Hiring an IR Director: Advice from the Field

​By Bobby Sharp, Retired Director of Institutional Research, Assessment, and Planning, Appalachian State University
Lead-Graphic-Oct.pngLongtime AIR member Bobby Sharp was asked to share his perspective about the components of a successful search to hire a director of institutional research. Read his advice about the timing of effective searches, candidates’ backgrounds, and the key skills necessary for the role. Share your comments and insight at the end of this article. 
I received an email from a longtime colleague whose university had not had a director of institutional research for quite some time due to lack of funding. She explained that the institution was exploring hiring a director of institutional research who would be responsible for traditional IR responsibilities, with a focus on improving student learning and student retention through research, analytics, and survey design. As such, she asked for my suggestions about conducting a successful search.
My colleague’s quest is shared by many of us who have been trying to position IR effectively for the near and intermediate future. It's an ongoing conversation locally and beyond, and it’s something I have pondered often over the past 34 years. Deliberations about the function of IR within an institution and ideal attributes of an IR director are very campus-specific. I believe there are three central areas related to conducting a search for an IR director that are particularly relevant for smaller IR departments (as is the case for the colleague who sought my advice).

Key characteristics and skill sets

For a small IR shop—perhaps one or two people—I weigh technical skills particularly highly. At least one person in the office, or someone dedicated to the IR office from within IT, needs to be very fluent in ways to provide the campus with self-serve access to institutional data that inform right-now decisions and provide almost real-time answers to questions campus officials raise when setting campus policies. That requires first-rate knowledge of, and skills related to, the entire stream of campus data—from its origin to the range of data users who access the self-serve tools. Knowledge and skills related to how data are retained in integrated, interconnected ways (call it data warehouses or similar) are also becoming increasingly valuable.

"Ready access" is the current development in the field, in my opinion, whether it applies to basic student counts or sophisticated student learning rubrics, and the office of institutional research must deliver that access. It also means being able to connect data on the fly without delays for programming complex code (e.g., data on student performance in key general education courses that are connected to data on financial aid and data on student out-of-class involvements). Ready access means just that: Decision making is informed by data in a real-time manner, or nearly real time. Otherwise, answers to policy-formation questions may come too late.

This also means that much of the stock reporting, such as IPEDS or the Common Data Set, is automated to the degree possible using self-serve tools that permit the IPEDS Keyholder, for example, to be a nontechnical staff member. The director of institutional research spends much of her/his time interacting with campus data users and data specialists in order to know how to develop the best possible self-serve tools that campus resources permit.

So, think self-serve data access for your institution and who can best lead that initiative and "work" the tools you have available. Note that writing research reports for professional publication or presentation is a recommended practice apart from, and contributing to, day-to-day effective campus service.

Faculty status/rank and Ph.D.

I do not believe that faculty status/rank is needed for the director of institutional research anymore. I held faculty rank during my career and taught occasionally, but I now believe the focus of the office leader should be almost entirely on delivering high-quality self-serve access and data content.

For that reason, I'm no longer sure the position requires a Ph.D., if the person understands institutional data well and possesses advanced data management/presentation knowledge and skills. It is very important that a director of institutional research understand higher education in general, and the campus in particular, plus retain professional credibility with campus officials and faculty; a terminal degree doesn't guarantee that.

A director of institutional research must be able to handle herself/himself well in conversations with faculty and when making presentations to faculty senate and other faculty-led committees and task forces. Holding a doctoral degree may help establish credibility, but ultimately it's what the person knows and can communicate—and the person's self-confidence—that maintains credibility. 

Best time to hire

There is a school of thought that says a job must be posted in summer in order to attract a strong pool of candidates and hire the best person; still others believe the end of the calendar year is more appropriate.

Hiring for a "staff" position, such as a director of institutional research, isn't as academic calendar-driven as other institutional positions. It's really more about when you want a person on board and ready to go; back up six months or so and begin the search with that start date in mind. It is a disadvantage for a director of institutional research to be thrown right into fall term, because that is the primary season for reporting and is the most hectic period within the academic year.

Some sitting directors of institutional research may prefer to complete the spring term before leaving their positions because campus data use slows as the academic year winds down. As such, anytime between April 1 and August 1 might work well for many institutions. A sample timeline may have a position announcement public by October 1, applications reviewed by February 1, and a start date between May 1 and July 1.

