I spent a lot of time thinking about what I could offer in a corner office piece that would be distinct from all of the excellent perspectives that we’ve seen so far. An advantage in coming later in that sequence is I can carve out a pretty focused topic or two, as I’ve tried to do below.
Administration: Sometimes Good
As I’m just about to step down from what is really my first long-term administrative position with day-to-day responsibilities, I have been debriefing myself about what was good, what was bad, and what might I do differently if I find myself in a similar position in the future. For what it’s worth, here are my some of thoughts on that experience and things that I will consider with respect to any future opportunities.
Many aspects of being DGS were very rewarding. That sounds a bit fake, I know, but it’s the truth. It was a new experience that called on different skills than those exercised in the research and teaching parts of academia. I had the privilege of working with some dedicated and talented people (Samantha Morton and Stacy Tantum in particular). When things are firing on all cylinders, and everyone brings complementary skills and ideas to the issues at hand, the amount that can be accomplished is impressive. Being part of that kind of team is enormously satisfying.
As DGS, students really appreciate you and the attention and help you can give them. There are a surprising number of student issues and conflicts that require a neutral viewpoint beyond the parties involved. Being able to provide that perspective to help find a solution, and more generally assisting students to navigate a sometimes-tricky path towards a Ph.D. is also very satisfying. Faculty colleagues are also appreciative of your effort, but there’s always an element of thank-goodness-I’m-not-you about that appreciation. I too had that feeling before I was DGS, and I look forward to feeling it again (sorry Jeff and Krish!).
Another benefit of serving in a position like DGS is that you learn a lot—way more than I imagined I would. I wish I’d read Jeff Glass’s corner office early in my DGS term. It contains many, many nuggets of useful advice on the soft skills needed for administration, some of which I have learned the hard way. In my view, the most important of those is this. Like all academics, I always know best (or think I do). And there are times when you simply cannot believe the stupidity (from your perspective, of course) of what others are doing or decisions that have been made. Through this, it is absolutely essential to remember that, deep down, you are usually all on the same team. You really have many of the same high-level goals, but the boundary conditions that exist for or are perceived by different people in different positions are different. Keep it rational, try to orient the problem so that it can be defined in terms of a common goal, and don’t let it get personal. Easier said than done, but with thought and care usually problems can be solved to everyone’s equal satisfaction (or more truthfully, dissatisfaction). This is how you know when you’ve found a good solution.
Administration: Sometimes Challenging
One of the biggest challenges I faced as DGS was what I think is a mismatch between both the quantity and the types of administrative duties the job requires, and the human resources available to dispatch those duties. Everything I’m about to say is probably obvious to those who have had administrative responsibilities before. In fact, if I traveled back in time to visit myself to pass along this advice, the younger me would have told the older me that this is all obvious and not to waste his time. But the degree to which these things matter is much more than I would have guessed.
Any biggish organization (and I think one that is responsible for around 200 students, as ECE is, qualifies) needs enough people to keep an eye on things all the time. Something that size can go off the rails very quickly without constant vigilance (especially when students are involved!). But just as important as the quantity of effort available is the availability of different kinds effort to address the distribution of complexity of the things that need to get done. In a way, this is the universal impedance matching problem. The ability to transmit power depends not just on the amount of power available but the distribution of that power within its component parts (V and I, E and H, etc.). A bad match means a lot of wasted power.
The need to have the right balance of available effort is particularly true when a significant fraction of the job involves interfacing with an organization (the Graduate School) whose administrative procedures have been structured around on departments with grad programs that are far smaller than ECE. These procedures do not scale up in a sensible way and can create a massive and not-always-necessary time sink for the one person with the official authority to handle them (the DGS). Nan Jokerst mentioned this to me once, long ago, and I had no idea how right she was.
It’s hard to know what is the right distribution of authority and personnel to successful run an organization (although I can say that placing essentially all authority and responsibility on the DGS, as the Graduate School requires, is probably not optimal). A useful strategy to find a reference point might come from looking at a comparable administrative structure that definitely is successful on many levels. Having worked closely with them for several years, I consider the Pratt Professional Masters Program to be an extremely well-run group, top to bottom. They react quickly and sensibly to deal with new issues that arise, and solve problems in a way that leaves a process in place to deal with them when they appear again. And the program provides great service to its students.
