Management & Professional Development

New to working in higher ed? We gathered some advice!

Across our college campuses, summer brings orientation and advice to our newest students. But many are also starting new jobs in the HighEdWeb field; some new to this strange yet wonderful creature that is higher education.

Whether you’re coming into higher ed from journalism, non-profits, agencies or elsewhere, you deserve your own set of advice (even if we aren’t doing any orientation icebreakers or giving out free T-shirts or anything). So we surveyed some of the fine folks with experience in digital communication and/or technology at colleges around the nation, and found some common points:

Get to know your campus.

Curiosity might be unkind to felines, but it’s one of the greatest tools to anybody starting at a new campus or higher ed in general.

“Learn as much as you can about your school,” said Lori Packer of the University of Rochester. “Go to concerts, plays, lectures, games. If your job doesn’t involve working with students or faculty, find ways to interact with students and faculty *outside* your job.”

You might work at a small college where it’s easy to know the players or a larger institution with thousands of students and employees. It might seem daunting at first, but maybe set a goal to meet with x number of departments per month or set up y number of lunches or coffee breaks with people who are doing interesting things. That network and knowledge will become very valuable.

Take advantage of the benefits.

“Look to take advantage of the other offerings the job may present,” said Kara Sassone of Northeastern University.Use your gym membership and lunchtime to take classes (who cares if you could be your instructor’s mother); attend lectures and go see guest speakers (we have chefs and cookbook authors come in and demo — it’s amazing); explore your campus and get out from behind your desk — it’s the best way to know what’s truly going on; and know that rather than standing out in the middle of a snowstorm, ruler in hand to tell everyone to stay home, YOU may be the one who gets to stay home. And use the tuition benefit program your institution offers. It doesn’t have to be for a full degree, but perhaps a class you’d enjoy.”

“Seconding use of the tuition benefit,” Lacy Goins Paschal of Vanderbilt University said. “Got my master’s at Vandy on Vandy’s dime. It also helps you get to know the school in a totally different way — as a student!”

Nichole Magoon of Champlain College agreed about the benefits of guest lectures, speakers and tuition breaks. “It can be a great way to learn new skills, freshen up old skills or obtain a full degree,” she said. “I’ve been working my way through the MBA program for the last few years essentially for free because of that benefit and wouldn’t have been able to do it otherwise. The classes have been helpful not only to gain a master’s degree, but have helped me stretch and grow my thinking as an employee and manager.”

Time in higher ed is … strange.

Sometimes things can move slowly in higher education, which can be discouraging,” said Meg Bernier Keniston of St. Lawrence University. “I have used the extra time to my advantage by continuing to research examples/products, etc. that support what I am trying to do and why it matters, and then I’m armed with this information and ready to present it at any point.”

Mike Richwalsky, a longtime higher ed communicator now working for the Q-Lab Corporation, agrees. “If you are coming from the private sector, you are used to change that often happens quickly. You will not see that in higher ed,” he said. “Change is slow and full of challenges, with layers of bureaucracy and approvals.”

The higher ed calendar has its ebbs and flows, so use downtime well.

“Summers and winter breaks can get lonely on campus (you’ll actually miss the students), but the parking is great,” said Todd Sanders of the University of Florida. “Related: You have to work all 12 months of the year. Summer is a great time to rethink how you do things and prepare for the upcoming insanity of a fall on campus. Bonus: Find interns that can help you, and in return help them.”

Remember your expertise.

You were hired because you know what you’re doing, but many across campus might not understand what you do or the value you provide. Find ways to show that value and, despite any obstacle, remember that you bring very real knowledge and tactics to the table.

“Stay true to what you know are best practices and trust your expertise,” said Michelle Tarby of LeMoyne College. “It’s a constant struggle to move from an environment where you are known as the expert to where you can be challenged by faculty and higher-ups. Have faith in your skills and arm yourself with research and data when you need to make your case (and learn how to smile and say ‘yes, but look at this data that shows students want to know about jobs, not your department mission statement.’)”

Be prepared for politics.

Despite that expertise you know you have, not everybody respects web or digital work as a profession or that anybody else knows better than them what should be done. You’ll work with many, many wonderful and selfless folks, but some people have their own agendas and sometimes think the ends justify the means. There’s even an oft-repeated inside joke that university politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small.

“I worked for nonprofits and small businesses before higher ed. I didn’t realize that a university’s ecosystem (politically and departments etc.) could be so different than what I knew,” said Melissa Van De Werfhorst of Antioch University Santa Barbara. “And then it’s different institution to institution. Advice: expect politics, get to know how they work, then work around it or choose your battles. Oh, and also hang out a lot with people who actually love their work or love the school.”

“There will be inexplicable impediments to your being able to perform your job,” added Kris Martin Blackthorn of Virginia Military Institute. “Don’t take them personally.”

And if you manage to bring change, “there will be a group of constituents on your campus who, despite everything, will still not be happy,” Richwalsky noted.

Another common phrase is to pick which hill you’re willing to die on. You won’t win all of the arguments — and, in hindsight, some of them won’t matter — but know what battles really need to be fought and arm yourself accordingly.

“Understand that when a cool project comes along that actually has institutional buy-in, strategic importance and resources devoted to it, it will probably be given to an outside agency or vendor,” Packer noted. “Try not to take this personally.”

Michael Fienen, a longtime member of the higher ed community now working for Aquent, said you need to work with others and keep the right attitude. “Our jobs our stressful, especially to the people we’re working with who don’t fully grok it,” he said. “There’s no room for people that can’t at least put on a smile for other folks and grit their teeth, because otherwise you’re just going to make yourself and everyone around you miserable. And if you do that, you’re replaceable.”

But even those who might seem like antagonists at first can become allies or even friends once you get to know them. “Make allies at work, because every member of the campus has a different expertise and perspective that can be valuable,” said Sara Clark of Missouri State University.

Remember higher ed is a great place to work.

Respondents may have their views on the pitfalls to avoid in higher education, but they also speak highly of the benefits, the opportunities for learning and the ability to create friendships. Just like former TV reporter Sassone prefers a warm place indoors to going out into the snow and telling others to stay home, you won’t need to look too hard to find many wonderful aspects to working on a college campus.

The students might seem strange if you haven’t spent a lot of time with young people — and Clark cautions that colleges may be quite different than how you experienced them when you were a student — but you’ll meet so many for whom your institution is really helping them build a better life. Their energy and enthusiasm is infectious.

As Sanders notes, finding great interns and students, and letting them be the stars, can be very rewarding. And when one of them drops you a line talking about the great job they land thanks to what they learned, it’s one of the best feelings in the world.

And, of course, if you work in this field, you are also a member of the HighEdWeb family! Take advantage of things like the annual conference, Oct. 8 to 11 in Hartford, as well as regional meetups and the outstanding professional network we’ve developed.

Then, who knows: Maybe someday you’ll have the knowledge to help a new hire come to learn about and love the world of higher education.

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By Tim Nekritz

Tim Nekritz is Link's Chief Editor and the director of news and media at SUNY Oswego, as well as an adjunct professor of communication studies. He welcomes questions, feedback and music recommendations.