Staying on Track with Technical and Professional Skills

Ask eAIR invites questions from AIR members about the work of institutional research, careers in the field, and other broad topics that resonate with a large cross-section of readers. Questions may be submitted to eAIR@airweb.org.

This month’s question is answered by Gary Lowe, Principal Analyst, Institutional Planning & Analysis, University of California-Merced.

The ideas, opinions, and perspectives expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily AIR. Members are invited to join the discussion by commenting at the end of the article. 

Gary-Lowe.jpgDear Gary, I am so busy with day-to-day duties that, unfortunately, I have not done a very good job of keeping up-to-date with my technical and professional skills. What strategies can you recommend to IR professionals who need to get back on track?

Working in an institutional research office means you will always face a barrage of information requests, survey deadlines, and the need to conduct complex data analysis on a variety of subjects. What often happens is that we elect to work on projects instead of keeping our professional and technical skills current. My first boss in institutional research, Roseann Hogan, gave all her employees a terrific piece of advice that I try to follow: Friday afternoons should be reserved for professional development. As difficult as it may be, set aside a small time period on a regular basis for professional or personal development projects. Technology changes so fast it can be difficult to keep Excel or other productivity software skills current. Be sure you do not make short-term decisions that will hurt your career in the long-term. Yes, you might be able to get one or two small, ad-hoc type projections completed in three to four hours, but by investing in yourself, you can save yourself (and the organization) time by becoming more productive.

A blog from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) lists four reasons professional development is important.

  1. Happy employees are more loyal and more productive.
  2. As an organization’s need changes, having employees with necessary skills is a competitive advantage.
  3. Succession plans are necessary for companies to survive in the future.
  4. Professional development gives you more control over your destiny.

Approach this initiative as you would any other project. Make a list of skill sets you believe are important for IR professionals. Which interest you the most? Which are most beneficial to the organization? As much as we would all like to be experts in everything, no one has that much time available – so be selective. Remember that only teenagers know everything (as proof, you can talk to my 18-year-old), everyone else has to identify the gaps in their knowledge and technical skills.

Benchmark the job market. Are new skills or qualifications becoming necessary? Where is the organization going with your department? Is it performing in a traditional IR office or in a transition to an IR Effectiveness role? Don’t forget to include subjects such as improving communication skills or handling conflict in the workplace. If you believe your supervisor will be receptive, set up a meeting to discuss your thoughts and ideas and get their feedback. Tie any requests for professional development funding directly to ongoing projects.

Keeping up with the latest research is always challenging, so use your time to routinely review educational journals or books focused on higher education. If you are an AIR member, the AIR website has a wonderful list of journals and publications available for free or at a discounted cost.

Look into workshops, webinars, or MOOC courses that will improve your technical skills. For example, learn how to use Slicers in Excel or make professional-looking graphs in PowerPoint. Consider coding courses that would allow you to write macros or other complex codes to increase your efficiency on routine tasks, such as completing the Common Data Set or external surveys.

Finally, think about expanding your horizons beyond IR. Research books which focus on specific higher education issues, such as student loans or the overall challenges facing American colleges and universities. Some fairly recent examples are The Shaping of American Higher Education, American Higher Education in the 21st Century, or The Student Loan Mess.

 

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