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Staying in School

IT careers in higher education

By John Edwards

Through persistence, studying and hard work, you’ve finally earned your degree. Congratulations. Now, go back to school.

For many grads, schools days don’t end on graduation day. That’s because colleges and universities are now relying on information technology—and IT experts—to handle a rapidly growing number of tasks, ranging from payroll to scheduling to a variety of Internet-based services. “There is not a department on campus that IT doesn’t touch,” says Cynthia Golden, vice president of EDUCAUSE, a non-profit association based in Washington and Boulder, Colo., that’s dedicated to promoting the use of IT in higher education.

A New Era

On most campuses, “computer centers” have finally given way to full-fledged IT departments that are responsible for computer and networking services, user support and other crucial tasks. As a result, IT is now part of the fabric of every higher education institution, and is no longer a backroom or background operation. “Every institution has teaching and learning as a primary part of its mission, and IT professional provide support for faculty and students, allowing them to use technology in innovative ways to support the learning process,” Golden says.

As EDUCAUSE’s job postings database (www.educause.edu/ jobs) suggests, the scope of IT positions available in higher education is extensive. “Campus IT departments are looking for many of the same skills needed in industry,” Golden says. “Systems programmers, network engineers, computer technicians, application developers, customer service representatives, instructional technologists, instructional designers, project managers, software engineers, database analysts, security professionals, policy officers—the list goes on.”

“The sorts of tasks are extremely diverse, and that’s one of the major benefits of working at an institution of higher education,” states Debra Allison, deputy chief information officer for IT services at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. “We get to have our fingers in a lot of pots.”

With over 15,000 undergraduate and graduate students on its main campus, Miami University requires about 185 full- and part-time staff members for its central IT operation. The workers are responsible for providing IT services to payroll, purchasing, human resources, student systems, course management systems and a computer lab. There are also wired and wireless networks to maintain, plus responsibility for Web-based operations that’s shared with the university’s communications office. “It keeps us busy,” Allison says.

Smaller institutions have compact staffs that typically require employees to shoulder two or more core responsibilities and to pitch in wherever needed. “Everybody here works outside of their expertise,” explains James B. Young, associate vice president of information services at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, a six-year-old institution in Harrisburg, Pa., with a small but growing student body. The school makes do with a staff of just five IT workers. “We’re doing everything that a larger organization would do, we’re just doing it on a smaller scale, so we’ve got to learn to run lean and mean,” Young says.

Despite the frantic pace, Young believes that academic IT workers tend to think more innovatively and work more creatively than their big business counterparts. “In large businesses you’re dealing with legacy systems and legacy thinking,” he says. At Harrisburg, innovations like open source software, wireless networking and voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) are everyday business tools. “We do this not only to save money, but also to change the way people think.”

All the Benefits

Since most higher education institutions have shallower pockets than similarly sized private employers, IT salaries are often lower. “Academic institutions have made great strides in becoming competitive in terms of compensation for IT workers,” Golden states. “But, even so, the dot-com years drew many campus IT folks to industry with the promise of big salaries.”

Benefits, such as free or discounted tuition, can more than compensate for smaller paychecks, especially for grads seeking advanced degrees. “Altogether, out of our 185 staff, I would guess there are probably around 30 people who have taken additional coursework or completed a degree while they were also employed,” Allison says. “It is a definite perk.”

Many grads also enter higher education IT to take advantage of an institution’s academic lifestyle. “Higher education offers a flexible and collaborative workplace,” Golden asserts. “For people who genuinely like an academic atmosphere, you don’t have to leave it.” Allison agrees. “Generally, you don’t see people leaving higher education, she says. “They find they really like the stimulating environment.”

Intellectual life can be invigorating at many institutions, giving IT staffers the chance to rub shoulders with computer researchers, theoreticians and other experts on technology’s leading edge. “Universities tend to attract people who have a sense of intellectual curiosity, who respect each other’s contributions and who enjoy a challenge,” Golden says.

Job security is another reason many grads seek IT jobs at colleges and universities. While private businesses can sometimes fold shop unexpectedly or shed jobs via outsourcing, colleges and universities tend to be highly stable workplaces. “Generally, higher education institutions don’t come and go,” Allison explains. “I’m seeing people move from the private sector into higher education.”

Academic IT workers also aren’t likely to lose their jobs if a particular technology suddenly becomes outdated or superfluous. “One of the advantages to working in higher education is that there is a commitment to life-long education,” she continues. “The technologies we work with come and go on a very rapid basis, so many of us get opportunities to upgrade our skills.”

Unlike IT operations in the dog-eat-dog business world, higher education shops form a community with sister organizations at schools worldwide. “The collaboration among institutions is wonderful,” Allison states. “That’s a very definite advantage that you won’t find in other industries—we share ideas with each other all the time.”

Finally, personal satisfaction motivates many talented IT professionals to seek work at academic institutions. For many, working in IT at a college or university is as much a calling as a job. “We are all working in support of the mission of the college or university, not toward a profit goal or corporate interest,” Golden says. “We are doing work that matters. I feel passionately that it’s a good place for a career.”

John Edwards is a technology writer based near Phoenix. His work has appeared in CIO Magazine, Wireless Week, Mobile Computing, IEEE Computer and numerous other publications.

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