Working in Academic Department-based Administration Roles

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By Dr. Catherine Armstrong

Although many of the articles on the career development site relate to working in a university, it is a common misconception that the only jobs in academic departments are lecturing or research posts for which you have to have a masters or PhD. In fact this is not the case and universities around the country employ thousands of people with a wide range of skills and specialisms in jobs other than lecturing or researching. This article aims to show why such a career is rewarding and how to get a job at a university working in administrative roles based within an academic department.

There are two main sorts of administrative role in a university: those based within a particular academic department or faculty, and those in the central team, in charge of running the entire organisation. This article will focus on the former, while centrally-based administrative roles will be discussed in the future. Each university has slightly different job titles and organisational structures, but in most cases the information given here will be valid for all UK universities.

Roles and Qualifications needed

There are usually two levels of administrative and support staff in departments requiring different qualifications. Secretarial and administrative assistants will usually not be required to have a degree, but will need to display good IT and telephone skills, experience of working in an office and decent A level results. It is unusual for people to relocate or commute great distances for these sorts of jobs so they are often advertised on the university's own website and in the local newspaper. Application is via the website or a paper application form and short CV. Interviews will usually be brief (less than an hour) and no presentation is required.

The secretarial and assistant roles involve a good deal of organisation and time management skills, often juggling the needs of several academics at any one time. You will also be required to take minutes at meetings and maintain records for students within the department. It is important to maintain a polished ‘public face' too as you might be the first port of call for academics and students who want advice about the department. Being flexible and adaptable and learning quickly are also vital skills. You would often liaise with the university's central administration departments to sort out a member of staff's pay roll query, for example, or process expenses claims.

Higher-level administrators and managers are usually required to have an undergraduate degree, although it need not be in the department's subject area. If you do have a particular interest in, or flair for, the subject then this will greatly help you get the job. These posts involve some decision-making and strategic planning about the running of the department and you will work closely with the academic staff, so a familiarity with the subject matter is useful. In smaller departments you may be required to administer whole subject areas, whereas in larger, more lucrative departments, you may have responsibility for the running of one course or programme. For example, Justin McArthur is the Specialist Masters Programmes Manager for two MSc courses at the University of Warwick's Business School. He has a degree in Economics and several years experience working with undergraduate programmes before moving to take up this post. To apply for his job, he filled in an application form and then attended an interview. As well as a formal interview, Justin was required to give a short presentation on a project that he had managed successfully in a previous role.

These more senior administrative jobs are extremely varied, reflecting the cyclical nature of university life. At any one time, the job could be focussed on recruitment, assessment or liaising with external contacts. This means that at certain times of the year, you are extremely busy and required to work longer hours in order to keep up with the workload. To be successful in this role you have to like working with a wide range of people including academic staff, other administrators and also alumni, students and potential applicants. Many departments and individual academics are trying to broaden their international profiles too, so chances are you will be involved in working with staff from across the world, making the job even more exciting and fulfilling.

It is always useful in the H.E. sector to be strongly IT literate. Technology has changed the way many academic departments operate. Email has replaced the telephone and the memo and many of the departments' year-round functions such as registration of students, submission of work and learning are now done online. Trends like this will only increase over the next few years until even the smaller institutions operate on this model, so it is vital that job seekers hoping to break into this field keep abreast of technological developments. It is important to be aware of changes in the H.E. sector as a whole too. For example, in the UK some of these issues would include the impact of undergraduate student fees on recruitment and retention figures, the significance of attracting more and more overseas students and how to look after their welfare and the impact of the use of more temporary and postgraduate staff to teach undergraduates.

Justin advises anyone interested in a senior administrative or management role within a department to look on the website. He found one of his H.E. based-jobs on the website while he was trekking in Peru! Click on the Admin, services and support section on the homepage and then choose the ‘Academic Departments' sub-category in the first tick-box list. This will take you to several hundred jobs, which you can then further narrow by subject area should you choose to.

Why work for a university department?

Many people such as Justin really enjoyed their time at university and it seems a natural progression to work in such a vibrant and varied workplace. For those who did not go to university it is an easy choice too, in many areas universities are one of the largest employers and offer some real benefits in terms of work-life balance. Holiday offers are good and sickness and maternity provision as in much of the public sector outstrip those in much of the private sector. Often career progression paths are clearly mapped out and opportunities for on the job training, for example in information technology, are offered to all staff. Many universities offer their staff other facilities too, including on-site shops, theatre, restaurants and banks, and discounted sports facilities. Job satisfaction, a pleasant working environment and a multi-cultural workplace combine to make university administration a very attractive job.

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