Career Ceilings, Strengths, and the Non-Faculty Educator

Matt Reed’s recent article on career limits got me thinking about professional advancement, strengths, and non-teacher educators.

Matt wrote:

For an industry as obsessed with status as it is today, higher education institutions are very bad at building career ladders. This is especially true for many staff roles, as opposed to faculty and administrative positions. Too many people simply get promoted because their next level up requires some other kind of experience that their role doesn’t provide, or because the incumbent is established for the foreseeable future. Retaining the best talent becomes difficult when inflation continues for years and promotion is not an option.

The issue of career caps for non-faculty educators is particularly acute. Non-teacher educators are academic professionals who are learner- and learning-focused, but whose primary role is not professors or instructors. (although many non-teaching educators also teach).

With no defined career path within the company for most non-faculty educators, the only way to get that “next big job” is often to move to another university. The rise of hybrid and remote work opportunities in digital learning post-pandemic has lowered the barriers to applying for jobs at other schools. However, most non-faculty educators prefer to pursue a career within a university. They’ve invested in building relationships and finding ways to get things done at school. Non-teacher educators are often internally motivated and aligned with the school’s educational mission. They want to stay, but they also want their careers to move forward.

Where are non-teaching educators left if they cannot see their next internal role? If so, what steps can be taken?

My advice is to separate career growth from titles. Your role isn’t as important as finding a role that demonstrates your strengths, keeps you learning new things, and makes you feel like you’re making a difference.

I have seen non-faculty colleagues get into trouble in their careers when they put external indicators of success, such as titles, before other job attributes. Yes, titles are important. Positions at higher education institutions often determine the tables you sit at and the conversations you are invited to. A position is a tool, equivalent to influence over resources and institutional positions. But winning a title so big that it takes you away from the job you love best (and where you play to your strengths) is ultimately self-defeating.

A better way to think about career progression than winning ever more impressive titles is to focus on your strengths instead. The goal is not to move up the professional hierarchy, but to spend as much time and energy as possible doing what you love. To do that, you need to touch the work that gives you energy. It is the work in which I feel I have made the most important contribution most of the time.

For some non-faculty educators, major organizations (and those controlling large numbers of people and large budgets) can be energizing and aligned with strengths. However, most of the non-teacher educators liked teaching and received higher education. Their strength lies in working with educators and working with learners, not in management.

The role-driven approach to career advancement mostly involves managing an ever-growing staff and a more complex and diverse set of tasks. For some, this is great, but for many non-teacher educators, their next big job will be further away from the one that first led them to higher education.

If it’s not possible to advance in a career as a non-teaching educator by getting a new big job at college, another option is to try to find a way to transfer work to your current role. It’s often easier to set things up for a job that allows you to play to your strengths in your current position, rather than taking an entirely new job. Rather than expend your energy fighting for that next big title, a better approach might be to find a way to focus on the job that suits you best.

What are the limitations of this strengths-based career navigation approach?

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