Post Academic

Know who’s boss: Meet the dept admin and staff

Posted in Surviving Grad School,The Education Industry by Arnold Pan on July 8, 2010
Tags: , ,

As a graduate student, you can often feel beholden to many people.  There’s your advisor, whom you at once admire, probably like, and fear a lot, when you’re not misreading his/her intentions.  There are the faculty members besides your advisor, who inspire some of the same feelings, though in lesser degrees.  And then there are your students, whom you hold the power of grading over–even as they wield the nuclear deterrent of Rate My Professors.

"Meeting in Air Force One conference room" by the White House (Public Domain)

But sometimes, it’s easy to forget who actually hold the biggest sway over your day-to-day lives as peons on the hamster wheel of academia: the admin and staff.  That’s right, the folks you think who are so tangential to your academic career that you forget that you’re probably in contact with them as much as anyone.  But just because they are neither peers nor superiors nor student consumers doesn’t mean that you should disregard them, even if you’re doing so unconsciously.  Remember, they’re the ones who have access to your vital stats, decide your course assignments, input your payroll data and benefits–you name it, they’re doing it.  Just think of your grad administrator like Rahm.  So, one, you better appreciate ’em, even if they seem a bit odd to you.  Two, you better get along with ’em.  And, three, some of them are actually pretty cool folks, who have normal interests that make you realize that not all the chit-chat in the dept office needs to be shop talk.

After the jump, get acquainted with the folks you need to acquaint yourselves with…

The Grad Administrator: You know all those arcane rules in the grad student handbook you forgot before you ever knew them?  Well, your classmates probably won’t recall them and you can’t expect your advisor to either, unless s/he happened to be the chair or the grad counselor or something.  There’s one person who does–the grad administrator–and s/he can lord it over you.  So how do you make nice with the grad administrator, in the event you really, really need her/his help?  Start by doing all the basic things, like getting everything done by official deadlines and such, the way they’re supposed to be taken care of.  The last thing you want to do is have your first interaction with your admin contact be to fix some kind of manageable, easily avoided f-up.  Next, don’t go to her/him if you can solve the problem yourself–save up whatever favors you need when you really need them.  And if you can’t avoid asking for help, be really, really contrite, and show you can handle the same issues if they ever come up again.  When it comes down to it, remember it’s your fault, even if it really is the administrator’s!

The Dept Manager: You might not get a lot of face time with the dept manager, but it’s good to at least know who it is.  Because, when it comes down to it, s/he runs the show.  If your grad administrator can’t figure something out or needs to appeal to a higher power, it’s probably being sent up the chain to the dept manager.  They might be machine-like in their precision and unrelenting in following protocol, but it’s not a bad idea for you to put your face to your name, in case you ever need to have some minor string pulling or you want to head off getting into trouble.

The Money Person: We know that, as grad students, you’re stressing about every nickel and dime at every given moment.  But it’s also important for you to be able to travel to conferences and have research funding, especially when you’re promised it.  That’s why it’s great to have someone controlling the purse strings who’s on top of things, both in terms of what counts for funding and getting reimbursements out quickly.  We had a great guy doing accounts in our dept, who was really personable, knew his stuff, but also let you know in advance what you could and couldn’t do.  That way, I was never left hanging, paying too much forward and not knowing when I was going get what I legitimately spent back.

The Teaching Office: Last but certainly not least are the folks who dole out teaching assignments.  Again, some of the basic principles described above apply: do your work, don’t make a mess or a scene, know the basic rules and regulations, be nice, pay your dues.  That means you don’t pitch a hissy fit if you don’t get the best Tuesday-Thursday time slot the first time you’re teaching.  That also means to not have your default mood be grumpy when you head into the teaching office.   I don’t know if they keep a book on these things, but prima donnas who want it all all the time can get a bad rep.  You don’t necessarily have to be the best teacher, but being a good team player can yield benefits when you really need them, whether it’s getting a favorable teaching time later on or even getting nudged up on the waiting list for instructors when you no longer have guaranteed teaching.  Even better, I know folks who’ve been hooked up with lecturing positions when they’re in post-Ph.D. limbo, probably due in no small part to just being good citizens.

All in all, it’s not exactly rocket science when it comes to your relationships with the admin and staff.  If you’re inclined to be nice and conscientious, we’re probably just telling you what you already know.  But if you’re having trouble dealing with the dept admin, don’t assume it’s just because they’re quirky and/or authoritarian, because it takes two to disconnect.

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