like to look across the country because where you are now….there’s just dead ends. And I know what it feels like to have put in your time, and your effort, only to start to see the next generation advance farther…and faster. And I know what it’s like to need things to be AND instead of OR – to still need to rock your career and caregive for others.

This question: whether more women seek coaching because they need help advancing, or because women are more willing to ask for help? Really smells like a chicken and the egg problem, across all of higher ed.

Women need career coaches because they need to circumvent the system they work in because their employers don’t champion and make possible their advancement. Higher ed women are incredibly bright go-getters, and need to advance faster and more often to keep skills and knowledge sharp.

This trend suggests the leaky pipeline of women “falling out” of the faculty track…are also not making significant headway en masse in forging their way upstream in the staff tracks either.

If you are a woman in your profession, and are frustrated and ready to move up…or on, I get it. Let me hear from you. Let me know what it’s like. Let me know what your battles look like. I love to hear from my readers.

One Upside to a Pandemic? Informational Interview Time

Our COVID times remain challenging, and frankly, bleak. But believe it or not, there are some upsides, and that’s what I’m focusing on this week. I’ll be sharing the career upsides, the silver linings, that come from COVID this week to help you keep your career inching along.

My first piece of advice is to use the time to schedule and do some informational interviews. Networking is always key to your career, and we have all missed out this year. Conferences that were cancelled, meetups that have been postponed until…well, who knows. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find and schedule some informational interviews.

You (probably) have less oversight than ever from your employer, right? Maybe you’re entirely working from home. Maybe you’re setting your own hours for the first time in your career. Maybe your boss and their leaders are completely pre-occupied with pandemic planning. That is a good thing.

It means less scrutiny on your schedule, on where you ‘went’ when you went to have coffee with someone. The ability to meet virtually with anyone in your targeted field or dream job, anywhere. The freedom to chat openly, in the privacy of your own space, without fear of cubicle neighbors overhearing you. The ability to ask more candid questions than ever. The opportunity to share more openly your long-term career aims.

It also is a low ask of you. All you have to do is find the person, ask them, and think of some good questions. I know many of us are beyond stressed and overwhelmed, so this is one the most low-effort ways we can at least take some baby steps towards planning our short-term or long-term career moves.

What’s holding you back from scheduling at least one informational interview this month? Let me know how I can help you make that happen.


The Worst Merry Go Round

Well, here we go. We have found the worst policy to come out of higher ed during a pandemic. (Although, this working mom points out it would have also been awful during The Before.) Behold: Florida State University bans parenting during remote working.

Now, before I tear this apart: I’ve seen a couple of different explanations of how this unfolded (none of which is anything but outrage- & what-the-hell-worthy!).

But one explanation was that it’s just a reminder of their regular telecommuting policy that requires parents who are working from home to have childcare. My employer actually has that exact same policy; they just haven’t taken the cruel step to remind us of it during a bleeping pandemic, when already stressed-to-the-max parents have no alternative. The other explanation I’ve seen is that the story is misunderstood. That this policy applies only to staff…and only to staff who cannot do their jobs remotely.

No matter how many explanations FSU offers, outrage and condemnation remain the lasting impression of this news. And that’s no surprise, and in fact, deserved.

But here’s the thing.

Now, while we can all agree that nobody can get safe childcare right now and that this announcement couldn’t have been handled or timed worse….what I don’t see anyone talking about is how do we expect higher ed employers to handle this as the pandemic continues unabated, long-term?

Before you think I have any answer: I don’t. And neither does anyone else. In fact, a viral New York Times story from yesterday did a good job of summing up the issue: In the Covid economy, you can have a job or be a parent. Pick one.

Parents like me can advocate. And we should, and loudly. And often. Especially those of us with sufficient career capital to push back on behalf of younger and less experienced peers and colleagues.

And employers can continue to operate with grace and patience and tolerance. But for how long do we expect them to do that, as higher eds hemorrhage money and incur increasing costs?

My employer has from the beginning made all kinds of flexibility available to parents. The work week is now all inclusive – any shift, whatever works. Told managers to look only for outputs, not hours at desk. Operate with empathy. Accommodate missed deadlines, slipping productivity. And worst case scenario – your tasks cannot be done from home? Can you do these other kinds of tasks? Then do those instead.