Admittedly there are structural differences between the ECE grad program and the Professional Masters Program. But the number of students in each is comparable, and many of the administrative responsibilities scale with student population. The Professional Masters Program has two full-time, senior-level administrators, and 6 full-time academic, admissions, and support staff (I’m excluding career services which also supports the regular Pratt grad programs).
In contrast, the ECE grad program has one full-time, mid-level administrator (and I admit I’ve been fortunate to work with two excellent ones), a high-level faculty administrator who devotes whatever time can be cobbled together from that which research and teaching do not demand, and a lot of additional (also excellent) support from research staff who devote far more time and energy to helping with the grad program than they perhaps should. You may be asking yourself, why didn’t I try to change the amount and distribution of administrative support available? Ah, but I did, and that ended in one of the most unbelievably Kafkaesque scenarios that I’ve ever witnessed. Suffice it to say, it didn’t work.
This is definitely not to say that it can’t be rewarding to be responsible for an organization that is administratively lean, especially when it involves working with great colleagues and coworkers as I have had the chance to do. We were able to grow the program and leave it on solid (maybe too solid!) financial footing, and we also managed to improve a few internal structures and processes (such as the distribution of grad school money among the Pratt departments). But leading a lean organization has left me a little unsatisfied in the sense that I really wasn’t able to accomplish or improve all of the things that I would have liked. The sheer volume of routine but time-consuming tasks that probably don’t all need to be attended to by a faculty member (but must be) made that tough. And should I consider taking on administrative responsibilities in the future, I will take a close look at the distribution of tasks, staff, and authority before saying yes.
I think much of the above might come across as more negative than I intend, so let me end this part with a prediction. Right now I’m acutely aware of all of the challenges of administration, and the thought of doing this again is pretty far from my mind. But as I get farther removed from it, I’m going to start missing some of the positive and even fun things about it. I bet I’ll say yes to some future opportunity, and I may even seek one out. But later, not now.
One More Thing
I’d like use this platform to raise one more issue that I wrestle with a lot and definitely do not have solved. If any of you do have this solved, please let me know and I’ll buy you a nice dinner while you tell me the answer. I suppose it’s more of a confession: I wish working with Ph.D. students were more uniformly rewarding. My words were carefully chosen. In my experience, almost all students are rewarding to some degree. But there are a lot of times when it is frustrating, especially when so much effort is spent to support them, and what comes back in return is clearly not anywhere near a comparable effort.
In many ways I feel like a coach, herding and organizing and pushing my team of researchers to try to get the most out of everyone’s skills. That by itself can be a rewarding experience—just look at all of the collegiate and professional coaches who are in it for life. But there’s a twist that I think applies to all of us faculty: we can still play the game better than most of those we coach. So, where is the right balance between playing and coaching duties?
I know people who have gone to extremes in both directions. I have a colleague who left a faculty position after more than a decade to go to research company because he was tired of students, not him, getting to do all the fun stuff. But I also know have a colleague at NASA who been PI on more scientific rockets than almost anyone (more than a hundred, I think) who simply loved to manage. The moment the money came in on a project, he was on telecons, pushing everyone to meet their obligations, and that’s what he wanted to do.
So, obviously, the sweet spot in this balance varies from person to person. But it is easy to unintentionally slide into a state where you are more coach and less player than you want to be.
A Closing Thought
The things I’ve discussed here all boil down to the most precious commodity in life: time. We all think about this in the context of work-life balance, among other things. But within the normal faculty existence the issue of work-work balance is pretty important too. The number of different hats we are asked to wear is staggering. Without careful career management, it is very easy to slip into a state in which you have nearly zero time to spend on the things that are actually the most important to you or that are the most valued in academia. The feeling of loss of control that comes from that imbalance can be very stressful. Fortunately we do all have the ability to manage our work-work balance, at least to some degree. But it takes real effort to do so.
Looking back at my publications, I can see that most of my research output during my time as DGS was built on ideas I had before becoming DGS. Those ideas have by now been mined pretty well. Now it’s time to spend more time hiding in my office, getting my hands dirty with research, and (hopefully) starting to replenish the bank of interesting new ideas to pursue. Undoubtedly the best thing about life in academia is that I have that opportunity, and for that I’m grateful.