Okay, I simply couldn’t resist tossing out a counterpoint here. This topic was started by Mark Greenfield (who was following up on a Steve Krug presentation) and continued here recently by my colleague Nikki. The reason that I want to run this from the other side is twofold: one, sometimes we just need a boost. Web work is hard regardless, and I think sometimes it’s too easy to get hung up on the bad. Second, there are plenty of people in the private sector that would trade places with us in a heartbeat, since there are a lot of different upsides to doing web development in higher ed. So, if you are thinking about a career in higher ed, or considering whether or not to continue with it, keep these in mind.
1. Job Security
Despite budget cuts around the country, we are still in one of the most stable parts of the industry available. If you’re an army of one, even more so. It’s not because you’re irreplaceable, it’s just that no one wants to hassle with replacing you right now. Most states tend to also have laws or unions that make it additionally hard to get rid of you after X amount of time. So, count your blessings, stay on your game, and you’re almost guaranteed to be here next year. Having that steady paycheck and the other benefits that come with the job can be worth more than the mere dollar number on your pay stub.
Maybe my situation is unique, but around these parts they basically shovel vacation and sick time on us. They can’t pay us like our private counterparts, true, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t compensated in other ways. And that not withstanding, I know if I picked up the phone and said my kid was sick (hypothetically, since I don’t have a kid), or I was sick, or pipes burst in my house and I have to wait on a plumber, I wouldn’t get an ounce of grief about it. In some cases I could even say I’ll VPN in and get someone to forward my office phone to my cell. There just aren’t many jobs that give me that latitude. And maybe it’s just as simple as “I’ll be in at 8:15 this morning because I’m running late.” I’ve had jobs in the past where something as simple as that was a major issue. Sometimes not sweating ten minutes here and there can be a big stress reliever.
3. Leadership Opportunities
Besides the chance for actual leadership classes and such, the number of committees and meetings we are exposed to come with a positive side effect. In the event you do plan to get out of higher ed, you have basically an endless stream of chances to get into leadership positions which you can reflect on a résumé. They might not be glorious or significant, but it still looks good. Use that as a chance to influence the things that bother you. Change the system a little here and there. I’d rather people be annoyed because I’m more ambitious than them, rather than have people think I’m lazy or complacent. A common complaint I hear is that someone’s coworkers are basically just trying to coast to retirement, and any initiative is met with resistance. Use leadership opportunities to change and improve the system for yourself and those after you.
4. Industry Resources
This might not be true everywhere, but many schools have various contracts that allow us to get into the latest, greatest versions of different pieces of software whenever there is an upgrade. When we bought Adobe CS3 a couple years ago, it came with a built in, free upgrade to the next version as soon as it came out. So we effectively got both CS3 and CS4 for less that the retail cost of one part of the entire suite. When CS5 comes out, we can get that at a discounted rate. Likewise, if you play the “game” right, it’s pretty easy to keep yourself awash in things like multiple monitors (I can’t debug without them!), Wacom tablets (you try graphic design with a mouse!), cameras (you want web video made with a pad and paper?), etc. In a lot of cases, we’re some of the best equipped web developers out there.
5. Professional Development
Okay, this one is a little iffy lately. In the past, things like conferences, manager training, certifications, etc have all been at our feet. Lately, not as much. But there will come a time where the tide shifts back on this. And even still, most of us at least have some kind of development options. Even if it means reaching out to someone like .eduGuru with an idea for an article you’d like to write for the community or something along those lines. There’s a lot you can do that doesn’t cost money that you can accomplish to improve your standing, skills, and position (see leadership opportunities above). In most cases, if you go to your boss and say “I’d really like to do X to help me with Y,” they’re very likely to hold the door open for you and give you the room to accomplish it, money notwithstanding.
I like to think about the things that face us in higher ed as challenges to be overcome. Short or moving deadlines, scope creep, audience targeting, budget silos, you name it. These aren’t barriers, they are hurdles, and the trick is to get good at overcoming them. You do that, and you can make it in web development anywhere, because everyone has these problems to one extent or another, and if it isn’t those problems, it’ll be something else. You need those critical thinking and problem solving skills. I have a job to do, and if there’s something in the way of that, then we need to deal with it. If you do it right, in the process you can set it up so next time it’s much easier to handle. So bring it.