Then they came up with a new timesheet entry and I started to get suspicious. We were told: if you need to take hours for parenting, no problem. Just report those using a new time code on your time sheet. You won’t be docked any time off, you won’t be docked any pay. Just wanting to measure what parents are able to do. We never got a clear explanation other than: we just need some way to measure the impact of the pandemic on our workforce.


Well, folks, even that “just check parenting hours on your timesheet” era has come to an end. Those parenting hours are going away in 3 weeks. Employees who are full-time who are also parenting…must then start taking Families First Covid Response Act hours (FFCRA) leave.

This is basically buried in the fine print of our return to work guidance. Barely mentioned in the required official return to work training. And I’m discovering most of my colleagues in other units haven’t even been told this.

FFCRA is all fine and good in theory. It provides up to 12 weeks of leave for caregiving due to the daycares and school closures. It protects your job during that time. It gives you your benefits…and a stairstep down in pay over the 12 weeks.

Most of us can already see problems there, as it’s far from a perfect solution. It does only the bare minimum, and for not nearly long enough. And it’s up to individual universities & colleges to figure out how they implement & who is eligible for FFCRA. So: am I supposed to start paying less and less of my bills over time? And what happens after 12 weeks?


After 12 weeks, magical wand waving and Coronavirus is gone? It’ll suddenly be perfectly safe for all to return to in-person schools, daycares, day camps, so staff can get back to full-time regular work hours? What about how many school districts are planning on A/B cohorts, or half days, (and that’s only if we are allowed to go in person)?

I’ve been asked to commit to my in-person, in-office schedule that I’m supposed to return to in 3 weeks. As a person with 19 years work experience in higher ed, working a knowledge desk job. Having proven my ability to continue to kick ass while remote, and now while remote WHILE PARENTING. As the only parent on my team. So I can’t imagine how it’s going for cashiers, groundskeepers, housing staff, financial aid, and anyone else on campus whose job requires them to be physically present, and who doesn’t have nearly the career capital I do.

Employers are looking at parents, parents are looking at schools, schools are looking at the CDC and WHO and frankly, other countries’ models which don’t apply well to the USA because of deep cultural differences. And round and round we go.

Uncertainty amid Coronavirus

To say things are hard right now is an understatement. Amidst a global pandemic, we’re all struggling to adjust. To protect our health. To working offsite. To teaching online. To parenting while working at home. To schooling children and caregiving for others amidst all of that, too.

But higher ed, too, is uncertain. Things are about to get bad. Very, very bad, I think. Worse than the great recession.

Moody’s has downgraded the higher ed sector to a “negative” outlook for 2020. At the most severe end of the spectrum, analysts are predicting a 30% drop in enrollment. International students will fall off in droves as this goes on, and uncertainty over travel bans continue. Out of state students may well opt to stay put closer to home after being sent off campus for the duration of this semester. And, of course, even in-state students whose families have become unemployed will no longer be able to afford school.

In many recessions, higher ed enrollment goes up, as people scrape together ideas on re-skilling and re-credentialing for new opportunities. And there’s need based aid. Both true. But this time, it’s different. Admissions officers are warning of a huge drop in enrollment. This is a new and never-before-seen level of volatility.

Colleges have had to scrape together emergency funds for N-95 masks, tons more cleaning and sanitization, buy thousands more licenses to eLearning software, and hire additional medical personnel. None of which was budgeted for. So they have to dip into reserves to provide laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots to students in need, HIPAA-compliant Zoom channels for counseling, additional security expenses to release otherwise-locked down external network access to data so that offsite researchers and employees can access it…higher ed is hemorrhaging money.

And that hemorrhaging of money is already hurting higher ed. Now. This year. Right this second. What it will do in the near future has yet to be seen, as higher ed tries to overcome the crisis we’re faced with today.

Public higher ed has been funding-starved for years, thanks to austerity measures, so it will face greater challenges in climbing out of a money hole. So far, I haven’t seen any bailout proposals that address the scale of what’s to come. But even private higher ed is hurting. Maybe not to the same degree, but endowments dropped 20-30% as the market dropped.

And, as families lose their incomes, they are going to be increasingly resistant to tuition increases to offset any losses. Right now, before the brunt of it has set in, parents are demanding refunds on housing, tuition & fees, graduation ceremony costs, dining, parking, and who knows what else because their children were suddenly sent home.