Semester and term breaks in December complicate announcement and application review scheduling. Of course, if you get going in August, you might complete the search and have someone on board by January.

For your consideration

While there are numerous variables to consider when selecting the best IR director for your institution, strong candidates will fit within your organizational culture and possess personal initiative, innovation, and self-motivation. Ultimately, the goal is to select a director who can help lead the institution’s use of data-driven decision-making to achieve student success.

What advice or suggestions do you have for hiring an IR director? What knowledge, skills, and abilities do you think are most relevant? Share your comments below.



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Total Comments: 4
Dean posted on 10/15/2015 4:41 PM
I have paid attention to IR job announcements for years and have noticed a couple of characteristics that would make the position more or less attractive to me. First and foremost in my mind is the reporting structure. Institutional Research should have a campus-wide mission to be most effective. For some time, this meant that the director should report to the president or the chief academic officer (VPAA, Provost, etc.) whose job it is to accomplish the primary mission of the school. Lately, I have also seen the IR function report to the chief enrollment officer, particularly in schools whose primary revenue stream is closely tied to enrollment. All of these seem reasonable strategies for making IR effective for the institution as a whole. However, some schools put IR under IT (CIO) or Finance (CFO). I have seen firsthand how this can be restrictive of IR's usefulness to the institution. Especially if you have a very small number of IR personnel, it is crucial that they be placed under a reporting structure that expands rather than restricts their usefulness to the institution.
Jason posted on 10/16/2015 10:18 AM
"It is a disadvantage for a director of institutional research to be thrown right into fall term, because that is the primary season for reporting and is the most hectic period within the academic year." Thank you! If we could get VPs to understand this, their IR offices would probably be able to "take off" much sooner. Having to train yourself while scrambling through the fall reporting cycle means that you have to train yourself again during the next fall reporting cycle. You don't have time to record your processes, and you forget everything as you have to hop from project to project.

I like the ideas in the key characteristics and skills sets section, but I struggle with having the resources to do this. It's all labor intensive up front, and in a 1-person shop I don't have the time to set aside to build efficiency. It's the 1-person shop's catch 22. But, that's probably everyone's gripe.
Melanie posted on 10/29/2015 10:46 AM
This weekend, I will head to the NEAIR conference. As always, I’m looking forward to learning how my colleagues across sectors and from the full spectrum of office sizes are coming up with big, small, and extraordinary ways to support their institutions and higher education as a whole, while also expanding the craft of institutional research. I would argue that many of my small office colleagues who are talented programmers may not agree with the above characterization of their contributions. In many cases, writing reports is a service they provide supporting a larger mission of cultivating a campus business intelligence function and teaching their campuses how to use, interpret and value data and information. This is a particular challenge at institutions where data are less-than-pristine. And what about those small office IR professionals who are not programmers, but who have effectively partnered with their colleagues on campus so they are able to aggregate and analyze quality data to support strategy? Small IR offices can be creative and strategic IR offices. Instead of pigeonholing our profession based on office size and creating artificial limits dictating how we should contribute, we should be celebrating the wide range of talents of the professionals in our industry and the way we all have the ability to contribute to the IR profession as a whole.
Becky posted on 10/29/2015 12:15 PM
I have to say I disagree with the notion that Technical Knowledge is the #1 trait for small IR offices. Having lead several (ok five)I would place analytical skills as the #1 trait. When IR become too IT like, the Research part of IR gets replaced with the Reporting function, and just making data self-service and handing it off to 'decision makers' takes IR out of the equation as a player. Small IR offices are isolating enough with being pegged as the table providers, and way too many IR folks feel that restricted role mentioned by Dean in his comments.

If you don't have the ability and the capacity to see the big picture and understand the politics at your institution, technical knowledge is not going to help you with that deficiency.

Susan Coia-Gailey wrote a very interesting article several years ago about why 'you are not getting any research from your IR office' - (I am paraphrasing), and while I don't agree with all of her points, it is one of the best articles about positioning IR that I have ready.
Research and analytical skills should be at the heart of an IR office, and the expectations for a small office to go beyond reportings needs institutional support (including someone with technical skills) but technical skills should not be driving the hiring if it is IR you want (and need).