Ask eAIR

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 

This month’s question is answered by Braden Hosch, Assistant Vice President for Institutional Research, Planning and Effectiveness at Stony Brook University. Braden also serves as an IPEDS Trainer. The ideas, opinions, and perspectives expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily AIR. Members are invited to join the discussion by commenting below.

Dear Braden: I am interested in advancing professionally, and I have already completed as much formal education as I can reasonably accomplish. What else can I do to be seen as a professional by senior leaders?

Capture.JPGBeing seen as a professional fundamentally involves getting the day-to-day job done—done well, done on time, and done without complaint. Developing a reputation for delivering results is of paramount importance, and the strategies I describe below won’t make up for missed deadlines or a reputation for a negative attitude. But once the fundamentals are covered, some key principles have helped me convey my sense of professionalism, and I tend to view others favorably who demonstrate these traits.

Be diplomatic. Always. How we interact with people is just as important as the content of the interactions. Awareness that the people with whom I work are invested in their own ideas, positions, departments, and initiatives helps shape how I talk about ideas with objectivity and detachment. This means, in part, that I try to avoid words that express strong value judgments. For instance, using the phrase “that’s a bad idea” can prompt defensiveness that shuts down productive dialogue, but the phrase “that’s an important idea, but it might not advance our goals in the way intended” conveys a sense of value and sets up a platform for examining the strengths and potential weaknesses of the idea.

Dress for the job you want, not the job you have. I received this piece of advice early in my career. I was quite young when I became an administrator, and I soon discovered that no one took me seriously unless I dressed the part and wore a suit. Over time, it became my work attire of choice. I am always prepared to meet VIPs at a moment’s notice, and the people I meet assume I mean business. Also, I have taken to regularly wearing my institution’s lapel pin (you can usually get one of these in the bookstore). Not only is it an expression of commitment to the institution, it reminds me who I’m working for.

Stay well-informed. When I started in higher education, I purchased a subscription to the Chronicle of Higher Education and read the news every morning. I still do. (The free, online Inside Higher Ed also provides strong coverage of higher education issues.) When we are able to connect issues confronting our institutions to a larger context, we create value for our institutions and demonstrate that we are “plugged in” to broader conversations and the “big picture.”

Spread credit around. Successful professionals work in teams and acknowledge the contributions of others. I am quick to highlight what my staff or partners have done to move an initiative forward, and conversely, I often downplay my own contributions. This strategy has become increasingly important as I have taken on more and more responsibility. The guiding principles here are that other people are generally better ambassadors of our contributions than we can be ourselves, and that our own success depends upon the success of those around us.

Value quality. As a professional, I place value on quality work product, quality relationships, and quality organizations. By internalizing this value and asking, “How can this situation, meeting, project, or relationship be made better?” it is easier to identify a course of action that accomplishes this goal.

Join the conversation. What do you do – or what do you recommend others do – to be seen as a professional by senior leaders?


 February 2014 Comments

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Total Comments: 8
Barb posted on 2/13/2014 2:53 PM
Sage advice from Braden. In the area of staying well-informed, give as well as receive. Have an important example or experience in response to an article or blog posting? Share it! We learn from each other. And as Braden says, share richly in the credit and personally own the shortcomings.
Bill posted on 2/13/2014 3:33 PM
This is both an excellent question and an outstanding response. I would add maintaining a strong sense of integrity and objectivity, working to be a good boss to those you supervise, developing/expanding your professional network outside as well as inside your current institution, and proactively sharing your insuights as much as possible. I am also a strong proponent of the idea of emotional intelligence in the workplace and of understanding campus politics and culture. Gaining a reputation as the campus expert on some issue that is currntly critical (stduent success, instructional productivity and cost, assessment, etc.) can really help as well.

Bill Knight
Ball State University
Shoshannah posted on 2/13/2014 4:57 PM
I like Braden's advice, and the notes added by Barb and Bill! I would add, be open and flexible when you think about what groups you might work with on your campus (and off). IR, like higher education overall, is always evolving and changing, and you never know what opportunities may present themselves.

