During a recent #sachat about leaving student affairs, I posted this final thought: “you have every right to advocate for yourself, family, personal, mental, and financial health. If that means leaving, so be it.”
I am hesitant to publicly state that I want to leave. It seems so final. And I fear that by declaring my intentions, I will become invisible to colleagues and friends or worse, that my current efforts will be discounted because I lack stamina. In reality, these possibilities are remote. But, they feel real to me personally. I have devoted my entire “career” to higher education. It is all I know. If I leave, what the heck would I do? And, didn’t I spend a lot of time, money, and energy earning a terminal degree in this field? Where can I go where I can contribute to a team in a meaningful way and where my degree and experience would be valued?
Like many mid-career professionals, I am at a crossroads. As has been discussed before, to move up the ranks, I would have to move out. This means either relocating to another part of the country (not possible for us right now), or actively pursuing more advanced roles at my current institution. Both of these choices would require a significant lifestyle change in terms of the amount of time required to do the job well. Ideally, moving up would also mean a salary increase or some other form of compensation. But, if I am honest with myself, I am not sure that the modest salary increase would be “worth” the extra time required.
So, here I am: 15 years of experience in different functional areas at different institutions, Ph.D. prepared, and feeling lonely. What should I be when I grow up? From my doctoral research about the work-life strategies used by mid-career women in student affairs, I know that I am not alone. This sense of career path instead of career trajectory is a common one for women and especially for women with children. Yet, I am hesitant to make the leap and try something else. We advocate for students. We teach them how to advocate for themselves. I believe that we also need to advocate for ourselves. This gets tricky for most of us, myself included, because in student affairs we are supposed to love what we do. That love is supposed to be enough fuel for the long haul. Most of us probably didn’t get started in this profession for the residence hall director salary or glamorous lifestyle. In the beginning, it was about students and relationships. On many levels it still is about students and relationships. But, at mid-career, it has also become about paperwork, politics and red tape.
My desire to change the system from within has been tempered by the reality that higher education is slow to change and often resists outsiders with new ideas. My final thought from #sachat is true. All of us have the right to advocate for ourselves and our own well-being. This means me, too. I am quite comfortable advocating for the student organizations I advise and more than once I have encouraged my colleagues to create proposals asking for conference funding or time away. Now, at mid-career, I need to turn those advocacy efforts inward and advocate for myself. Since the Twitter chat, I have devoted serious time to thinking about how to use my training and experience and leverage them to make the next right step for me and my family.
There are ways to stay connected to higher education and college students without being part of a student affairs division. Maybe that means combining my true passion for childhood cancer awareness with my higher education experience and helping foundations recruit students as fundraisers or campus ambassadors. Maybe it means starting a coaching or consulting side business. Maybe it means another lateral move or truly taking all of my vacation days next year. What I said before about higher education being all I know, that’s not really true. And, it’s not true for you, either. We have a tendency to undersell our gifts and talents because so much of our work is behind the scenes. Let’s advocate for ourselves and stop doing that.
As a Ph.D. prepared professional, a mid-career administrator, mother and advocate, I know how to get stuff done. The skills that helped me negotiate a doctoral program, our son’s treatment, and my career thus far are the same skills I will take with me when I go. In student affairs, the typical timeline for career ascension is somewhat clear: Master’s degree-first job-Assistant Director-Director-VP. There is no roadmap for leaving. And leaving doesn’t have to mean forever. It could just mean that it is what’s next. I am trying to be patient and think in short-term achievable goals, rather than an all-out career leap. It’s a path not a trajectory.