The Differences Between Working in Higher Education and Corporate America

kelly d. scottKelly Scott, Campus Recruiter at Liberty Mutual Insurance
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kellykonevichscott

I never thought I would do anything other than work in higher education. With a background in educational counseling psychology and a job as a career counselor and assistant director within a career center at a Boston-area university, I had no need to look for a life outside the ivy-covered walls. But then an intriguing opportunity presented itself and I made the leap to corporate America. And I now find myself as a de facto spokesperson for corporate America among my higher education friends and colleagues. The information that most piques their interest is: “What are the differences between working there and here?” And I always tell them, while there are differences, the two worlds aren’t as far apart as you might think.

It’s a different kind of fast paced.

I thought there was only one kind of fast paced, but I was wrong. As an assistant director at a career center, I had a lot to do. There were student appointments, large- and small-scale events to plan and facilitate, workshops, class presentations, semester planning, and ad hoc projects. As a recruiter, it is also fast paced with numerous projects to complete, yearly planning, interviews, and regular meetings with various stakeholders across the organization.

So, what’s the difference then? The difference are the deadlines. I can’t speak for all universities because I’m drawing from personal experience, but overall, I had a lot of autonomy when it came to deadlines. “When do you think you could have that done?” was a question I was frequently fielding as a career counselor. Additionally, it was acceptable to spend a semester or two hammering out a new program or idea and generally the only people you were answering to were those in your department and the students.

Deadlines in corporate America are much less fluid. Many of the decisions and projects that I’m working on directly affect a team in a completely different department or business unit. As a result, deadlines are determined by a group and driven by quarterly business needs and recruiting cycle timelines. This creates a different sense of urgency than what I experienced in the higher education sector. Not better or worse, just different.

The private sector is more formal.

This shouldn’t be a shocker: it’s more formal. Working with college students makes for a much more casual environment than working with business leaders in a Fortune 100 company. The casual nature lends itself to forming deep personal connections with co-workers and, in my opinion, is one of its most appealing attributes of working in at a college or university. It wasn’t uncommon to share personal successes and even heartaches and frustrations with your direct co-workers or even your supervisor. Mind you, you’ve got a bunch of counselors sharing feelings, so it’s probably not that unusual, but when you’re in the mix of it, you don’t realize what was going on until you leave.

There’s not so much sharing in the corporate world. While there is a huge emphasis on respect, integrity and development—and my colleagues are incredibly supportive and caring—the mushy-gushy feeling of my last department is gone. I have a few co-workers that I am thankful to have developed very close friendships with over the last year, but corporate culture doesn’t support oversharing the way education does. Again, neither one is better or worse than the other, but there are recognizable differences.

People move around a lot more in corporate.

My personal experience in higher education is that a lot of people stay put or climb the ladder within their particular function or department. My former boss had been at the university for more than 15 years—almost entirely as a career counselor with notable promotions within her department. Her boss was there just as long and on the same path. Many of my co-workers were self-proclaimed “lifers” and stayed within the academic counseling field in some capacity. You get to know your co-workers really well and they have in-depth knowledge about the organization and the department history.

Corporate works a little differently. Since I started a year ago, multiple people have moved to completely different business units and taken on very different roles. My company puts an emphasis on professional development and growth, so it isn’t surprising that there is a lot of movement. In fact, people are encouraged to explore new opportunities that will challenge their professional growth within the organization. The drawback is that people move around a lot and it seems as though as soon as I think I am getting to know somebody, they get promoted or move on to another part of the organization. Definitely all great things, but it is a stark contrast to what I saw working in higher education.

Both the corporate and higher education cultures have their pros and cons and I think it really all comes down to what you value in work and in your career. There are certainly things I miss about higher education (holiday break) and other things I certainly do not miss (freshman orientation). That said, work values and skills change and develop as we grow professionally. Who knows what the next 10 years will bring, but for those of you wondering, corporate is not as scary as you think and has almost as much free food as you get in higher education.

7 thoughts on “The Differences Between Working in Higher Education and Corporate America

  1. Enjoyed the article. After 14 years in higher ed as a career center director, I recently plunged head-long into building a consulting business in career development. You’re spot on with regard to the depth of relationships in higher ed. As a newly self-employed career management consultant, I’m realizing the need for a good balance of the two worlds.

  2. Kelly,
    Yours was a enjoyable and interesting article to read. I spent the first 14 years of my professional like in Higher Ed, as a Director of Career Centers at 2 different universities. Then moved to the employer “side” as Director of College Relations for a consulting firm. I agree with your take on the differences. I used to put it slightly differently: time and money. On university campus, time seemed plentiful but money was nowhere to be found. At employer, time was money, so if you could buy time it was worth the investment. On campus, my team would take a semester or more to create a new product (workshop or publication), while at employer we would hire outside consultants to help bring the project home within a short period of time. My transition was in the late 1980s so I would have thought much has changed since then. Apparently not.

    Eric

  3. Kelly, I couldn’t agree with you more. I spent many years managing corporate talent acquisition and now run a Career Center. Great read!
    TaRita

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