You are the reason I am here, writing at .eduGuru, and enjoying my day to day work life. You make the UWebD social network fun. You make me laugh on Twitter. You are there to help me when I need a second set of eyes on some code. The higher ed web developer community is one of the most open, friendly, active, helpful professional networks that I have ever seen. I can count on untold numbers of you to walk up and say hi to me at conferences, or email me with questions, or take part in surveys and research. I may be an army of one in the office, but I rarely feel alone.
Bottom line is that I think that while we do complain about a lot of things in higher ed, I don’t think a lot of those issues are necessarily unique to higher ed. We just feel like they are, because the environment we work in is far from tuned in to how agile the web is, and we all reinforce each other since we identify with each other’s pain so well. We end up feeling like we’re riding an elephant in a NASCAR race, but we fail to notice all the other racers are on pacaderms too.
photo credit: cobalt123
Likewise, if you play the “game” right, it’s pretty easy to keep yourself awash in things [...] Wacom tablets (you try graphic design with a mouse!) [...]”
Something you need to tell us, Fienen? What is this “game” you speak of, that you play in order to get what you want????
I enjoyed this post - I have to admit, I disagreed with a lot in the previous posts about higher ed being the “toughest gig in all the web.” Not that it is not tough at times, but since working in higher ed, I have found that the benefits are much greater than working for a private web development/marketing company (which I previously worked for), including many of those mentioned above. All that to say - I’m glad to see this response focusing on the positive side of things.
One thing I would add to this list: the ability to do freelance work. Many private web dev firms make you sign non-compete agreements, prohibiting you from doing any freelance work that would potentially be considered competition to the company for which you work (if fact, I was offered a job at a company before accepting a job in higher ed and this was a major reason I turned it down). Doing freelance on the side allows me to supplement my income fairly substantially, which makes up for the often lesser salaries found in our field. Of course, it means extra work, but we love what we do, right?
While certainly not true at all institutions, I’d add in the ability to experiment and innovate.
If a person is willing to put in time and effort to try something out without obvious financial costs, there often is tolerance or even support for doing so.
Great post Mr Fienen. All 7 of your reasons are right on the money. A year or so ago I wrote a post called “10 Reasons my University Job is Better than your Corporate Job” ..and didn’t take into account several of the points you bring up here.
Watching some of the state universities in California go through massive layoffs, (as well as in other states going through financial turmoil) has weakened some of my notions about job security, but overall I love where I’m at. There isn’t much out there I would trade it for.
Great post, sir. I quite frankly find the “I’ve got it rougher than you” attitude obnoxious. The grass is always greener on the other side and some one always has it better than you. Someone always has it worse than you as well.
I love working in education not only for many of the reasons that you list above, but also because…(wait for it, wait for it…)…because I work in education. I wake up everyday knowing that I’m going to work for an institution who’s #1 goal is to make young people, better human beings and better global citizens. I don’t think I’d get that working for a bunch of suits.
Excellent post. Sometimes I feel sort of Pollyanna-ish about my enthusiasm for working in higher ed and the mission of our university, so it’s encouraging to hear others who are truly excited about this work.
Can I get an AMEN!?!?
(Serious. Someone please post an AMEN comment below so I don’t look more foolish than usual.)
Put Paul Prudhomme and Paris Hilton on a balance scale (go ahead, I’ll *weight*). The chef is all the things I love about working in higher ed, the club girl is what I hate. Read: I don’t hate much, and I can find humor in what I hate, hell, I’d even watch it on a reality TV show…
You touched on some great benefits. But above all else, FAMILY is the reason I’m on this earth. My job lets me truly enjoy TIME with my family (both good and bad/sick). So much so, my wife doesn’t mind me working on weekends or late at night on projects because she knows it more than evens out. Time with my family is a gift, the gift giver earns my respect and loyalty.
