Tuesday, December 12, 2017

'Admin' Bad Days/Good Days

As readers know, I wear two hats - my professional services hat during the day and my academic hat in my spare time. I am proud of my achievements in both areas, but that does not mean that I don't experience difficult days or tensions managing both identities. While I am anxious that this blog highlights professional services within universities as a rewarding and important career for recent PhD graduates, I also don't want to give the illusion that everything is easy.

I have written previously (here and here) about the divide that can exist between academic and administrative staff. (Please note, I refute the term "non-academic" staff and think it is wholly inappropriate to describe vital members of staff in the negative, describing them by what they are not). In institutions where decision making is academic led, finding one's voice as professional services can be a challenge. Feeling like you are on the outside looking in is another common feeling that I have. What is difficult is knowing that you are an academic too, but that it is separate from your 9-5 job. When criticisms of 'admin' are leveled at you, it is hard not to want to stand up and say 'but I'm just like you! I have a PhD, I have teaching experience, I have publications too!'

Now, I have had some incredibility rewarding experiences and good days in my short time in professional services. I have supported students in crisis, I have worked on an institutional strategy for sexual harassment, I have written policies and guidance on mental health and responding to student tragedies, I have kick-started user experience initiatives in library services, and more. I am incredibly lucky to have worked with amazing colleagues (both academic and professional) in a variety of different roles.

The bad days comes when you are perceived to be a gatekeeper or someone who gets in the way. And it is difficult when you get lumped in with all 'admin' and have to listen to complaints in areas outside of your control. Yes, I am sorry you are having HR issues or IT issues, but that has nothing to do with me! It is also difficult when in meetings you often don't have a voice, or feel you have a diminished voice, due to the nature of the committee meeting you are in. It is fascinating to be among the conversation but there are times when you have to acknowledge that you are not part of it, you are not making those decisions (but rather facilitating them).

However, the hardest thing for me is when you come too close to your own discipline. If you were an English PhD graduate acting as a secretary to a meeting reviewing an English faculty you may find that an interesting prospect. I found the opposite. Knowing so much about your field and not being able to participate is difficult. Feeling like you are judged as the bureaucratic 'admin' gatekeeper by your colleagues and peers who have no idea that you have the same teaching and research profile as them, that you go home and continue working on your next publication which they may well use in their courses. You do have to prepare for that feeling of being an outsider. 

I think this experience would be different for professional services staff embedded in schools/faculties rather than in central services. Why would anyone who met me for the first time know about my academic profile? What is important is to try to separate the two identities and to be clear which hat you are wearing when.

But if I could make a plea to academics. Please let us professional services types at least sit down before you tell us how awful we are. And please remember that we are not to blame for the ills of all admin. Nor are we the ones making the decisions that annoy you; rather, we just have to implement them. Those decisions are made at a senior level populated by senior academics in the university governance structure. The irony is that academics' perceptions of admin suffers precisely because we implement (sometimes unpopular) decisions but those decisions are being made by academics.

I think my takeaway here is just a reminder to all to be kind. Treat everyone respect and don't assume that because someone is 'admin' that they are any less accomplished or valuable than someone else.


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