As a new professional, I am approaching that point in my career where students I have worked with have entered graduate programs in Student Affairs and have even have started careers as new professionals themselves. This is an exciting time! An unwelcome reminder of my age, but exciting none the less. I treasure the occasional calls from my former student leaders telling me about their experiences, their programs, their graduate assistantships, and asking for advice and clarification. As this has been happening more and more, I have noticed that there are some things they either just don’t tell you in grad school or things they tell you but you never really believe.
1. Where You Work Matters… but really
Almost everyone I know in student affairs or higher education graduate programs has read “Where You Work Matters” by Joan B. Hirt. I know I have read the book, written the papers, had the discussions and the case studies, and been lectured at by my professors that “your job search should be all about fit!” We’ve all heard the horror stories of new professionals leaving their first full time position after only one year or less because the fit wasn’t right.
I definitely thought I knew what my perfect fit would feel like while I was job searching. I had a good experience in my graduate assistantship. I had done internships in every different type of school I could find. I interviewed with a variety of different types of schools. I thought I knew. Spoiler alert: I had no idea.
It’s my experience that I really didn’t know what I was looking for until the end of my first year as a full time professional. And you know what… that’s ok. I had a good start. I knew I wanted to work at a mid-sized comprehensive school, preferably public, with a large staff of my peers in an institution that values assessment, change, and keeping up with the trends and technology in the field. I certainly got what I was looking for. I just didn’t know that there was so much more to having a professional position and so much more to look for.
After my short time as a professional I now realize a few things. 1.) Your first job doesn’t have to be your dream job but it should give you great opportunities and experience to one day get to that next level. 2.) Fit DOES matter but what you will want and value and the fit for you WILL change with experience. 3.) There is only so much preparation you can do in grad school and at some point you just have to throw yourself into your job search and do what feels right.
2. What is the difference between ACPA and NASPA anyway?!
This is a question that I have been asked twice this week alone by former students who are now in grad programs. My answer for grad students is NOTHING. For your purposes, in your young careers, and even in mine, there is no difference. Different schools and different directors and administrators prefer different national associations for their own reasons.
Little known fact among students entering grad programs today is that not long ago, in fact, these two organizations tried to merge. It was obviously unsuccessful but the moral there is that even the organizations themselves thought they were so similar that they tried to merge. (The full story is much more dramatic and involves a great deal of graduate student controversy so if you are interested, I encourage you to do some research.)
My grad program raised me on ACPA. We went to the national conference every year as a group. We read the Journal of College Student Development in almost all of my classes. It was ACPA all the way. However at the end of year two of my program when it came time to start looking for jobs, a large amount of my cohort went to both national conferences to be a part of their placement programs.
So, what do you really need to know in grad school about ACPA and NASPA? Great networking opportunities, opportunities to present and get involved, they both have committees/commissions for new professionals and graduate students, and they both have placement programs to find jobs. Explore both at this point in your career.
3. How small this field actually is
This was something else that they drilled into our heads in grad school but I really did not fully understand the scope of it until I could feel it. I don’t think that one interview for any job or internship I have had thus far that someone hasn’t had a connection to me in some way. It really is crazy.
It started in my interview for my graduate assistantship when the director said to me that we knew someone in common. It continued at my summer ACUHO-I internship where one of the interviewers commented that she had also graduated from my grad school with someone who used to be my area director at my undergraduate institution. One of the other interviewers had also been good friends with the director of my grad program. When I applied for the job at my current institution, I didn’t realize that someone I worked with at my former institution used to be an RD there and that someone who was currently an RD there went to another Higher Education graduate program in the same city that I did and we knew many of the same people. Nowadays these connections stretch even farther and out of our region. One of the ACUHO-I interns that my current institution hosted this past summer is from the same school where one of my former RAs went for graduate school. These are just a handful of examples of how very small this field actually is.
The lessons here are obvious.
4. You won’t have more free time after grad school
I remember thinking so often how much free time I was going to have after I graduated. No more papers, readings, flashcards, reflections, presentations unless they were for fun! I remember the director of my graduate program telling us that we wouldn’t have as much free time as we thought but I disregarded that. How could that be?
My graduate assistantship was being the RD of an upperclassmen building. One of those “20 hours a week” types of jobs. I did the same thing that the professionals did except I was on duty less and wasn’t on any committees. I managed to do that, teach a leadership class on campus, academically advised 8-15 freshmen, and was a full time graduate student. I also drove an hour each way to class. There was no way that I wasn’t going to have time to read all the journals I wanted to, craft more, spend more quality time with Netflix.
I think that the idea of having more free time as a professional was probably one of the more inaccurate beliefs I have ever had in my life to date.
I still can’t quite put my finger on what exactly it is. Right now I am a professional RD. The amount of duty days I have more than when I was a grad is probably 3 and duty involves less here than at my previous institution. I am on three committees instead of none. Everything else is the same! I track RA duty and programming. I administratively run this building. I deal with facilities, emergencies, student issues… all the same descriptors I would have used for my time as a graduate RD.
Somehow it is just more. I’m busier, more tired at the end of the day (possibly just older…), and all of the extra things I was so excited to be able to do still really only happen over the summer or on the occasional weekend. Funny how some things never change.
While this may not be the Holy Grail of graduate school knowledge, remembering some of these points may help you in your transition from graduate student to new professional in the not-so-distant future.
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