Lateral Moves: Changing Careers Within Academia

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Whether you're a lecturer thinking of moving into management or a member of support staff who would like to move into lecturing, there are smart ways to make it happen.

It's important to realise that whatever your current role in FE/HE, it gives you a distinct advantage in moving into another, possibly very different, post. You have inside contacts and resources that external applicants can only dream of!

Academic to Administrator

If you’ve ever thought, “if I was in charge, I could run this department/service so much better,” why not give it a go? At any university you’ll find former lecturers who have made a lateral move into administration, often leveraging on their experience of being an “internal customer.”

Your first step is understanding the systems involved. You already know about the side that academics and students see, but in the admin suite it’s all about systems and policies.

The policy side is easy: they’re published on the staff website (though infrequently read), often with the names of their authors attached. These are people you need to know.

As for admin, most universities run regular courses on systems that support administrative tasks such as admissions, student support, and departmental management. A quick look at your employer’s staff development programme will reveal courses ranging from the mundane-but-useful (mastering advanced WebCT) to the specialised (managing staff diversity). These courses are almost always free, and have relevance to your current role. If carefully chosen, they can also kit you out with the skills needed in the post you aspire to.

Academic to Executive

Of course, executive offices—vice-chancellors, pro-vice-chancellors, heads of school and the like—are almost always staffed by academics (indeed, they tend to do a far better job than the ex-business execs who occasionally parachute into these posts).

Even when elected by the professoriate in traditional style, how these roles are portioned out is an arcane science, involving a certain amount of back-room politics. For that reason, senior academics with a yen for executive life—and higher salaries—should join policy-making committees, take on additional responsibilities such as head of research for their school or department, and make their ideas known in high-level meetings.

You’ve also got to put yourself forward: it’s surprising how often only one candidate is in the running.

Many top posts are filled by executive-search firm, so allow it to be discretely known that you are interested. This could bring your name forward the next time a head-hunter calls a colleague.

Administrator to Academic

Many people take an administrative post at a university with hopes of one day being a lecturer. To do it, you’ll usually need a higher degree (MA and/or PhD). An FE/HE teaching qualification is also an asset. Both can be obtained through university-run schemes that provide current employees with the opportunity to pursue in-house courses at no or low-cost. Typically you’ll need to go through your line manager to gain access.

You’ll also want to find an academic mentor. If HR where you work actively promotes internal movement, you may be able to do this formally. Otherwise, talk to a sympathetic academic to find out what you need to do to get noticed. This can range from taking academic-focused short courses to joining committees or contributing to current research projects.

For anyone considering a lateral move, joining an online discussion group focused on your desired role and reading publications aimed at individuals in that role will help. These resources can give you knowledge, vocabulary and additional contacts.


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