Is That Your Final Answer?: Why Choosing A Career In Student Affairs Isn’t For Everyone

Student Affairs Professionals
Because no one really knows what we do… not even us.

So, as promised, I’m back with what I hope will be the first of many new posts on the reinvigorated GotDegrees- and you’re probably thinking, “He came back to discourage people from going into student affairs? Guess that new job is working out stellar for him…”

First off – yes, it actually is going well, but that’s beside the point… and more importantly, this isn’t an Anti-Student Affairs post, no matter how the title may make it seem. I love this field and want people to join us in this important work, but after spending the past few years of my life as a SAPro and the past few weeks chairing a professional staff search process, I’ve been thinking a lot about professional fit and what happens to people who don’t necessarily fit into their given roles after starting with excitement and enthusiasm. I’ve also been thinking about how SAPros find themselves in Student Affairs and if I’ve done a good job being an effective ambassador for the field with students I knew who were interested in grad school or professional positions in Student Affairs.

All of this came to a head for me while reading an article on why telling someone to “do what you love” may not be the best idea when it comes to career advice on Mic.com’s website. In short summation of the article, the author says that doing what we love to do as a profession doesn’t always pay the bills or work out in the long run, and that in the rare case it does one may find that they don’t necessarily love doing said activity day in and day out with a supervisor monitoring their progress (read the article – there’s much more involved in the piece and it’s great and thought-provoking in a way I can only hope to be here). After reading, I was left wondering about how folks get into the work I choose to do on a daily basis (specifically residence life, but student affairs more broadly) and why it is that more than a few of them end up leaving the field a few years later feeling disillusioned. Let me be the first to say that I think the answer to this question is far more complicated than “Do What You Love” not working out for people- there are questions raised around supervision and orientation, realistic expectations placed on staff members, general burnout related to being “on” almost all or all of the time, and related issues that we can’t ignore as a field- but the article does shine a light on the pathways that we often take into the field and if we do a good enough job of being honest about the sometimes ugly truths of student affairs.

Student Affairs Professionals
40 hours? How cute… You’ll see soon enough. You’ll see…

Why Doing What You Love May Not Be Enough In Student Affairs

Think about it- if you’re working in student affairs, what got you started? Individual stories will vary, but I would bet my next paycheck (not THAT much money, folks- don’t get excited) that the story goes something like this: you were involved in some way on campus (or maybe overinvolved), you were good at it, someone told you that you could do this for a living, and a lightbulb went off in your head – end scene. Am I right? It’s definitely what happened for me, although it took me a good three or four years to actually accept that this field what where I needed to be. We all get into this work because on some level, we like working with students, we love being involved and committed individuals and we think that we can make a difference. We want to save the world- whether that world is our office, the campus we work on, or the entire, literal world (for you overachievers out there J). In theory, there’s nothing wrong with this- it propels us forward and can get you through some tough days to have a purpose and meaning behind what you do.

But… sometimes loving your students and wanting to save the world isn’t enough. The reality of the work that we do is that it can be messy, stressful, thankless and downright ugly some days. Depending upon your role, you may be expected to work evenings and on weekends. You may see students (and in some cases other professionals) at their worst physically, mentally and emotionally and then have to move on with your day without always having the chance to unpack what happened. You get asked to do mundane, annoying tasks sometimes, and your time is rarely your own. If you live on campus, you don’t get to walk away from your work – you literally eat, sleep and breathe a short distance from your office in many cases.

Even after you spend your first few years doing grunt work and being the low person on the totem pole to make it to a mid-level position, it’s not like your fairy godmother suddenly shows up, turns you into royalty and you get to meet your Prince or Princess Charming at the ball. From personal experience, there are days where it feels more like midnight just struck, your carriage turned into a pumpkin and you’re miles from home with no glass slippers on your feet or a dime in your pocket (and you work in education, so let’s emphasize that no dimes part).  For instance, I spent the better part of my evening on Friday night and tonight making sure sheets and towels were dry and clean for a candidate’s apartment – not because I have a fetish for clean laundry, but because it needed to get done and I didn’t have someone else around to check on it. It happens. Let’s not pretend that it changes at the top of the totem pole either- I can give you names and e-mail addresses of people I currently work with or previously worked with who can blow that fantasy out of the water quickly with some horror stories good enough to make you think it’s STILL Halloween.

In spite of all of this, plenty of SAPros stay in the field, move up, and for the most part can truly say that they enjoy what they do – because at some point we figure out that work is called “work” for a reason and it’s easier to be positive and embrace the crazy than to be bogged down in it and whine. At least, I hope we have that realization – sometimes I worry that new professionals don’t always see it that way and feel that because every day isn’t a party that they made a mistake or that somehow the folks they work for need to be extra accommodating to keep them happy. Obviously, as supervisors, we need to be attentive to staff needs and do all we can to retain good SAPros – but sometimes this includes a need for a reality check that honestly needed to happen at the undergraduate/graduate student level.

