Matt Reed’s recent piece on career ceilings has me thinking about professional progression, strengths and the nonfaculty educator.
For an industry as status-obsessed as it is, higher ed is remarkably bad at building career ladders. That’s particularly true among many staff roles, as opposed to faculty or management. Far too many of them simply don’t offer any possibility of advancement, whether because the next level up requires other kinds of experience that their role doesn’t offer or because the incumbent is entrenched for the foreseeable future. When raises trail inflation for years and promotion isn’t an option, it’s going to be hard to keep the best people.
The challenge of career ceilings for nonfaculty educators is particularly acute. A nonfaculty educator is an academic professional who focuses on learners and learning but whose primary role is not a professor or instructor. (Although many nonfaculty educators also teach.)
With no defined internal career path for most nonfaculty educators, the only way to get that “next big job” is often to move to another university. The growth of hybrid and remote work opportunities in digital learning coming out of the pandemic has lowered the barriers to applying for jobs at other schools. However, most nonfaculty educators would prefer to progress in their careers within their universities. They have invested in building relationships and figuring out how to get things done at their school. More often than not, nonfaculty educators are internally motivated and aligned with their school’s educational mission. They want to stay, but they also want to move forward in their career.
Where does this leave nonfaculty educators if that next internal role is not visible? If you find yourself in this situation, wanting to move your nonfaculty career forward but wishing to stay at your university for whatever reason, what steps can you take?
My advice is to separate career growth from titles. Your job title is less important than figuring out a role that plays to your strengths, keeps you learning new things and allows you to feel that you are making a difference.
I’ve seen nonfaculty educator colleagues get themselves in trouble in their careers when they’ve placed external markers of success—such as title—ahead of other work attributes. Yes, titles are important—titles in higher ed often determine the tables you sit at and the conversations to which you are invited. Titles are a tool, equating with influence over resources and institutional status. But getting a big title that forces you away from the work that you love best (and plays to your strengths) is ultimately self-defeating.
A better way to think about career progression than as a march through ever more impressive titles is to instead focus on strengths. The goal should not be to move up the professional hierarchy but to spend as much of your time and energy as possible doing the work you love. This requires getting in touch with the work that gives you energy. That will almost always be the work where you feel you’ve made the most significant contribution.
For some nonfaculty educators, it may be that leading organizations (and managing lots of people and big budgets) is energizing and aligns with strengths. Most nonfaculty educators, however, got into higher ed because they love education. Their strengths are not in management but in collaborating with educators and working with learners.
A title-driven approach to career progression almost always involves managing an ever-larger staff and a more complex and varied set of tasks. For some, this is great—but for many nonfaculty educators, that next big job will take them further away from the work that brought them to higher ed in the first place.
If moving forward in your nonfaculty educator career by landing a new big job at your university is impossible, an alternative is to try to figure out how to shift your work in your current role. Often, it is easier to set things up so that you are doing the work that plays to your strengths in your current position than it is to land a whole new job. Rather than spending energy fighting for that next big title, a better approach might be to find a way to focus on the work that you are best suited.
What are the limitations of this strengths-based approach to career navigation?