Academic Administration for ECAs: From Surviving to Thriving!

by David Hitchcock, Senior Lecturer in History, Canterbury Christ Church University



This is how I imagine the reaction of most academics to the labours of organising and administering things. The third rail of intellectual life, administration is thought to kill the teaching and research of those who touch it. Starting from our days in PhD programmes we absorb an understanding of academic administration as a series of things that full-time staff do reluctantly, in rotas, via meetings and using terribly designed spreadsheets (this last one is definitely true). When the PhD ends we enter the realm of the early career academic, where precarity, uncertainty, job applications, and adjunct teaching posts combine with the occasionally better outcome (say, a postdoctoral fellowship) to produce the conditions in which we must publish and hopefully get hired full-time.

Yet, when we do get to interview, almost inevitably there will be a considerable number of questions about, you guessed it, administration. These questions will be couched by hiring committees first and foremost as about collegiality, i.e. the things you, applicant, are willing go ‘above and beyond’ to do for your potential new workplace to ensure the smooth functioning of the team. But as a recent graduate, or as an independent scholar or sessional lecturer, how the heck are you supposed to have obtained experience in this realm without doing loads of unpaid work? And in a worrying development, fractional hires and short-term contracts are now often include significant administrative burdens which presuppose a fair amount of institutional knowledge; such as module and programme design, and even responsibilities for entire year cohorts and pastoral care. These commitments are nebulous and difficult to quantify, and there is little doubt that folks in precarious positions who undertake these tasks are paid appallingly poorly for doing them, if they are paid at all.

When I went through this period I was lucky to have a short-term fellowship pretty much solely about preparation for the job market, and when I was hired I was asked very quickly to take on a (ever increasing) range of administrative and eventually leadership responsibilities. I thought it might be useful to write about some ways that early career academics can make administration work for them, rather than finding themselves worked over, as it were.

  1. It is OK to see everything that is not about in-classroom teaching or research as ‘administration’ and ‘doing administration’ is not a bad thing.

This first one is about the category itself. I think most of us got into academia with the idea of teaching at university and of pursuing research, and we identify ourselves very strongly with those two well-defined tasks. To our chagrin we quickly learn that these activities often make up less than half of our day-to-day work as academics, and we tend to resent time ‘taken away’ from our two core purposes. This tip is about treating administrative work as meaningful work. Where possible, I think it pays to see those committees, roles, and responsibilities as opportunities to make it easier to teach well and research well. Resenting administration tends to accomplish very little other than eating into the wellbeing we know we need in order to even be good teachers and good researchers in the first place. This attitude also tends to privilege those activities over the reams of meaningful work that people of all persuasions constantly do to keep departments and programmes running. It’s self-evidently elitist to look down on administrators. We all know how indispensable departmental administrators are and how important their work is to a functioning programme, why should the administration we do be any different?

2. Beginning in your PhD, try to have one administrative responsibility.

One of the most straightforward ways to gain experience in academic administration is to get involved in your department as a PhD candidate. Doing so has a bunch of benefits. First of all, because of how this type of work is generally perceived, volunteering to help accomplish some of it as a PhD student shows real willingness to treat academia as a career and the PhD as professional training for that career. At this stage you are almost certainly doing things entirely out of good will, and accordingly you ought not to overdo it. Pick an arena that you think you could make a useful contribution to or ask your supervisor(s) to suggest something. Make sure anyone writing letters of reference for you knows about these sorts of contributions and can write them in.Once you finish your PhD, your relationship to administration needs to change. Precarious HE contracts suck, and they increasingly include demands to administer and to take on curriculum design. Taking these roles on now becomes an uncomfortable necessity to ‘stay in the game’ rather than a precocious internship in academic working life. I detest the fact that this is how some administrative burdens are handled in UK academia. If you do find yourself in this situation, my advice is to repurpose any administration you are doing in a way that boosts you and establishes good contacts in the department you’re doing it for (and therefore good references), and that helps you build up your CV. You are also entitled to training from the department or institution making these demands of you and you can use anything you create to obtain professional qualifications such as a Higher Education Academy Fellowship. Make sure that you archive the experience, i.e. take copies of the planning and syllabus documents for any modules you design.

3. Treat any administrative role you do have like a separate job, and as one more akin to a ‘9-5’. Give this role its own time of day or of the week

A lot of academics try to have a ‘research day’. Painful as it may sound, consider having an ‘admin day’ too. You can accomplish a surprising amount when you dedicate time in this way rather than squeezing it in around other commitments. This also helps you confine the obligations of administration to a discrete time and place. As an ECA this is doubly important because if you are paid hourly or on a fractional contract and from multiple employers it becomes ridiculous to keep track of how many hours you spend accomplishing stuff. If you can get your role’s hours agreed with the department(s) employing you so much the better, as then they cannot and should not expect sudden turnaround on materials related to that part of your work. Don’t let your administrative role bleed into your other work. If you don’t accomplish everything don’t sweat it, it’s harder to tell when an administrative task is ‘done’ when compared to research or teaching. Put it aside and come back next week.