Staff member covered in slime.
Catch me on the right day and we might be able to overlook the degree part… MIGHT. (CronkNews.com)

Setting Potential New Recruits Up For Success

As I said in the outset, this isn’t meant to be an anti-SA post by any means- so how do we make the best of the situation and help to set folks up to thrive without pushing people out of the field?

First, when students say they want to go into the field (or when you have new professionals who want to move up, for that matter), have an honest conversation about why. If the main reason is because they think what they do now is fun and think that the next step up is more of the same, challenge them to think about the full picture. Not every RA wants to be an RD when they find out that they do room inspections, run conduct meetings, serve in on-duty rotations and get called all night, and have to do extra work on weekends- and not every RD wants to be an AD who has to write performance evaluations, sit on multiple campus committees, and navigate institutional politics on a daily basis. We don’t have to scare people away, but pulling the curtain back a bit and talking about the less glamorous parts of our jobs is truth in advertising that can save our supervisees heartache and frustration in the long run. My question in the title is obviously a joke referencing Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, but sometimes it doesn’t hurt to ask- because you’ll find out very quickly if they have solid reasoning for moving into student affairs or if they just want to have an extended college experience.

Provide shadowing opportunities when appropriate and encourage internships when possible. The best way to know if something will work for you is to try it out, particularly in a setting where you get to talk to people in the roles you want and learn from them. If your student is going into a grad program, make sure their field education or practicum program is strong and interns get to do more than make copies and get coffee. If you’re working with new professionals, try to bring them to meetings or share information about assignments on your plate. Just like first-generation college students who make it to campus and have no context for going forward, many people looking to move into new roles don’t have the slightest idea about what they look like day to day and can have unrealistic expectations- it’s better to burst the bubbles in a low-risk way that allows them time to figure out a plan B than to figure this out while in the role and then be coached out by an unsympathetic supervisor.

Most importantly, be honest and “keep it real” with your students and staff- professionally, of course. If you know that someone you work with may not be cut out for some of the challenges of this field, be honest with them. Again, I’d rather break your heart now while you have time to figure things out than to let you go down a path that is not for you. To the extent that you can, be clear with students and new staff about the challenges of our roles – obviously in a way that doesn’t denigrate others in departments or across campuses- but if you notice concerns in their performance that could lead to issues down the line, you owe it to the future supervisor who may inherit them to help them correct the issues. I try to be as transparent with my team now about what they would face if moving into mid-level roles because I didn’t always get those messages – my hope is to not only humanize the roles mid-level staff play in their minds but to also give them the impression that they can definitely do what I do if they are willing to put in the work.

Careers In Student Affairs.
If you’ve learned ANYTHING from this very long post, hopefully it’s to NOT be like this young woman’s RD… (CronkNews.com)

Closing

In all honesty, I do think that for many people hearing the message that I’m proposing we share won’t be a deterrent and not everyone who gets into Student Affairs ends up feeling duped later on. However, I’ve seen enough people who enjoy being the “big brother/sister” or the “counselor” but loathe other parts of the roles the play – at the entry-level through senior leadership – and it wreaks havoc in ways that make other people reconsider the field as well. Being open and honest at the outset makes for better informed students and employees, who will then be good stewards of the field themselves. Doing what you love isn’t always a reality- that’s life- but when it comes to a high-stress, critical field like ours, taking that extra second to check your final answer can make all the difference.

Hope this got you thinking about how you personally represent what you do and our field – share your comments and thoughts below and pass this along to colleagues or staff members if you enjoyed it. More to come from me next week!

J

It’s Complicated, Part III: GotDegrees’ 12 Tips To Getting A (Student Affairs) Internship or Job

GotDegrees 12 Tips to Getting The Job or Internship You Want

Welcome back to the official blog of the Evil Empire! As promised, I’m much calmer than when I wrote my last PROTIP Phriday post, and in addition feeling more reflective on my path in student affairs and how I can share some of my insights with others. With that in mind, the next few Monday posts are going to be centered around the job/internship search, being a superstar employee and being a beloved supervisor. These topics are particularly near and dear to me and especially relevant as the various student affairs organizations that sponsor summer internships for undergraduate and graduate students gear up for candidate applications, as some folks think about changing the practicum linked to their graduate program, and as graduating students begin to turn towards the often much feared job process (not as bad as it sounds- I promise!).

Continue reading It’s Complicated, Part III: GotDegrees’ 12 Tips To Getting A (Student Affairs) Internship or Job