At some point during your teaching and research career, you may decide to seek your first administrative post. As tenure-track positions diminish and because salaries for administrators in general are higher than those for academics, you may find the choice attractive. It offers greater long-term financial benefits. It affords more opportunities for relocation to new positions. It makes it easier to create a two-career path for married academics than when both are dedicated to teaching or research. And it gives you the opportunity to fulfill your ambitions to have a larger impact on higher education and a specific academic institution than teaching or research can.

Administration’s main limitation is that if you are unsuccessful in delivering results, you can experience a permanent career decline in terms of the institutions for which you can work and the relative prestige of your career. So while the choice is open to many academics, it may not be your best option. Additionally, there is the challenge of the heights to which you should aspire in the administrative world. Stopping at department chair is often the wise and conservative choice. Today, far fewer academic careers that begin in teaching and research end with a presidency than in the past because the position is far more open today to business leaders, institutional advancement officers, student development officers, and chief financial officers than was once the case.

The first step in academic administration

The first step in moving from a teaching and research appointment to an administrative one typically involves the movement to disciplinary chairperson or the directorship of a university-wide program—for instance, Fulbright Program advisor, study abroad director, or honors program director. You cannot force the first step. It is most frequently common due to an individual’s response to an opportunity. Opportunities often occur through a leadership position in faculty governance, by gaining the respect of peers, or because the previous chair has retired, climbed the administrative ladder, or changed institutions.

The first step asks whether you are ready for the challenge and change. The challenge will likely be significant as you move from teaching to administration. Your core competency must change from doing scholarship to working with colleagues and other university constituencies. This shift necessitates different skills and certainly different expectations for job satisfaction. Administration requires stronger communication, planning, and motivational skills than teaching and research do as well as a vision for the unit you are to lead. In terms of expectations, it involves gaining satisfaction from group achievements and the achievements of colleagues or students, but without the positive regard of students or the immediate satisfactions of the classroom. Administration also entails deferred gratification: it may take you a year or more to reach a significant level of accomplishment, earn colleagues’ trust, and achieve an institutional reputation. You must be strong in your ability to take criticism and to accept ambiguity of outcomes over which you lack complete control.

The critical second step in an administrative career

While there is more opportunity for advancement in the second step of an administrative career than in the first, there is also far greater danger of a critical misstep. You must be honest with yourself about two things: What are your real strengths and limitations, and what level do you eventually hope to advance to? Analyzing both will lead you to the best prospects for success in step two of your administrative career. And the second step will significantly influence your future administrative opportunities and set limits on how far you can advance.

One critical decision is whether you will take the secure but slow path or try to accelerate your advancement. The safe path is to seek a division chair position of a set of related disciplines, including your own. The far riskier path is to try to leave your discipline for an assistant or associate deanship. If you choose that path, the mentorship and sponsorship of the dean you serve will deeply affect your career. If the dean leaves the institution too soon or becomes dissatisfied with your lack of progress in the role, others will often negatively evaluate your administrative potential in their hiring or promotion decisions. By contrast, if you achieve significant gains from the opportunities and guidance a sympathetic, mentoring dean provides. within a couple years you might jump to a deanship at another institution or advance to the one at your current school when the sitting dean leaves for another position.

During the second step of your administrative career, you will have to evaluate your future skills for your chosen path. The concept of followership will now greatly determine your career. How many faculty and what fellow administrators are you capable of influencing to confirm your potential and to acclaim your short-term successes? Have you developed your knowledge of the institution you serve beyond teaching and learning? Have you become visible for your work outside your institution with peers at other institutions? Are you able to anticipate future directions your institution might take before others do? These skills are necessary for second-step success.

Going the distance in academic administration

If you are successful in the second step, your future choices will be easier to make. But the most significant challenge you will face is deciding how far you wish to go in balancing your personal ambitions with organizational needs and goals. Whether you aspire to the vice presidency of academic affairs or the presidency, you must relinquish control over your personal life. You will have more critics. You will have far more exposure to the institution’s success or failure than you did before. Your successful response to unplanned or financial changes in your institution will define your future. Under no circumstance should you aspire to the presidency without recognizing the fishbowl existence you will live. And your responsibilities in a top leadership position will test to the limit your negotiation, conflict management, public presentation, and networking skills as well as general community regard for your achievements.

Eight key questions about going the distance to honestly evaluate your potential

  • Can you change with the times and anticipate changes?
  • Are you comfortable with change, and do you have the energy, insight, and persistence to make it happen positively for the institution you lead?
  • Do you have a high tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty?
  • Are you committed to holding yourself accountable for positive institutional change and achievement through your daily actions?
  • Can you manage your own morale and not expect others to support it?
  • Are you strongly committed to continuous improvement and constant increases in your productivity and value to the institution you lead?
  • Can you encourage risk taking and initiative among those you supervise and lead?
  • Can you control your emotions in tough circumstances?

Honest self-evaluation of your talents and skills as well as your personal needs will be necessary at each step in your administrative career if you are to succeed.

This article first appeared in Academic Leader on July 1, 2019. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.

Henry W. Smorynski, PhD, earned his doctorate in government from Georgetown University. He has 40 years of teaching and administrative experience, having served 10 higher education institutions in five states. As an instructor, Dr. Smorynski has taught more than 45 different public policy, international relations, public administration, health administration, and political science courses. He also has led academic administrative teams as dean, vice president for academic affairs, and provost for 22 years at five different institutions.