University of Chicago
Jeanne posted on 2/14/2014 9:57 AM
Great advice for professionals wanting to move ahead. It is also important to stay informed on advances and trends in your area of expertise. Senior leaders appreciate an employee who is eager to participate in professional development opportunities. This interest shows an employee's willigness to learn or develop skills. Refusal to engage in professional development opportunites may be read by senior leaders as a lack of interest in professional advancement.
Katherine posted on 2/14/2014 1:49 PM
All great advice. One other thing I recommend is leveraging your professional association and consortial networks. Senior leaders pay attention when people outside your own organization recognize your leadership and expertise, as evidenced by professional service, presenting at conferences, and providing mentoring and other assistance to colleagues new to the field. And it's a great way for you to learn and pick up new skills as well.
Fred posted on 2/15/2014 1:35 PM
Great answer by Braden, and I have only one important addition. Since most of us work in an academic organization, we need to recognize that teaching and research are at the top of the organization's mission and value system. To receive full legitimacy as professionals, we need to either teach a course or publish, or both. Early in my career, I set the goal of either teaching one course per year (Ed Admin in my case) or publishing one article per year (usually a strengthened conference paper). I can tell you that over time, this strategy greatly increased my legitimacy in the eyes of the faculty across the university, and it strengthen my voice in meetings with the deans, VPS, Provost, and President.
Fred Volkwein
Meg posted on 2/20/2014 3:52 PM
I agree with my colleagues and see this as good advice. What I would add to the rest of the additions is to make sure you are seen by those on campus as being ready to serve their data needs. The more you try to meet others' needs on campus and try to understand how the data you have benefits them, the more they will see you as a professional. Remember, the data doesn't do "us" any good - we need to get it to those who can directly improve student learning and success.
Braden posted on 2/20/2014 11:59 PM
These are all fantastic additions -- thanks for reading and adding to the discussion. Consider yourselves on notice the next time we need to assemble a Forum panel on this topic.

Braden Hosch
Stony Brook University


This month’s question is answered by Kimberly Thompson, Director of Institutional Research at University of the Rockies. Kimberly also serves as an IPEDS Trainer. The ideas, opinions, and perspectives expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily AIR. Members are invited to join the discussion by commenting below.

KT.JPGDear Kimberly: I am ready to explore job opportunities for my next career move. What are the rules of etiquette in searching for a new position while maintaining commitment to my current position? 

This is a great question and one with which many of us have struggled. I’m not sure there are written “rules” for this situation, but there are some common-sense practices that I have used and am happy to share.  

The decision to notify your current employer that you are looking for a new opportunity is one that should be carefully considered and really depends on the culture at your current institution. Sometimes, your employer will recognize that you are ready for new challenges, and if a promotion or an increase in responsibilities is not available, your supervisor will help you explore new professional opportunities. In another situation, you might need to keep a job search as private as possible. In that case, be sure to inform the hiring institution that you do not want your inquiry made public. In either case, when you accept a new position and announce your departure, be sure to frame your decision in a positive light and stress the opportunities afforded to you. Refrain from making negative or critical comments about your current employer or position.  

Selecting references is also an important decision. You should always get the permission of the individuals you want to list as references, and be sure to check back when you know they will likely be contacted by potential employers so they know what to expect. I think it is good to select individuals who can speak to various aspects of your experience and qualifications for a position. For that reason, I seek references from former supervisors, but also from staff who reported to me and colleagues from other departments with whom I worked. 

During the time you are searching for a new job, plan for your departure. Make sure to document progress on long-term projects and track all work you have started, but not yet completed. This will provide a more seamless transition once it’s time to give notice of your departure, which can go a long way in terms of how you are remembered in the future. You will likely want to use your current employer as a reference, so it’s important to leave on good terms. I always provide a status document with my letter of resignation that includes information about all of my assignments, such as next steps, documentation on where to find materials, and any other information needed for continuity. 

And, while we are on the subject of the letter of resignation, be sure to write one – don’t rely only on a verbal resignation. Keep the letter short, polite, and professional. Give credit where credit is due. Early in my IR career, one of my bosses spent a lot of time mentoring me, which contributed greatly to my ability to move forward to new opportunities. In my letter of resignation, I noted that fact and thanked her for her kindness and the time she spent working with me. To this day she is a trusted colleague and friend, not to mention one of my best references! 

The most important thing to suggest is that we tend to remember that which is most recent….that is, employers and co-workers will long remember the way you conduct yourself when you separate from the institution or organization. Make sure those are good memories. Give adequate notice and remain professional and productive through the last minute of your employment.  

Join the conversation: What advice do you have for individuals who are seeking new employment opportunities? 


 January 2014 Comments

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Total Comments: 2
Emily posted on 1/16/2014 1:30 PM
The idea of providing a status document with your letter of resignation is a great one!
Danielle posted on 1/16/2014 2:26 PM
Very thoughtful advice for those planning their next move.


This month’s question is answered by Mary Ann Coughlin, Assistant Vice-President for Academic Affairs at Springfield College (Massachusetts) and AIR Past-President (2007-2008). The ideas, opinions, and perspectives expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily AIR. Members are invited to join the discussion by commenting below.

Dear Mary Ann: How do you engage with other offices on campus to build relationships and friendships?

This question is simple, yet complex! On the simple side, I refer to Robert Fulghum’s rules to live by as shared in his classic book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Some of my favorites that relate to this question include:   

Clean up your own mess;
Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you;
Play fair; and
Don't hit people. 

In retrospect, life in kindergarten may have seemed simple, but the application of these rules to higher education is definitely complex. Let’s dig deeper! 

Clean up your own mess. Often, IR offices make messes across campus. Let’s think of the countless times we need to gather data for external surveys, such as IPEDS and U.S. News. We send requests for data to people across campus and stress the importance of timeliness in their responses. Yet we don’t often think about other offices when we set our schedules. What are their busy times? When or how could we make it more convenient for them to assist us? What can we do to make it easier for them to provide us with information we need? Thus, I say to you, clean up your own mess or prevent other messes from occurring. Where feasible, help other offices to effectively provide you with the information you need. Give them tools and resources to make the data collection process simple and straightforward. 

Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you. After colleagues have helped you effectively complete your task, don’t forget to reward them. When we teach the IPEDS New Keyholder Workshop, Trainers share our most interesting and effective ways of thanking people for their assistance. One Trainer shared a recipe for chocolate chip cookies, and of course I offer M&Ms. Simple thank you email messages are often more appreciated than you realize, especially when copied to individuals’ supervisors.  

Play fair. This means many different things in a higher education setting. It is a rule that I truly try to live by! From an IR perspective, and with the goal of building solid relationships with other offices on campus, I stress the importance of respecting others. Many institutional researchers think that we have all of the information we need—after all, we have access to the data. A common flaw in this logic is that the institutional researcher may not know the context surrounding the data. After all, “data don’t speak to strangers!” Play fair, know your limitations, and most importantly, respect the expertise and skill sets of your colleagues. I readily admit my limitations in understanding finance and financial aid data. It would be very easy for me to assume that I can handle this, after all these are just numbers with dollar signs! Yet, the nuances of financial aid eligibility and packaging are well beyond my field of expertise and definitely have an impact on interpretation of reports and analyses. Thus, building strong relationships means that I need to value and support my colleagues’ expertise. 

Also, playing fair implies maintaining and protecting one’s reputation on campus. The best way to build good relationships is to have a good reputation. Institutional researchers need to have reputations beyond reproach, and IR offices should be known for getting things done! If we expect people to work with us, we want them to understand that our work is important and that the work we do matters. Thus, we need to be responsive to and supportive of other offices and produce quality products that are used on campus.  

Finally, playing fair implies being a good communicator. In this era of instant communication, this is a lost art. I spend too much time trying to decipher brief, poorly written emails. If we are going to play fair with others, we need to take pride in how we communicate with them.  

Don’t hit people. This relates to the Golden Rule: do unto others what you wish to have done to you. Even in my wildest moments when I feverishly type scathing email messages, I always save them as drafts. Take time to re-read a message you write when passionate or upset; if you still feel the same way when you come back to that message, pick up the phone and call the individual instead. Many of us communicate better when we don’t hide behind our keyboards.  

And this leads me to my final piece of advice. You can’t build good relationships with other offices if people only know you by your email signature. Get out of your office. Establishing relationships is better done face-to-face. Take time to invite colleagues to coffee or lunch. You can get a lot of work done in what appears to be a social setting!  

Join the conversation: How do you engage with other offices on campus to build relationships and friendships?




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Total Comments: 9
Vickie posted on 12/11/2013 5:50 PM
Mary Ann,

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your inaugural column. Your comments are so true!

This is a great idea.

Vickie Fry
Institutional Research Coordinator
Westmoreland County Community College
Jennifer posted on 12/12/2013 7:29 AM
Mary Ann, I could not agree more!

These are exactly those things people often refer to as 'soft skills', often more honored in the breach than in the observance (thanks, WS!), that build and maintain a strong IR office. Thanks for the great reminder (she said, halting over that email send button!),

Jennifer Brown, UMass Boston
Denise posted on 12/12/2013 7:38 AM
Mary Ann,

I enjoyed reading the column, well done. This reaffirms my philosophy. Treats others as you wish to be treated.

Denise Lindsey
BI Analyst
University of Delaware
Soon posted on 12/12/2013 9:37 AM
Mary Ann,

Words to live by, even outside of IR. Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

Happy Holidays!


Soon Merz
Austin Community College
Bill posted on 12/12/2013 10:29 AM
I think this feature is a great idea and it could not have started off with a better presenter. Much wisdom here. I followed Mary Ann in the AIR presidency and I continue to learn from her.

Bill Knight
Kris posted on 12/12/2013 3:13 PM
Mary Ann,

Excellent advice, couched in inoffensive and practical terms. Each of these rules truly rings true with the principles that I have lived by during my (getting) lengthy career in IR. Thank you for your knowledgeable and down-to-earth comments.
Elizabeth posted on 12/13/2013 7:29 AM
Mary Ann,

This was great! I have also found that writing hand-written thank you cards have been incredibly important at building bridges between areas. I would even get calls and emails thanking me for the thank you cards as they made such an impact!

Elizabeth Clune-Kneuer
Associate Director of Institutional Research
St. Mary's College of Maryland
Laurie posted on 12/13/2013 8:56 AM
Mary Ann,
Thank you so much for your wonderful advice. These guiding principles ring very true.
Heather posted on 2/13/2014 8:11 PM
Well said. I have benefited greatly over the years by following your last tip to get out of your office. Personal contact goes a long way. If you are just a name from an email or a faceless voice on the phone people are less likely to build a relationship with you. My relationships have served me well over the years and helped me to build a network of people who trust and support me.