Career advice: how to excel at admin

Robert MacIntosh explains how academics should tackle their first university administrative role

October 26, 2017
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See it as an opportunity
Outbreaks of rampant volunteering are rare when trying to find colleagues willing to take on administrative duties, and therein lies the opportunity.

The stark reality is that your university needs someone to fulfil these roles in order to function. When it comes to annual review conversations and eventually to promotion, your CV will look infinitely more rounded if it demonstrates that you have the capacity to get things done.

Yes, your teaching and research need to be good, but, unless they are absolutely stellar, you’ll be better placed to advance your career if you can point to some admin experience.

Clarify what’s expected of you
Admin roles vary in size, shape and complexity. Don’t just say yes without any discussion.

Ask what the role entails. Is there a job description? Can you speak to the current incumbent? What would “good” look like? How long would you be expected to hold the role? 

These questions should form the basis of a constructive discussion with whoever is asking you to take on the role. Be open about what you are hoping to achieve from the role and get your colleagues to be clear about their expectations. If possible, ask to shadow someone who is doing the role or find a mentor who is regarded as having been a success in the role.

Chronicle your achievements
If you buy the advice that volunteering for admin roles will help you as you move forward in your career, it follows that you should keep records before, during and after your tenure.

Capture some metrics as you come into the role. For instance, how long things take or how people rate the service. The specifics will depend on the role, but you and others will have a sense of what the key measures are (if only because you’ll have been regaled with tales of woe that reflect when and where things have gone wrong). Set yourself the task of improving some of these measures and keep notes of what you’ve changed, who you’ve worked with to effect improvements and what evidence there is that you have delivered.

Simply holding a role title won’t be enough come annual review time, promotion panels or interviews. You’ll be asked what you achieved. 

Use the chance to learn how your industry works
Admin roles can offer you a chance to move beyond your own discipline to see how other parts of your own university operate and even how other universities operate. Speak to the people you meet, ask questions of your external examiners and ask your research colleagues how they execute the tasks for which you’ve been given responsibility in their institutions. 

It may be that you find that you have a talent for organising. If so, you’ll feel yourself being sucked into that specific subset of academic life that leads inexorably toward greater and greater administrative responsibility. Vice-chancellors have to start somewhere, after all. 

You might equally have a complete aversion to anything that takes you away from the academic purity of learning and advancing human knowledge. Even if that is the case, you’ll be better able to interact with those who do run your university if you understand your organisation as an organisation.

Make a difference
Take a moment and realise that, whatever the admin role and however low status it may appear to you or to your colleagues, it is probably central to the continued functioning of your university. 

If you think something is either inefficient or fundamentally wrong with the processes for which you now find yourself responsible, do something about it. 

Of course, you could shrug your shoulders and bemoan your misfortune for having taken on this particular admin role at this particular time. Ultimately, though, universities don’t do things, people do. Don’t expect some faceless “other”, whether it is the faculty, the university centre, IT or even senior management, to solve everything.

Instead, recognise that you might be best placed to make a difference. Yes, your computer systems may still operate on punch cards. Yes, the governance structure may require you to get seven people to sign off on the most basic decisions. However, the more impoverished the starting point, the easier it should be to make things even a little better.

Robert MacIntosh is head of the School of Social Sciences at Heriot-Watt University. He writes regularly about academic life on the Heriot-Watt blog thePhDblog.com.

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Reader's comments (2)

Also choose admin roles strategically if you can. I think there are many caveats to this advice though: one of my colleagues has not had a substantial admin role and has been promoted on the basis of publications, which is of course easier to achieve if you effectively don't have admin. Another colleague has been promoted solely on the basis of her admin roles but others don't get the same recognition for what they do.
Dear Meme ... I'd observe three things. First, admin roles do vary enormously in terms of perceived prestige so a little strategy doesn't go amiss. Second, somebody has to do these things and in some ways an attitude of being (un)willing to take on the less prestigious roles is a marker for the culture of your department, school, institute, faculty or college. In my experience, there are more cases of people promoted on the basis of a more rounded portfolio than there are of those promoted with exceptional performance in one area and blanks in others. Of course, exceptional performance gets you noticed and is perfectly laudable but it then depends on quite how exceptional and with what consequences in terms of your treatment of colleagues. Thanks for the comment.

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