4. Aim for administrative roles and outcomes that are about contributing to a department as a whole, rather than to one particular academic or to a central office in the institution

Some full-time and permanent academics see administration as a thing they need to protect themselves from (these folks tend to see teaching similarly). I regard that position as venal and self-serving. Equitably sharing the duties of administration is a huge part of how we keep working practices fair in UK higher education. Its also a huge part of how we make workplaces fair if they aren’t (and, spoiler alert, they aren’t). If you are reading this and are on the ‘other side’ of the ECA experience, say in your first full time post, it’s crucial for you to use administrative roles as a vehicle to assist—and defend the workplace rights of—your peers who aren’t as secure. Administrative roles can serve as tools to agitate for better collective conditions and academics in positions of relative security ought to perform exactly this role at their universities.

5. Every chance to administer to something is also a chance to show leadership Academic leadership is a strange thing. A set of assumptions about collective governance persists in academic departments, one at odds with how UK universities are generally structured along increasingly corporate lines. Yet ‘showing academic leadership’ is one of the fundamental criteria of career progression. So how do you lead other academics, or ‘herd cats’, if you are a junior and contingent member of staff? Step 1 is having responsibilities outside of curriculum delivery or personal research that impact on the programme you’re working in. Step 2 is taking ownership of those responsibilities and being willing to defend what you believe is right even if you are contingently employed. If you’re in charge of something, then don’t bend to the preferences of permanent staff because you feel it might help you to secure employment. If they want to revisit decisions you have made they can do it themselves some other time.


Case Study: Let’s take the increasingly common example of curriculum design while on a short-term contract. You’re on a twelve-month teaching fellowship and a part of your employment is about designing two new modules to run in a new programme at your institution. First things first, the task was given to you so have faith and design modules you think are excellent, innovative, and a good fit. Second, those modules are ‘yours’ and you are perfectly entitled to teach them somewhere else later on. Insofar as modules are protected by copyright and intellectual property laws, everything finds in favour of the creator, not the employer. Third, attend meetings about the new curriculum and have your say as if you’d be back in the fall to teach the new version. All of this then becomes clear evidence of activity and of leadership any time you need it.

Short-term contracts and precarious pay checks can put you in a defensive crouch, understandably unwilling to ‘give away’ bright ideas and cool modules to institutions that aren’t going to hire you. But you can play both sides of responsibilities like these and leave behind a strong network of co-workers who know how talented you are at designing and delivering modules; people who are willing to put those thoughts in print on your behalf.

6. Administration is some of the most flexible ‘job experience’ you can get as an ECA

If ‘Early Career Academia’ was turned into a board game I feel as if it would have one main way to ‘win’ the game: getting a permanent / tenure-track job in higher education. Many people have written about how punishing this definition of ‘winning’ has become. If you’re looking to use your PhD and experience as an ECA to move into other fields of employment, some of the most relevant experience you can get in HE is actually administrative. Just imagine a generic job advertisement for entry-level white-collar employment. Is working as part of a team important? Check. How about leading on a project and delivering to a high standard? Yup. What about informing on institutional policy and helping to ‘improve a process’? Check. What I’m getting at here is that when we administer things as academics we tend to be working in ways that many employers recognize and know to be valuable. Our specialist research expertise is really hard to put a price tag on outside of HE. Our teaching is excellent evidence of our ability to… teach. So, if I wanted to transition out of higher education, I would certainly start by outlining my experience in administration and in leadership roles.

* * *

I hope I have turned some readers around on the value of administration as part of a ‘balanced diet’ of academic labour. I also hope I’ve shown how you can take practically any role that falls outside of teaching a course or delivering research and transform it into a productive aspect of your working life that can benefit your academic career or any other career you might choose. I see administration as an arena where we can build actual teams of fellow academics, working together to better our conditions, improve our programmes, change policy at our universities, and protect our vulnerable colleagues. I think it is perfectly possible for early career academics of all stripes to get productively involved in administering. It is crucial to use administrative responsibilities to influence the environment of your institution. This is the hidden scaffolding of higher education; it is the skein of rules, forms, expectations and procedures which we find justifiably corporate and dystopian, but we gain nothing by avoiding the work of fighting back. ‘Decisions are made by those who show up’, so next time you’re tapped to lead a group or validate a programme, show up and help yourself, your colleagues, and your students.

David Hitchcock
David Hitchcock was hired at Canterbury Christ Church University in 2013 and is a senior lecturer there. When he is not administering to all the things, he is writing about early modern poverty, vagrancy, and print culture in England and the British Atlantic. On Twitter he’s @Hitchcockian.

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