Without a challenge, I quickly grow bored. I’ve worked in higher ed for 7+ years in the exact same job. THAT isn’t supposed to happen. I partly thank the Web for continually evolving, but another huge reason is that *new* challenges are thrown my way quicker than I can fetch them — that’s a good thing. Also helps that I work with 15+ departments, so the game board is cleared quite often, and new games emerge from the closet daily.
And I agree that the network of higher ed folks is amazing. I dare anyone to go to #heweb10 (10/10/10) and not meet at least *10* GREAT people. It just won’t happen.
I appreciate what Mark and Technology Trainingsay, I just don’t agree with most of it. AND I’ve never actually swallowed anything from the Steve Krug Kool-Aid pitcher, I believe common sense doesn’t require a pitchman.
Thanks Fienen for posting, so I didn’t have to.
AMEN (See? I can still play.)
Thanks Fienen, sometimes I need the reminder that it’s time to stop buying into coworker (sure, I’ll blame them) kvetching and put on my big girl pants.
The truth is, I LOVE higher ed, more than I ever loved working for hosting companies or freelancing, for many of the same reasons I HATE working for higher ed. It’s hard, it’s a nonstop learning experience, and it forces me to grow every day.
All the reasons you listed have value. I know I can take a vacation day simply by dropping an email to the boss, I get to take classes on campus during the work day, I get a travel budget and access to training and conferences I wouldn’t otherwise participate in, and I’ve gotten to become a small part of the HEWEB community (you guys really do keep me sane). For me, though, it’s the students. Being able to work with daily and provide solutions for these kids brings me back on days when the politics and budget issues would have me curled up in the fetal position with my red stapler mumbling about burning this place to the ground.
I think Technology Trainingwas right, it’s a hard job, but if it was easy it wouldn’t be nearly as fund and interesting.
The reason I left a corporate job and came to higher ed was because I wanted to 1) feel like I was a part of a community and 2) to feel some conviction behind the work I do everyday. I met both of those criteria in ways I could never have anticipated. Not only is the community at the university great, but the community of higher ed colleagues I’ve discovered is downright awesome. Sure, there are hassles and politics and whatnot. But there is also a mission I believe in, and I am surrounded by good people. What more could I want out of a job?
Great post, @fienen!
I’d like to just say that if I didn’t love my higher ed job overall, I would not be in it. There are trade-offs in both public and private, and I, for one, happen to enjoy the flexibility of where I am.
We need to make sure we understand the benefits we have as well as all the challenges we face so that we can see the big picture. With what Mark started (https://www.markgr.com/why-is-higher-ed-the-toughest-gig-in-all-the-web/), what I have ().
First, an obligatory AMEN for @tsand.
And great post, @fienen. Although I think of of the greatest reasons why higher ed is the best gig in all the web is the fact that its EDUCATION. Essentially, we’re all using the web to push a product. It just so happens our product is education and as President Obama stated, “In the 21st century, one of the best anti-poverty programs is a world-class education” — not a hard product to get behind. It’s not like we’re pushing tobacco or selling firearms.
So at the end of the day, if I can use my skills to help promote higher education, it’s a pretty sweet gig.
Many people argue that it is the toughest for many of the same reasons. What can we do to overcome the challenges and exploit the advantages? https://bit.ly/d1Y1r5
The broader higher education web community is so fantastic that it alone is a reason to work in this field. No matter how bad things get there are hundreds of brilliant people willing to help each other get through it, with only their shared passion for their jobs tying them together. I would dare anyone to find an industry where the people working at your competition are so interested in your personal growth. Despite my many grumblings, I’m not going anywhere.
Thank you, Mr. Fienen for nailing the great/good/bad/ugly on head, and also to Chelsey Harmon for the follow up post at https://allofesolutions.blogspot.com/2010/02/higher-ed-besttoughest-job-in-all-web.html
The higher ed web dev community is simply amazing.
Most especially, when I’m feeling bisected in the shear force differential between the fast-paced web development world and the interminable, exceedingly-non-agile pace of a public institution, it is the community that fills in the gaps and repairs the damage.
I am deeply grateful to the community of higher ed web colleagues on several continents (UK, AUS, and US, and CA) for making my department-of-one workload lighter — with open source projects for higher ed, Twumorous posts, and sympathy.