Hidden HE careers

Hidden HE careers

When I grow up I want to be a research data management specialist. Said no child ever. It’s funny how the majority of us end up in jobs that no one has ever heard of. I met someone recently who told me his sister works as an administrator at UofG. But he couldn’t tell me what she does. ‘something about data’. One of the really interesting things about Universities is the huge range of specialist non-academic roles, the ‘hidden HE careers’, which aren’t always visible to a postdoc or PhD student but can offer hugely rewarding career opportunities.

So it was no surprise to me that the most popular session at our research staff conference was on this very topic. Four speakers described their own experiences of moving from academia into administrative roles.

The good, the bad and the crazy. A common thread of ‘positives’ was very much about work-life balance (not having to be in the lab on Christmas morning while your child is opening presents at home) and helping others to achieve success. Seeing the ‘bigger picture’. A common surprise for the speakers was the number of meetings. And meetings about meetings. We do like a good ‘working group’ in the University, often overseen by a ‘steering group’. Our speakers saw some positives in these but one of them said she had resolved not to attend a meeting unless it was focused on getting stuff done.

All the speakers clearly enjoyed their jobs and found them to be challenging and rewarding, with a lot of personal autonomy.

Advice for anyone wanting to move to non-academic roles

  • Sign up for alerts on jobs.ac.uk (administrative /professional) and just see what comes up. Use this to get a broader awareness of roles and how what they’re looking for maps onto your own strengths and knowledge.

  • A research career can do a lot towards fulfilling more managerial post requirements. Supervising staff, being involved with committees, generally doing anything but hide in the lab, all make you desirable for more strategic positions.

  • Join a committee (like the postdoctoral researcher forum or the Athena Swan Self-Assessment team in your School or Institute) or start your own early-career researcher / public engagement / insert other thing here group. This might just sound like just more meetings but often open doors to other opportunities, as these groups give a focal point when others want to consult ECRs or invite someone to go to an event etc.

  • Make the most of your transferable skills – analysis and interpretation of complex information, independent decision making, resilience – these are all skills that can be applied to many areas where you might lack more formal experience. It also provides evidence that you can learn new skills quickly.

  • Researchers will have been applying project management principles for years but may have no formal training. Read up a bit on this or go on one of the EOD workshops to get some of the language, so that you’re better able to explain how you would use these approaches in other contexts or environments.

  • Identify people who are in positions that you would like to get in to and speak to them about how they got there – people like to give advice and its always useful to have a senior person to advocate for you. Ask about opportunities for shadowing or work experience.

What skills, experience and knowledge are needed to move into HE Administration? University administration roles are varied and can be unique. Job descriptions tend to be very long but don’t let that put you off. We looked at some of the job descriptions of the speakers, as well as ones that were currently on the UofG web pages and pulled out a list of some of the essential ‘knowledge’, ‘skills’ and ‘experience’ which we think postdocs, with a bit of advice, ingenuity or frantic googling, should be able to meet.


• Knowledge of the principles of good governance. (volunteer to sit on committees)

• Knowledge of administrative and support systems, process design and improvement, and monitoring (you have been a user of these for years – go on one of the University’s project management courses and you’ll hear people in other areas talk about the faults and failings and weak points of our many systems).

• Detailed knowledge and understanding of relevant policies, legislation, and regulations and their impact on the University sector (talk to someone who does a similar job, ask them which policies to read, read them. Google.)


• Strategic thinking and planning skills, with the ability to convert these into operational plans

• Excellent communication and influencing / negotiating skills

• Leadership and motivational skills in formal and informal situations.

• Ability to lead change management in a large and diverse organisation, including an ability to challenge the status quo effectively and develop innovative approaches.

• Ability to liaise and co-operate with people across organisational boundaries.

• Project management and organisation


• Managing research or other projects within an academic/higher education environment, including a proven ability to set, monitor and meet short- and long-term objectives and goals. service delivery and building customer relationships. initiating and managing strategic and operational change. managing and controlling budgets. working with students. acting as clerk to committees. developing Research and KE proposals and other applications for funding.

• Developing and implementing marketing approaches and strategies and developing databases. producing detailed financial reports/statistical analysis including graphs, charts and tables;.

What are the common mistakes? I asked people who have recently sat on recruitment panels what mistakes they’ve seen researchers make when applying for these sorts of University administration jobs:

• CVs that are too academic, focusing on long lists of publications and book chapters.

• Lack of understanding of what the job actually entails (i.e. they need to go do some research, talk to people, read current policy reports or strategy documents)

• Lack of evidence that they are actively interested in a professional administrative role within the university, rather than just seeing this as a stop gap til another academic position comes up

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