Alumni Profiles Series: Michele Rasmussen
Michele Rasmussen received her Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology (now Evolutionary Anthropology) from Duke University in 1999. After learning about university administrative careers with a fellowship at the Duke Career Center, she started her career in higher education administration, and she is now the Dean of Students in the University at the University of Chicago.
What was your experience like at Duke?
I came to Duke to begin my doctoral work in the early ’90s, and it was a phenomenal experience. I worked at the Lemur Center, and I was able to do primate research in Costa Rica and Madagascar. I also did some paleontological field work in Montana, although it was not the focus of my research. In addition, I got to teach in the summertime and TA during the academic year. It was a really well-rounded experience. Even though I ultimately decided not to pursue an academic career as a faculty member, I still appreciate the training I had as a scientist, because the experience has informed my career trajectory and my work in higher education administration.
How did you decide on your career path?
It was a little bit accidental at first. When I was finishing up my Ph.D., I applied for a few teaching jobs at various colleges around the country. It was not very successful, partly because I did not feel that kind of career was the right path for me. Then I got an email from the Career Center listing a job as a Career Center fellow, which was intended to give recent Duke graduates the chance to serve as peer advisors. The job responsibilities included revising students’ résumés, conducting mock interviews, and writing about different career tracks. I applied to the job and got it. It was during the two years working at the Career Center that I became aware of all the different kinds of things to do with a Ph.D. I was exposed to higher education administration and got to know people on campus, which opened up opportunities that set me on the path I subsequently followed.
What is a typical day like for you as the Dean of Students?
What I like about my job is that you can never predict what a particular day will bring. There are always some new things which you would never expect to do. I have quite a few meetings, and I hear direct reports from people with whom I check in on a regular basis. They talk about their progress, ask me for advice, or maybe ask me to advocate for them with other administrators. I work very closely with individual deans of students in each division and school about issues or problems with which they might need help. I also often have weeks in which I schedule meetings to talk with students. These student government representatives or members of student advocacy groups talk to me about initiatives or issues that could use administrators’ support. I also meet with students individually if they want to share their experiences, or chat casually with students I meet from social contexts on campus.
In addition to meetings, I also, perhaps unsurprisingly, spend quite a bit of time managing emails and responding to campus requests. I talk to parents to understand and respond to their concerns as well. I try to spend time reading every day, including The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed, just to keep up with what’s going on in academia throughout the country and the world. I check out the New York Times to stay up-to-date on what is going on politically since this affects higher education.
What are the most important skills needed for your position?
You need to be a very strong communicator and able to articulate what you need to others. Sometimes you may assume people you work with know what you want, but if this is not made clear, it can lead to confusion, uncertainty, and inefficiency.
It’s also very important to be comfortable working in a potentially fast-changing environment. Sometimes we have to make decisions very quickly, which requires a lot of mental dexterity. We do not have the luxury of time to consider all the possible alternatives, study what the implications are supposed to be, and come to the absolute best decision. In this day and age, given the speed at which information is transmitted, sometimes you have to be prepared to be decisive and confident. You also have to be comfortable with crisis. Unfortunately, part of my job is often dealing with campus crises; a student might be missing or pass away, or media coverage might give an unflattering impression of the university. You have to respond to these challenges in a calm and effective manner.
I think you also need to be effective at “managing up.” I have responsibility for reporting to both the Provost and the President of the University of Chicago. I need to be really good at understanding what they need and want without burdening them with unnecessary information. You need to think about how you can be most helpful to them as a good team player.
From your perspective, which is more important for university administrative careers: previous experience in administration, or faculty experience?
It really depends. I think having faculty experience can be very helpful if you want to work more on the academic affairs side of administration. For instance, in a provost’s office, you encounter issues with faculty development, faculty retention, or graduate student concerns. If you want to work directly with students, especially undergraduates, having a bit more administrative experience can be an asset, whether that entails serving at a residence hall, working as a peer advisor, or being a graduate assistant in one of the many student centers. These types of positions give you more on-the-ground experience with various co-curricular issues that may not be as central to faculty positions. I encourage graduate students to take advantage of serving on university committees, or to get involved with anything that allows you to understand institutional administration, because it gives you an idea of how universities are run, and you expand your networks to include people who might be in a position to help you later on.
Do you think an additional degree in higher education administration is necessary for advanced degree holders to pursue careers as administrators?
I think it’s somewhat of a personal decision, and I do not think it’s necessary. When I’m considering job candidates, if they do not have a credential in higher education, I will be looking for an advanced degree (does not need to be a Ph.D.) in an academic field, just to show that they understand what working in an academic environment entails.
Depending on the job, sometimes I will hire folks with an M.B.A., or from a business/accounting background, because a lot of what we do in student affairs is really running huge enterprises, including dining, housing, bookstores, retail, and more. Having good quantitative skills is obviously helpful in general, and a lot of master’s and Ph.D. graduates can demonstrate these competencies across industries.
If you already have a master’s degree or Ph.D. in an academic discipline, you should really think carefully about whether you need an advanced degree in higher education, student affairs, or other relevant fields. If the degree is of interest to you and it would help you professionally, then by all means go ahead and pursue it, but I do not think the degree is necessary to get a great job in academic administration.
Ph.D. student, Biochemistry
Jimin Hu is a second-year Ph.D. student in Biochemistry. She studies protein glycosylation in the vesicle trafficking process. She enjoys talking to people about their careers and hearing insiders’ stories.