As I was getting ready to depart from grad school with my MA in English back in the spring of 2010, I had ambitions that were almost as high as my stress level. When I left the university, I expected to go to work in industry as a technical writer, make about $60k-80k, and live the good life, enjoying the fruits of my noggin far away from the unfair labor practices of the academy. Six months and dozens of ignored resumes later, I found myself working as a cashier in a book-and-video retail store to keep my bank account from diving into the red. As it turns out, technical writing required some additional hard skills in technology and desktop publishing outside the scope of what I had learned in academia. Alack, stereotype fulfilled!
The good news is that this story has a happy ending. I now work in a private corner office where I daily use the research skills I honed as a grad student as part of my work. My professional judgment is sought out in weighty matters, and on any given day I may move over $100,000 around with more ease than many people pay their electric bill. People flock to me from miles in any given direction, pleading for a slice of the riches at my disposal. All this with a degree in English literature!
… Okay, as a matter of fair disclosure, I should probably expand on that a little. My corner office does face an air conditioner unit and a residential street. I don’t get to keep any of that $100k and my pay is actually relatively modest. But the rest is absolutely true! You see, I work in the financial aid office of a community college. And if you’re an ex-grad student (of any major) who wants to leave the tenure-track shell game of the academy without also leaving behind a life of intellectual challenge, helping students, or even leaving the university parking lot, financial aid or another student support role might be a sweet gig for you, too.
A job anyone can start…
Student support careers like working in financial aid, academic advising, admissions, or the registrar’s office are part of a unique and fading category of jobs in that nobody enters these fields knowing how to do them. No commonly-available degree exists to teach a person how these processes work, so colleges do something—once common, now a rarity—that should make former grad students perk up their ears: they find smart people who seem to have potential and good soft skills, hire them, and fully train them to do the job.
No unpaid internships are to be found here, which can be as scary as it is exciting – you have real responsibilities and real liability from day one. The morning I started my job, I walked in the door and sat behind a desk that had a little placard featuring my name and the words Admissions Specialist. My friend, if the idea of being an instant “specialist” in something doesn’t fill you with trepidation, it should. College students believe in truth in advertising, and if you can’t help them with their problem, or worse, misinform them, you will make yourself and your whole organization look bad.
Luckily, the “organization” has your back in the form of your teammates and supervisors. The apprenticeship model of hiring and training fosters an environment where someone—perhaps your boss, perhaps a coworker—will take you under their wing and show you everything you need to know before leaving you to your own devices.
Student support offices share several commonalities that would make them attractive to someone who likes an intellectual challenge. Whatever your line, you will have to master (and re-master, and re-master again) a constantly evolving body of regulations and institutional house rules pertaining to your area.
I might be slightly biased in saying so, but I think the former grad student might find financial aid administration particularly gratifying. And yes, I can feel your skepticism from here. At first blush, financial aid looks like a daunting mass of numbers and dollar signs, a mind-numbingly boring jumble of regulations, and a hostile environment in which only accountants and business majors can survive.
Scratch the surface, though, and you will likely find the financial aid office to be one of the most human corners of the college campus. You will become personally invested in these students. And at times, you will research your ass off.
… but a job former grad students should be especially good at.
First, let’s dispel some myths. While it is common to find business or accounting majors in a financial aid office, that background is by no means necessary in the office’s day-to-day operation. We deal with big numbers, but this isn’t higher-level calculus. Most of the math I use at work I learned by the sixth grade. The bigger-picture data is calculated by database software engineered to take as much human error out of the equation as possible. That’s why it’s no problem that, in our office’s case, the assistant director is a history major, the scholarship coordinator is a general studies major, I’m an English major, and our FAFSA verification specialist used to be an office administrator with the US Navy.
So if we don’t spend our days squinting at ledgers, what do we do? The answer is that we spend most of our 8-5 applying complex federal guidelines to answer student questions or process their money, while trying to figure out what to do with the dizzying array of “exceptions” to each of those rules. Adoptions, layoffs, divorces, marriages, move-ins, homelessness, parent-child estrangement, drastic income changes, tax errors, and tax delays (among other things) all introduce quirks and caveats that you have to research how to resolve.
Likewise, administering the money and sending in reports to the government agencies that provide it can be a puzzle in itself. Each fund of money has its own eligibility requirements, its own timeline, its own dates and deadlines, and its own way of paying out. Students and your colleagues will have questions (you’ll have questions!), and while the answers are out there, they’re often nestled deep in a government reference manual.
In such an environment, the nerdy close reader reigns supreme. The skills you honed as a grad student finding, interpreting, and synthesizing information will serve you well, as will your skill of constructing a cogent argument. Remember the myriad of “exceptions” I mentioned earlier? You often have to decide how to apply rules in an unclear situation (analysis), make a case in writing that will hold up to an auditor’s scrutiny (argument), and reference the federal or state guidance used in your decision (citation).
Finally, as a financial aid administrator, you do make a real difference in a student’s overall success. I’ve often said that it would make sense to rename this department “Office of the Carrot and Stick,” because you wield both. Good student? You get competitive grants and scholarships. Bad student? The threat of financial aid suspension can be the ultimate “come to Jesus” moment in a student’s academic career.
Again, I’m speaking from what I know best, but the same thing applies to any student support office. What happens in the classroom is the core of the college experience, but academic advisors, registrar staff, and financial aid administrators power the machinery that moves students through each stage of their academic career.
Leaving without leaving
If you want to leave the adjunct-track but know you’ll miss the students, the vacation time, and the view of a ridiculous number of alumni-sponsored water fountains, keep in mind that you don’t have to leave the academy to leave “the academy.” As with so many other puzzles in one’s academic career, sometimes the answer you seek can be found by going at the same challenge from a different angle.