To Student Affairs or Not to Student Affairs… Who’s Asking the Question?

October, among many other celebrations and observances, was Career in Student Affairs Month. As graduate school application deadlines begin to loom in the near future, it felt important to discuss some insight into making the choice and transition to pursue a career within the field of student affairs. Below are some considerations for the uniqueness of this field, and also some things that I have seen and/or experienced as things you might expect.

What is so different about student affairs?

In my research on staff attrition, I have been incorporating more traditional leadership and human resources content and writing. This has allowed me to pinpoint the unique aspects of working in student affairs – and to some effect higher education in general – that do not seem present in a more ‘traditional’ workplace environment. For instance, we tend to job search on a set cycle that is in line with the academic calendar. This produces the opportunity for an ‘off-cycle’ turnover in a role, something that does not exist in HR research as there is not a designated time to job search. 

Because our work is so tied to the calendar operation of an educational system, we all get used to that being our job search cadence as well. This of course does not mean there are not tons of folks who change jobs, roles, institutions in the middle of the academic year; of course that occurs. In fact, even resources such as The Placement Exchange Academy have begun to adjust to a more year-round recruiting cycle for roles within student affairs. However, for graduate school applications and those who are at that step in their path – whether master’s or doctorate pursuits – this academic calendar does still hold true. 

What should I expect in this field as a career?

As in most career fields there are triumphs and failures in terms of bosses, work culture, career nuances, and a bottlenecking of advancement. Understanding what your goals are can be helpful to steer your journey, but remember that goals can (and should) change as you navigate roles and institutions. 

Some fun bonuses that I think we can take for granted in our field is the constant connection to humans that we experience. The field’s title is literally to be concerned and invested in the affairs of our students. That often means we get to plan fun events, connect with and assist students in crisis, empower leaders and advocates, and experience the college atmosphere alongside our students. The level of access to the arts, sporting events, leadership development, and even academic advancement are fairly specific to a career in higher education. Of course if housing is your gig (even for a little while) there are the benefits to living on campus in typically furnished apartments with utilities included. And though the debate on this being a pure benefit or not, it is undeniably a cost you are not incurring directly in a traditional off-campus manor. 

With all of this fun can also come the standard workplace politics, but with the added involvement of state and/or federal government legislature impacting this field more directly. Title IX laws for example have a direct influence on how student affairs offices work and fulfill requirements to best serve students. Funding from the state can reduce available positions. Though there are thousands of institutions and staff roles to run these places, the once-felt security of higher education employment was put to the test during COVID-19 and is still wavering in some states and schools to date. Additionally, as is felt in the K-12 chunk of education, the pressures to do more with less still radiate upwards into higher education which may lead to earlier onset compassion fatigue for folks.

In Summary…

I feel that as a first-generation student I have benefited from my choice to pursue a career in student affairs. I want to also acknowledge the privileged identities I have that contributed towards this being successful for more as well, as that 100% matters in how I was welcomed and even seen as the ‘ideal worker’ (i.e. white woman, no children, etc.). However, the access to continued education at a significant discount, the ability to move all over the country with housing security (I work in residence life), and the social connections that have created lifelong friendships are all pieces that I have come to appreciate. That is of course not to say that there have been several days, months, years where I have combed job postings to simply ‘get out’, lamented about my career, and been overworked during the peak of the pandemic (and most of certain positions I’ve held to be honest). I want to be transparent that though in my overall reflection I feel more positive than not, there have been low points. And I think that is crucial to understanding that whatever your dream career is, there will likely be a low point every once in a while. 

So take this one human’s career reflection after about 17 years at the professional level in step and create your own experiences and decisions. Nothing is ever 100% amazing – especially a job – but if you find joy and/or fulfillment in the work give student affairs a try; even if just for a little bit of your journey. 

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