Most of us come into student affairs through some happy accident. Quite often, we were engaged as student-leaders and somehow discovered that we could get paid to do similar work. My foray into student affairs came through athletics where I started as an assistant coach/hall director at a small private liberal arts college in Kansas. At the time I was going on the track to being a head coach. After a few years, athletic director seemed like a better fit. A few years after that I was just confused about what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to stay in student affairs, I just wasn’t sure where I fit in. It wasn’t until a mentor of mine posed these five questions to me that I was able to focus in on what I wanted and was able to make clearer career choices.
Question 1: Do you have any experience not related to your undergraduate interests? In other words, are you getting out of your comfort zone. I came into student affairs because of my experiences in athletics and helping to manage a fraternity house. I hadn’t done much outside of the athletic space. For me I stepped out of my comfort zone and took a position in academic advising to gauge fit and to expand my knowledge. This would prove to be critical experience for me years later when I ventured out of athletics and into graduate student success work.
Question 2: Are you gaining fundamental skills in your job? You may love your job and functional area but is that area giving you the fundamental and desirable skills and knowledge that institutions value? Like many, I started out in residence life which was a good training ground. If I got a “do over” I would have gone after experiences in recruitment/admissions, fundraising, and public policy. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret my career path but having a solid experience base in the areas listed above (and some others I am missing) would serve me well as I look for more senior positions.
Question 3: Where else can you gain fundamental skill experience? Crossing over from one functional area to another can be challenging and not always practical. Where else can you gain similar experiences? I recommend looking to associations *cough* NASPA *cough* to get your feet wet. Want to learn about fundraising? Talk to the fine folks at the NASPA foundation. Want more insight into admissions? Try the Knowledge Community on Enrollment Management. Doing so not only gives you a new skillset, but will also expand your network.
Question 4: What’s your end game? To properly analyze your career, you have to know what you want to be? A VP? A Dean? Director? Do you even want to supervise staff? The follow up question to this then becomes, how does your current role fit into that puzzle? If the answer is that it doesn’t then you have to think about exit strategy. If it does, in what capacity will it further your career ambitions. As an aside, your answer to this question has to be deeper than “I am just getting experience working in ____.” Be very specific about how this is helping you.
Question 5: Is a college/university the right fit for you? If you love working in higher education you need to ask yourself if the institutional context is where you can optimally perform. There are many other companies, consulting firms, organizations, and service providers who help students and institutions. For some of us they are a better fit. For some of us there is also the reality that higher education is not the best use of our skills or does not mesh with what we want on a personal-professional basis and that’s ok. As a work-life researcher, my hope the decision is based more on fit (if you want to know more about fit, read my last blog here) than it is on issues, burnout, or dissatisfaction.
Making career choices requires we reflect and understand our needs before we take action. A new job should be a calculated and specific attempt to move us forward vs an exit strategy or means to more money. The best way to avoid feeling stuck is to have a game plan that you revisit and tweak during your journey.
*Dr. Paul Artale is work-life and motivational speaker who speaks for organizations that want to light a fire in people on how to perform at their peak and create a healthy balance between work and home. For more information visit www.paulartale.com
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