I often run into the problem of being both overqualified (over-educated) and underqualified (years of full-time experience.) It’s a tough balance to manage. I’m going to describe what I believe to be the typical student affairs path and some suggestions for those who don’t align with this path.
The “normal” path
I’m a big LinkedIn user and I often browse profiles of people whom I think have great jobs. After browsing hundreds of profiles of Deans and Vice President level student affairs professionals, I have found an approximate “path.”
Generally, our path follows:
- Bachelor’s Degree (18-23)
- Was a resident assistant or some other student leader role
- Master’s Degree (23-25)
- Had an assistantship, internship, or some other student affairs role in graduate school
- Coordinator-level role (25-28)
- Work 2-3 years
- Assistant/Associate Director (28-33)
- Work 3-5 years
- Earn a Doctorate (probably online)
- Director/Dean (33-40)
- Work 5-7 years
- AVP/VP role (40-50)
- You made it!
- Move around to other roles at different institutions (50-retirement)
So, our general path doesn’t take into account a LOT. First, what happens if you have a working partner and can’t just pick up and move across the country? Second, depending on what type of institution, there is sometimes an opportunity to move up within an institution, but often, if we are not willing to move, we get stuck.
What if you’re on the wrong path?
Sometimes, life happens, and our resume veers from the “normal path.” Many factors contribute to our work lives, and some of us (though not many) just want to work in our jobs because we want to work in our jobs, not because we want to devote 50-75 hours per week (our life) to our jobs. Some individuals just didn’t have the opportunity to get involved in student affairs. I didn’t even realize that I wanted to work in student affairs until I was almost 25 years old.
So, here are two examples of non-traditional paths that many large, public, highly regulated institutions say “no thanks” to:
- Bachelor’s Degree (18-22)
- 2-3 Work-Study jobs outside of Student Affairs
- Law Degree (22-25)
- No time to work in law school
- Non-legal job selling insurance (25-26)
- Work in a job because the person needed a job, but hated it
- Master’s Degree (26-30)
- Part-time because of a child (or something), couldn’t afford to go to school full-time
- Coordinator role (30-36)
- Work 4-6 years
- Can’t afford to move locations
- Assistant/Associate Director role (36-50)
- Work 10-years at another local institution or moving departments in student affairs
This person had some life things happen, and didn’t decide to get into student affairs until later in their career. So, when our Path #1 person wants to bump up to an Assistant or Associate Director position at age 30 with both a law degree and a master’s degree, they don’t have the required experience in the field.
- Bachelor’s Degree (18-24)
- Took six years to graduate
- Worked part-time
- Joint JD/PhD Program (24-31)
- Went to law school, decided to pivot to joint program because it made sense
- Minimal experience because school was intense
- Director role (31-33)
- Convinced an institution that education overcame lack of experience, didn’t go very well
- Unemployed (33-34)
- Left institution because of bad fit, harassment, or something else, and now can’t find second job because of non-traditional background
- Assistant Director role (34-36)
- Worked two years to get some more experience, took a step back
- Now what?
- Left position after two years, and only has four years of full-time experience with two advanced degrees and is 37 years old.
Similar to the first person, this person was on a non-traditional path. Someone told Path#2 to take on as much education as possible because, why wait? Along the way, this person’s passion and fire for student affairs work increased immensely, but Path#2 had a challenging time finding time to get that real experience. Unfortunately, this lack of experience led to a poor work-fit in the first role, which led to a period of unemployment. This person was unemployed for a year, only has two years of full-time experience, and has two advanced degrees. Who’s going to hire a risky candidate like that?
Take your own path
The moral of this story is that while the prescribed path will get you to a high-level student affairs role in a very short amount of time, it might not be right for you. Too often, institutions forget that their employees are people with lives that exist out of student affairs. With so much focus on students, employees’ lived experiences often get left behind. Take your own path. It’s worth it.