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Career Advice

Lab coat to business suit: trying out some admin work

WLU provost advises faculty and grad students to take on some admin work and see how they like it.


Getting academics interested in administrative leadership roles was not what Deborah MacLatchy saw herself doing after she completed her PhD. And yet, that is exactly what happened.

“If you had told me I was going to be a vice-president, academic and a provost [at Wilfrid Laurier University] when I was a graduate student, I would have looked at you like you had two heads. Because at that time I didn’t know that people had that option as a career path,” Dr. MacLatchy laughs.

Now she gives presentations at other Canadian universities. In November 2010, Dr. MacLatchy gave a talk at the University of Lethbridge entitled: From Lab Coat to Business Suit: Perspectives on Science and Academic Administration. “I focused [the talk] on my experiences of developing as a faculty member and as an academic administrator,” she says.

With research, teaching and a home life to manage, administration work is often left off the table as an option for most scholars, women in particular. However, Dr. MacLatchy feels it is important for every scholar to consider taking on some administrative work during their academic career. In her talk at the U of Lethbridge, she focused on three main points that can help guide academics who are considering the life of an administrator:

1. Timing & location

Finding the right time to enter into administrative work can be hard. While it may not be best for a fresh PhD graduate to dive into administration work, Dr. MacLatchy says that anyone working in academe should be contributing to the university in some way. “We need [graduate] students to understand the full dimension of universities, that they’re also about scholarly activities – not just about teaching. This is key to getting them interested [in academic administration].”

2. Opportunity knocks

And you have to be ready to say yes when it does. There are plenty of committees and leadership roles out there, she says, so don’t hesitate to try one out when it is brought to your attention. Of course, everyone working in the academic community already has a lot to do, but having a voice at the table where decisions are being made is also important.

3. Universities are amazing places

“And you should want to be a part from this,” says Dr. MacLatchy. Her path to administration was paved by the mentors she had as an undergraduate and a graduate student. They encouraged her to take an interest in the university as an institution and challenged her to try and better it. “It is about being the person who says ‘we should look at changing this program or we should try and take this idea to the next level’ and not being afraid to follow it up.” One example she gives is from the time when she was dean of science, applied science and engineering at the University of New Brunswick. While there, she and a few faculty members founded the Canadian Rivers Institute from scratch. “And it is now one of the biggest water research centres in the country. All it takes is someone to say: ‘This is a good idea, now how do get all of these pieces together and make it work?’”

A note of caution

However, Dr. MacLatchy says it is easy to get bogged down in administration work. She finds her days are filled with meetings, and research and teaching easily get pushed aside. “Admins tend to lose the connection with teachers and students so I make a point to still teach a class to keep that connection,” she says. Currently, Dr. MacLatchy teaches a science class at Laurier.

She admits that with administration work, teaching and research, she is sometimes working days, evenings and weekends to be able to get everything done. Having a personal support network helps, she says. “I have a very supportive husband who is able to take on a lot of the home responsibilities so that I don’t have to worry about them.”

She emphasizes that this is key to keeping your sanity. “In order to maintain a good balance between research and administrative work, you definitely need a good support system, in any shape or size.”

For another perspective on the life of an administrator, check out Doug Owram’s bimonthly column: From the Administrator’s Chair.

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