I’m worried I’m going to lose my job. I do organizational development, running professional development programs. Professional development is non-essential. Especially because my professional development programs are aimed at staff (not students or faculty, and so not directly tied to the educational mission of my employer). From an organizational development standpoint, training arms of organizations are among the first cut whenever orgs cut back, because it is optional, especially in times of crisis, and orgs can just bring training back from external consultants or hire trainers back once things stabilize.

It wouldn’t be the first time I get laid off. And I suppose this is one of the inherent risks of working in higher ed. I work in the higher ed because it supports people’s educational development. But since I’m not directly tied to the teaching & learning functions of students…my job can be framed as non-essential.

Since it’s out of my control, I just continue to do my work and wait, (and stress eat!) watching as market volatility continues and lists of hiring freezes and layoffs start to pour in. Among the organizations that have announced layoffs so far, I’ve seen community colleges, private elite R1s, SLACs, public R2s, and everything in between. I believe my time is coming.

Networking during a Career Change

We all know how important networking is for landing a job, and exploring other careers. But one big stumbling block is: how am I supposed to network as in: what do I say?? – when I’m trying to break into a new field or industry?

It’s a circuitous problem. Your purpose in going to a networking thing is to connect with people in a company or industry that you’d like to be in and learn more about. But since you don’t work in it yet, it’s awkward to know how to respond to questions like “what do you do?” or “how long have you worked in X?”

It is tricky, and awkward, to walk into an industry or networking event having no clue how to talk about yourself. You don’t want to sound too pushy (“I’m here looking for a job in this field” is too over-the-top for walking up to someone and introducing yourself!) but you also don’t want to stand in a corner and shrink into the walls or make small talk about the weather, either.

So rather than stewing over how to talk about yourself, my best advice is for you to take control of the conversation and come prepared to ask other people answer questions. That will ease up on your stress and nerves, because you’re not the one on the hot seat. It will demonstrate your confidence by being the one to walk up to a stranger and start a conversation. And by preparing smart questions in advance that you can ask anyone, at any event, you’ll be more ready to listen to their answers. Because you’re there to learn!

Here are 5 good conversation openers that are industry- and event-agnostic to help you get conversations going, rather than waiting for them to come up to you at your next networking event!

  1. Where did you grow up? This gets you learning about their background, and sets you up for a potential follow-up of how they got here and what they’re doing now.
  2. What do you do for fun? Again, a question that helps you get to know someone beyond their work role. Listen for ways to bridge a connection around something you share – a love of cold brew coffee, pop culture podcasts, hiking with the dog, whatever it is.
  3. What are you looking forward to this year? This open-ended question allows them to talk about work OR personal life, and it’s interesting to hear if they’ve set personal or professional goals.
  4. What’s the coolest thing you’ve learned for work recently? This gives them a chance to share a book, a technique, something that you may already know a bit about…or want to know more about! (Hint: ask follow-up questions for more detail!)
  5. What do you like best about your job? Listen attentively. Is it their specific role? The variety of their day-to-day work? Helping clients? Their boss? The company benefits? You can learn a lot about what you’re really there to learn about.

I’m sure there’s tons more examples out there (google it!).

One final note, though. You also have to figure out how to answer questions they’ll ask you. Especially the dreaded “Tell me about yourself.” or “How long have you worked in X?” Once you’ve got your generic questions in your head, think through how you will answer. Those are the go-to questions you should anticipate.

So how can you answer those? With confidence and reassurance. Rather than be “ashamed” of not having experience or dreading having to pitch someone on why you’re taking an “abrupt” career change, this is actually your time to shine. First, you’re ALREADY at the networking event, which puts you ahead of anyone else who chickened out. Pat yourself on the back for committing to going! Second, you can have answers prepared and ready to roll for this, too.

Have a 3-4 sentence explanation of the moment that led you to attend the event:

  • I was working in Y for a couple of years but
  • did this project or learned something that made me really curious about [THIS industry, THIS company] and
  • now I’m here to learn all that I can about [This industry, company].

Psst: you’re going to have to answer those kinds of questions anyway once you get job interviews, so this is a low-stakes way to practice what kinds of information you share that “lands” with others.