Lessons Learned: AIR Leaders Share Nuggets of Wisdom

The career paths that lead to institutional research are varied. As a result, the shared learning experiences available to AIR members are rich and diverse. To that end, eAIR asked members of the AIR Board of Directors to reflect on their careers and share advice they wish they had received as new professionals.  

Jennifer Brown
Director of Institutional Research and Policy Studies, University of Massachusetts Boston 

I started in IR as the only IR person in a four-campus, public, four-year, system office and the advice I would have appreciated is, “If you don’t want to open the can of worms, don’t ask the question.” Although, without a full appreciation of the cans and the worms, I doubt it would have stopped me. As with most advice, one may receive it, but generally one learns only from one’s own experience in matters such as these! 

Julie Carpenter-Hubin
Assistant Vice President for Institutional Research and Planning, The Ohio State University 

I wish I had realized earlier how willing—even eager—faculty are to contribute their expertise to our work. Some years ago, my team was asked to participate in an economic impact study on behalf of our institution. Instead of saying that we didn’t have the requisite knowledge, we partnered with a faculty expert and the project was successful. In designing our faculty and staff surveys, we worked with sociologists who specialize in workplace culture. These projects were both higher quality and better received because of the faculty involvement. Asking for help from faculty actually increased respect for our office. 

Glenn W. James
Director of Institutional Research, Tennessee Technological University 

Ensure that your professional knowledge and competence are current through a continual development and renewal process that includes contact and involvement with professional associations, colleagues at other institutions, current professional literature, workshops, seminars, webinars, course work, and other avenues for professional development. Maintain an orientation toward learning new information, and using new approaches, tools, and techniques. Sustain an orientation toward learning regularly and along a continuing path into your professional future. The world will not “sit still,” and you cannot either!  Therefore, be strategic and plan for your own professional development and growth. 

Christine Keller
Associate Vice President - Academic Affairs, Association of Public and Land-grant Universities 

Too much data is as bad as no data! Keep your audience in mind—select the most important results from your analyses and communicate the key points succinctly and effectively. Graphs and bullets are your friends. Also, build relationships with colleagues from other campus offices and at other institutions. Pay attention to the state and national trends. Working and learning with others and understanding the broader context outside your institution will allow you to make meaning of the data, recognize patterns, and discover insights that would otherwise remain hidden. 

Heather A. Kelly
Director of Institutional Research, University of Delaware 

Don’t underestimate the value of getting out of the office and building relationships at your institution. Take the time to get to know folks in admissions, the registrar’s office, financial aid, budget, finance, and communications and marketing, to name a few. Also, don’t underestimate the power of data and the value of the unbiased leadership role you can play at your institution. 

Ellen Peters
Director of Institutional Research and Retention, University of Puget Sound 

    1. Listen to that little voice in your head that says, “this is fine, but it could be better.” And make it better.
    2. Don’t be hesitant to share your opinion just because you are new to the field. Sometimes that fresh take is sorely needed.
    3. Pay attention to the political landscape at your institution, and learn the protocols and diplomatic behavior.
    4. Take every opportunity to grow professionally. Go to conferences, meetings, and trainings – even those that don’t seem directly related to your work. Run for leadership positions, and volunteer to serve on committees.
    5. Use your professional connections; stay in touch with colleagues, and ask them questions. Most of us feel honored when someone asks us to help out, and we all need the help of colleagues at one time or another.
    6. Take opportunities to expand and grow your responsibilities. Offer up your ideas for new work, and say “yes” when it presents itself (and then use your professional connections to help you make it happen!) 

Sandi Bramblett
Executive Director of Institutional Research and Planning and Decision Support Services, Georgia Institute of Technology

    1. You can learn something from everybody you meet in the course of a day. Sometimes it’s how to do things, sometimes it’s how NOT to do things.
    2. Don’t take yourself too seriously.
    3. Always opt to share the credit with others or take the blame yourself.
    4. Keep the past in the past and move forward.
    5. Figure out a way to keep your life balanced with your work on a daily basis: exercise, play with your kids, walk the dog, volunteer, or eat lunch with a friend. The perspective you gain outside of your office is invaluable to your career inside of the office. 

Share your nuggets of wisdom below.



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Total Comments: 7
Jessica posted on 2/14/2013 11:02 AM
Thanks for the excellent tips and reminders! In thinking about them, they are really valuable for all IR professionals, both new and more experienced.
Rob posted on 2/14/2013 4:06 PM
1. Appropriate proxy variables are necessary in order to make some tough decisions
2. Predicting an absolute value is impossible, but predicting a range for the value to fall within is much better for planning
3. Verbally describing data is fair less useful than visually displaying data
4. Anecdotal data has its place
5. A mix of quantitative and qualitative information produces better strategies
Randy posted on 2/14/2013 4:40 PM
I really like the advice from all the authors and am delighted to see member "Rob" jump in as well. I hope others fallow his lead. Rob, you are spot on!

My advice is to to only study issues that an organization eiher can change or is willing to change. Doing studies about things you can't change is a silly use of time, even if interesting. Doing studies about things that will not be changed no matter the answer (football?)is silly and dangerous!
Kristy posted on 2/15/2013 12:15 PM
Thank you for all the wonderful advice! As a relatively new member of the IR arena (and the first in my position at my campus), I have at times felt too unexperienced to ask questions of my colleagues in other departments or of administration. I have found, though, that by asking questions I often reveal gaps or new ways of thinking (what I thought were "newbie" questions were really areas that needed an IR person to address) and my perspectives have usually been accepted and welcomed. My advice: ask questions, seek answers, and become a leader for new ideas! And, I always find it exciting that its the IR person who can back up the these ideas with data and facts!!
Evelina posted on 2/15/2013 4:42 PM
These are all excellent suggestions! There is always an opportunity and a need to learn new things in our field. It is important to demonstrate the value of using data on campus - in virtually all areas. Thank you!
Sonia posted on 2/15/2013 9:13 PM
Thanks everyone for the insightful posts. After a challenging week, it was great to sit down and have such wonderful pieces of advice. Little things that I know that I could incorporate into my day.

The comments about building relationships with colleagues from other campus offices and other institutions and getting involved really resonated with me. We have such a wealth of knowledge within our professional associations (and through our colleagues) and outreaching to those who can mentor, guide or even validate what we are doing is such a bonus.

Thank you again for all the great advice.
Vic posted on 2/18/2013 9:27 AM
A good place for the IR Credo:
I realize that I will not succeed in answering all of your questions. Indeed, I will not answer any of them completely. The answers I provide will only serve to raise a whole new set of questions that lead to more problems, some of which you weren’t aware of in the first place. When my work is complete, you will be as confused as ever, but hopefully, you will be confused at a higher level and about more important things.

Moral: don't be frustrated when the information you provide is not exactly what the requester wanted. It's all part of the learning process (on both sides).