Don't forget the staff

Jul 28 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers]

The employee structure in academic institutions tends to be an odd mix. Odd in that there are essentially three components, all with very different goals. The most familiar is likely the faculty, who are there to teach and do research in varying proportions. There is also the administration, which I would define as former academics who have taken an administrative, rather than research-oriented career trajectory. Finally, the staff are there to make sure everything gets done.

The relationships between these groups can range form outright adversarial to synergistic (administration buzzword!) and I think it is most common to hear about the interactions that go badly. It's true that we tend to write more about the frustrations we face than the small victories thought the day. But at the end of the day there are those outside of our peer group we have to place our trust in to do the tasks we are not equipped to do.

From my perspective, and especially as I was first learning* how this place works, having a couple of dependable staff members in my college who just get things done has been one of the most important and useful things I could ask for. Their jobs are critical to my success and their willingness to go out of their way to be helpful has made my life infinitely easier as a result.

I think most people reading probably know or work with at least one person like this and all I would ask is that you not take them for granted and recognize their efforts in any way you can. It is easy to lose sight of the difference helpful staff can make when you get used to it, but as someone who has faced their share of clock-punchers, I will always find the time to thank someone for doing their job well.

*This process continues, but I'm less stupid these days.

8 responses so far

  • Anonymous says:

    I always liken the functioning of a university to a triangle: students, faculty, staff. In my triangle, administration doesn't play a role! A simple triangle doesn't assign a heirarchy to the various positions, as many faculty are wont to do, putting themselves above others for some reason. As you have pointed out, take away any one piece, and you don't have a triangle anymore; and you don't have a functioning university! Can we, as institutions, start to move away from faculty/staff designations and start to refer to ourselves as employees?

  • Anonymous says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. At my university, "staff" includes people with MDs, JDs, PhDs, and similar academic/professional credentials. Many of us work in fields where there is a growing body of literature about our work, and many of us contribute to the field through publications, involvement in professional organizations, etc. I thoroughly enjoy my work in a staff position (on most days) and do not "aspire" to a faculty job. However, it is a bit demoralizing at times to observe the differences in assumptions that are made about faculty vs. staff in terms of education level, intelligence, intellectual curiosity, and overall value as members of the university community.

  • Anonymous says:

    Very good insights! Mind sharing a little bit on what kind of random gifts you have found to work wonders on the staff members, such as those who put together the budget for you on your grant proposals?Besides chocolates, what other wildcards can one use when you don't know the person that well, for example?

  • tideliar says:

    I had the infinite fortune to work as a technician before I went to grad school. Part of my job was ordering supplies and general maintenance shit. I got to know our departmental business manager well, and he really schooled me in how to act like, and how to treat the various "positions" PlS mentions. This understanding of not taking people for granted has been invaluable to me as I progressed along my career.

  • Genomic Repairman says:

    I agree with Tidelair, my buddies and I who broke out as technicians before starting grad school had a different viewpoint of staff than some of the other graduate students. They saw them as the adversary whereas they were a huge asset to us.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    I think not taking people for granted is a general life lesson, but I've seen too much of it from professors through the years to think that most people learn this early enough.Anon@12:03, I don't typically think there is a need to do anything except express your appreciation. A lot of people hear that infrequently and you would be surprised at how much it can brighten someone's day. That is also true for administrators, btw. If someone goes above and beyond for you, then perhaps a small token of appreciation would be appropriate, but on the whole I would avoid it.

  • stripey_cat says:

    I temped as an office assistant in several academic environments, and I was amazed at how many academics and students failed to grasp that you reap what you sow. Simply being nice to us got you preferential treatment ranging from significant unpaid overtime to first choice of sandwiches at meetings; brass-harassing the secretaries got your (non-urgent) requests to the bottom of the pile (literally, on more than one occasion). Same rules applied with the grounds- and janitorial staff, the lab techs, and anyone else who wasn't a direct report to the person hassling them (including securing co-operation from other academic work-groups and departments).

    Mind you, as students, several of my acquaintance were unable to understand why I was never shopped as out-of-bounds or having illicit visitors by the porters, and why the cleaners would do things like take my trainers home to put them through a washing machine for me. Could it be to do with things like taking cups of tea to them when they were doing difficult chores (or when the porters were in an open-fronted lodge in freezing weather), taking two minutes to ask after the dog and the family, and giving cards and chocolate at Christmas? Inability to learn from experience is sadly common, even among the intelligent.

  • [...] way when things slow down to thank the people that have helped me. I've written a little about this previously, but I can't stress how important it is appreciate the efforts of staff members that facilitate [...]

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