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A Conversation with an Early/Mid-Career Professional on Moving from a College to an OPM

Erin Shevlin is a program manager for university partnerships at Emeritus. The reason that I wanted to do this Q&A with Erin is that she is an early-to-mid career higher ed professional who moved from academia to a company in the online learning space. Erin’s path is, I think, instructive to other higher education professionals who are thinking about navigating their careers. I’m grateful to Erin for her willingness to invest the time to share her career story with all of us.

Question #1: Prior to joining Emeritus, you spent five years at Georgetown as an events and project manager, and two years at Boston College as a program manager in the Office of International Programs.  Why did you decide to move from a non-profit academic setting to an online program management (OPM) company?

I first started exploring the world of edtech towards the end of my time at BC, though I didn’t take the plunge until a few years later. My husband and I relocated to Chapel Hill for two years while he pursued his MBA at UNC, where the opportunities in online education were limited. We were always planning to move back to Boston, so I took some time off from full-time employment to work as a consultant on a few research projects for an international education company, serve as a member of the international admissions committee for two programs at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, and start a family. After we moved back to Massachusetts and I began to consider re-entering the traditional workforce, I knew that it was time to pursue the now-thriving world of edtech in Boston.

As a mother with a young child, it was important for me to find a role that offered more flexibility in terms of work schedule and location than I was used to in higher ed. Of course, one of the few upsides of the pandemic may be a broader movement towards more flexible work in general (at least within certain sectors) but in my past experience, remote work and flexible hours were rarely available to university employees. While I had some wonderful opportunities in my past roles, I often felt frustrated by the pace, the bureaucratic environment, and the somewhat limited opportunities for professional advancement without a PhD. One of the big draws of edtech for me was the ability to support the incredibly valuable work of universities and leverage my industry experience, while enjoying some of the benefits of the private sector.

Question #2:  What has surprised you the most about the differences between working at a university and a company in the higher education space? What are the differences between working at a non-profit university and a for-profit educational company, and what are the similarities?

The gap between work at a non-profit university and a for-profit education company is not nearly as wide as I initially feared. Both types of organizations share a common goal of delivering high-quality educational experiences to learners—whether undergraduates embarking on their first international program or seasoned professionals looking to upskill through a fully remote course—and both attract employees passionate about education. One of my favorite aspects of working in higher ed was the privilege to be surrounded by smart, intellectually curious colleagues, and I’m happy to report that I have found no shortage of these in my current role.

Since I had virtually no professional experience in the private sector prior to joining Emeritus, I had definitely developed a false dichotomy between the non- and for-profit worlds. One of the reasons I remained in higher ed as long as I did, even when it became clear that it was likely not the best fit for my career ambitions, was a misconstrued notion that working for a university was inherently virtuous, while working at a for-profit company meant sacrificing mission for monetary gain. In reality, of course, successful universities and edtech companies both share a need to balance the books, and many for-profit companies have a positive impact that reaches far beyond the walls of the traditional university. The underlying mission of Emeritus is to expand access to elite education, which I suspect most people would consider a worthy and admirable goal.

The biggest, and least surprising, difference between my higher ed and Emeritus experiences is the pace of work, change, and growth. I am constantly challenged by my current role, in which I have a much broader scope of work as I collaborate with multiple partner schools with expanding portfolios of program offerings and work across many internal teams. There is also a tremendous opportunity to innovate as the company continues to scale. Emeritus is truly global, and I work with colleagues in India, Mexico City, and China on a daily basis.

Something else that I did not anticipate was the immediate, tangible impact that our work can have on our university partners, especially during this unprecedented time of upheaval, financial instability, and uncertainty. Though we work primarily with the executive education branches of business schools, which were already more likely to embrace online learning in pre-Covid times, it has been heartening to see that our collaboration has helped our partner schools quickly pivot to fully remote program offerings and gain much-needed revenue in the process.

Question #3: You are still relatively early-career, having graduated with your B.A. from Georgetown (in English, Italian, and Government) in 2009, and having received your M.A. (also from Georgetown, in Communication, Culture & Technology) in 2013. What advice do you have for other young professionals looking to build a career in the higher education ecosystem?

I would highly recommend that anyone interested in higher education consider both traditional university jobs and those in the newer realm of edtech and to not rule out the possibility of switching between the two over the course of a career. One of the primary challenges with building a career in higher ed is the scarcity of advancement opportunities. At a time when universities are in a particularly difficult financial position, there is a lot of opportunity to do innovative, challenging work in edtech that can have an immediate and positive impact on learners around the globe. Rather than viewing universities and for-profit companies as in conflict, consider them as complementary parts of a changing ecosystem. While a typical career trajectory in higher ed may have been limited to working for a university fifteen years ago, there are many more paths available today. 

This probably goes without saying given the above, but don’t fear, or stigmatize, the for-profit world. There is a lot of animosity in the academic world directed at for-profit companies, but there are a huge number of organizations doing valuable work (and inevitably some that are more dubious). If you’ve been working in higher ed for a while, have an open mind, let go of some of your negative assumptions, and realize that your experience is immensely valuable. For a while (meaning right up until I received my offer at Emeritus) I was convinced that I had spent too much time at universities and that my experience would never translate into the for-profit world, even at an edtech company. In reality, I was hired into my current role precisely because of my experience working directly with faculty and managing global programs at non-profit institutions. I currently serve as the internal advocate and relationship manager for a small number of universities, and my prior experience working in higher ed has been invaluable in understanding the motivations and challenges of my partner schools.

In terms of tangible steps for anyone starting a job search either as a new graduate or looking to make a career shift, I highly recommend informational interviews. I am not a natural networker, but I gained a lot of clarity and insight into my own aspirations through conversations with a wide range of people working across all aspects of the higher education sector. Casual conversations with acquaintances and friends-of-friends were probably the most important factor in convincing myself that leaving higher ed the right choice for me. In my experience, most people are happy to talk about their careers and offer advice, since they have most likely benefited from similar conversations in their own professional lives.

Source: Inside Higher News Colony | Education

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