Higher Education
Career Paths Inside and Outside the Classroom

Written by Marissa Poulson

When it comes to choosing your higher education career path, it’s all about finding the best fit for your interests and goals. Like most fields, higher education is exceedingly diverse and caters to a range of professionals with varying levels of education and expertise.

“The qualifications and requirements are quite different for administrators and professors – as well as in research institution and teaching institutions,” acknowledges Karen Ferguson (Ph.D.), assistant dean of NCU’s School of Education. “The best advice I can give is to take the time to reflect on what type of higher education professional you want to be. Then research the minimum qualifications.”

We've compiled some common higher education career paths to highlight the versatility of a higher education career, both inside and outside the classroom. Whether you are a teacher with dean-sized dreams, want to transition into academia, or feel like you'd be a good fit for a position in research or administration, higher education provides plenty of career options.



As the cornerstone of the education field, teaching is often the go-to path for many higher education professionals. It includes numerous options based on your level of education and teaching experience.

In some cases, a master's degree may qualify you to teach at a community college or as an adjunct for multiple schools, both face-to-face and online. At the doctoral level, you may find opportunities at a 4-year public or private college, or depending on where you earned your degree, on the tenure track at a research university.

Teaching experience is also important in academics. If you are looking to get your foot in the teaching door, you may start off as a TA, lecturer or assistant professor. If you are experienced in one field, you may qualify as a program chair and have oversight of curriculum and other faculty.

Each school is different and has its own requirements for teachers. Be sure to do your homework beforehand to find a school that best fits your education and experience.

Curriculum Development

Academia simply does not function without quality curriculum. Higher education relies on countless subject matter experts to help develop cutting-edge curriculum that is relevant to society and employers.

This is when professional experience outside academia can be incredibly useful. For example, if you've spent your career as an accounting professional, you probably have a great idea of the knowledge and skills that today's accounting graduates need. Your career input could be invaluable in aligning the curriculum and outcomes to reflect the accounting field.

“The best advice I can give is to take the time to reflect on what type of higher education professional you want to be.”


Higher education has a lot of moving parts, and institutions need employees to help manage and support all of the different areas.

Common areas in higher education administration:

  • Admissions
  • Advising
  • Alumni Relations
  • Business & Finance
  • Career Counseling
  • Human Resources
  • Institutional Research & Planning
  • Public Relations & Communications
  • Residential Life
  • Student Affairs & Services

With all of these options in academic administration, it's important to consider your degree choice. A degree specialization gives you the opportunity to tailor your education to a specific area of administration. There are also plenty of short-term certificate options available to help you develop your niche down the road.

“I have always had an interest in science and research. I like to know how things are 'proven' and what that information is telling us.”


Research is an area that affects both academics and administration.

Institutional Research

Before coming to NCU, Associate Director of Programmatic Research, Melissa Helvey worked in a Brain, Behavior and Cognition lab at Northwestern, took classes, and taught a Statistics course. “I have always had an interest in science and research,” says Helvey. “I like to know how things are 'proven' and what that information is telling us.”

For example, institutional research helps inform campus decision-making and planning through assessment. “By actively assessing student learning, we can determine if a student is learning and meeting their program learning objectives, and if not, where changes in a program need to be made,” explains Helvey.

Research Faculty

Research faculty play a vital role in university academics. While their research contributions help their colleges and universities receive valuable funding and grants, they must often split time between teaching and working on their research. Research faculty must also have a firm grasp of research methods, statistics, a strong ability to synthesize information, and extensive publishing experience.