Mastering Your Student Affairs Career
Mastering Your Student Affairs Career
Many student affairs professionals think that they need to keep jumping from job to job to move up in their careers.
This is true for the most part. At some point you will master your position at your institution and there won’t be challenges there for you anymore. At that point it makes logical and professional sense to move on and find a new role.
However, that’s not always feasible. You may be geographically locked to a particular area. Perhaps your partner works in the same city and they are at a critical stage in their career. Maybe you are caring for an older parent and can’t move away. Perhaps you’re in a graduate program at your institution and the tuition remission is really significant.
No matter the case, I’ve advised other student affairs professionals to stay where they are because they have some significant reason to remain.
Now everyone is different and your situation maybe completely opposite from someone else. But if you’ve chosen to stay (or cannot move on) from your position then there are still ways to grow and develop in your role.
Staying where you are: a myth debunked Staying in a position for a significant amount of time (I would say five or more years) does not mean that you are “lame” or lack ambition. You could be staying for any number of the reasons I’ve mentioned above. And if you are, then so be it.
But, if you are truly ambitious, and you want to grow and mature in your skills, then it’s time to re-evaluate where you are and what you can do about it.
Realize that actually staying in your job can provide AS MUCH or even more career growth than hopping to the next one. I’ll explain how.
Become the master
I’m a big Star Wars fan. There’s a scene in Episode IV: A New Hope where Darth Vader and Obi Wan are dueling on the Death Star. Vader says to Obi Wan (his former master) “When I left you, I was but the learner; now I am the master.” Just then (spoilers warning) he cuts his former teacher in half.
What I’m not trying to say here: become a Sith Lord.
What I AM trying to get at here is that if you MUST stay in your rule then become your OWN master. When you first started you were also a learner: a new person in a new place with new responsibilities. But one way to grow in your own position is to master your day to day responsibilities.
When I first became director of student activities it was a BIG undertaking or me. I had never run my own office before and I was both anxious and nervous for such a big responsibility. But this was not the first time I had worked in student activities. I already had six years of experience and I could definitely apply what I learned.
A year later I had the office working like well-oiled machine. The student union was humming; student workers were working; the programming calendar was set; and an automated marketing machine was in full swing.
I mastered my day to day responsibilities which freed me up to work on other projects and pursue other opportunities for professional development.
Aim high & become solutions oriented
After I tackled my own day to day responsibilities I began to aim high. Going back to graduate school for a doctorate was in my future. So was taking on some more challenging responsibilities.
That was when I transitioned from a “responder” into a “solver.”
The difference is this: “responders” must stand still or back pedal. They are forced into responding to situations as they arise.
“Solvers” on the other hand focus on finding a solution to a problem and then evaluate the root causes, the solution, and the outcome. They then find a way to apply that solution to addresses its root causes. This means that the problem doesn’t arise again. Or they develop an operating procedure that can be followed by another person if the situation occurs again. In that case the work can be delegated.
When work is delegated: that frees you up to use your additional capacity to address more solutions. Maybe even work on solutions for problems that haven’t manifested yet…
Become the forward facing mastery expert
I reveled in my new found capacity after mastering my core role and becoming solutions oriented. I then tackled learning more about emerging fields in higher education. That’s when I focused on educational technology and instructional design. I had no experience in these areas before, but I knew that developing a competency here would be useful for solving future challenges.
One of those challenges was taking a traditional face-to-face leadership development program and transitioning it to an online platform. An online platform that could then go onto serve 10x more students than the face-to-face program could have ever done.
In this situation I foresaw an area of growth AND a problem that didn’t require a solution yet. But through careful planning, foresight, and good luck I was able to predict the solution for a challenge that hadn’t shown up yet.
Now apply and transfer that knowledge
After I mastered my responsibilities, increased my capacity, and addressed emergent problems that hadn’t manifested themselves yet; I developed a new area of expertise: instructional design. From that point I on I could now find new opportunities to apply that core skill set.
Now THIS is the careful pivot that you need to pay attention to. Because at the beginning of this post I was still a learner of student activities programs. But by applying myself and growing my capacity I developed a new mastery. One that could applied in a new area.
“When I left you, I was but the learner; now I am the master.”
So with that new mastery I was better able to market my transferrable skills. Not only in student affairs, but also in educational technology, instructional design, and leadership curriculum.
You can do the same: marketing your transferrable skills into new responsibilities in your department, a new role at your institution, or maybe even a new position at another local institution.
Your expertise has now become leverage. Very powerful leverage.
Remember first to master your core responsibilities. You cannot become a forward thinking professional without mastering what you do on a day to day basis.
By building your mastery here you simultaneously build your confidence to explore different areas and develop additional masteries.
With those new masteries you can consider how you can move in, up, and around your current institution. Or even explore opportunities at other institutions in your area.
Just remember that you must take baby steps first: learn to walk before you run.
Good luck masters,
Thiefels, J. (2019, March 20). Job Hopping Isn't The Only Way to Show Ambition - Here's Why. Retrieved May 3, 2019, from https://www.glassdoor.com/blog/job-hopping-adroll/