Starting Out in Student Affairs

Josh Milstein considers the transition from a graduate program to the first job.

February 18, 2013

You’ve finally put down your notebooks, finished your research papers, and left the library with an ebullient feeling. You’re unsure if you’ve really finished your graduate program in student affairs or if it’s just your fourth cup of coffee making you shake with excitement. You say goodbye to your professors, advisers, bosses, colleagues, and friends. The cap and gown are removed, the degree is framed, the transcripts processed. You loosen your tie, perhaps pour yourself a drink. You breathe a sigh of relief. Then, it hits you like a ton of bricks -- or perhaps the scaffolding falling off your alma mater’s student center. Because just like that building, you must be renovated. Suddenly, you are a work in progress.

If you’re anything like me, you may spend your time wandering aimlessly around your construction site with a shovel in one hand and gripping your blueprint in the other hand.

But before you place your shovel in the mud alone, consider the value of communicating with the other builders. They are all trying to reach the same goal, that first job in student affairs, and may know some construction managers you haven’t met.

I approached my first job search as an ambitious new professional. I was excited to get started, but unsure where to begin. I had my aspirations. However, my experiences in graduate school were not the natural stepping stones on my way to obtaining my ideal career in student affairs. Like many graduate students and young professionals in student affairs, I worked in residential life. I was taught about the ins and outs, ups and downs, and the frequent volatility of building management, conflict resolution, and crisis response.

Most of all, it led me to an even stronger, burning desire to return to what I love most. Working with orientation and first-year programs was my first glimpse into the world of student affairs. I still aspire to oversee an orientation and first-year program at a college or university. But I realized during my first student affairs job search that following a linear path to my dream job was not only unrealistic, but also potentially damaging to my career.

Based on my experience, I have three pieces of advice:

1. Follow your road map, but consider alternate routes. For example, if you’d like to oversee first-year programs, consider any positions where you will work with first-year students. Among other things, this may include residence life, student activities, or student engagement.

Your skills are transferable. It is like magic; you are capable of getting the experiences you want from your first student affairs position, regardless of what your first business card reads. Everybody around you started somewhere. If they all took the same road to get where they are, that would produce a lot of traffic, frustration, and burnout. Stay open-minded.

2. Ask questions, but don’t ask for directions. This rule not only applies to your search, but also your careful navigation of the workplace in which your find yourself. As a candidate, be mindful of fit. Does conversation during the interview flow naturally? Also, be sure to ask about the campus, its faculty and staff, and most importantly, the students! In your first student affairs job, you will most likely be immersed in student life, so it is imperative that you can relate to the students effectively.

Have a few questions to ask students, as most student affairs job interviews include a student panel, or a lunch with a few student leaders. Ask students what major factors played into their decision to attend the college, what they are studying, and how they stay active around campus. Students want a staff member who is personable, relatable, and fun. The more you can turn a student panel into an easy conversation, the more impressive your interview will be. Also, ask the faculty and staff members you meet with what initiatives are taking place in their respective departments that fulfill the college's mission (which you should memorize the night before your interview).

As a student, I attended a large urban university. In my first student affairs job, I worked at a small, suburban liberal arts college. This was a major adjustment and a tough learning process.  I found that students and staff at different institutions may have very different needs, expectations, and values – some of which don’t always match my own. This discovery left me asking for directions all too often.

To avoid this pitfall, ask well-constructed, high-quality questions at every interview. Do some research on the institution, its history, and its mission. Learn about your potential supervisor’s leadership style. Does it fit well with your own philosophy? Ask how you will be evaluated and critiqued as an employee. Your preparation and focus during your interview process will eventually lead you to your choice of student affairs jobs.

When you get your first job offer, evaluate it. If you accept it, keep your confidence intact. They liked you enough to pay you a salary (and if you’re in residential life, feed you and house you). Approach your first day -- and every day -- knowing that you don’t have every answer, but you certainly possess the capability of making educated, well-calculated decisions on a regular basis. When searching for answers, don’t ask for directions. Most supervisors don’t want to share their own road maps, but your best mentors will certainly help you clear your career path of potentially damaging debris.

3. Make connections and build relationships. This is something that I am constantly working to improve upon, as I believe it is an art form that requires hours upon hours of practice. Whether you are attending a job placement conference, a professional gathering, or you’re just out with your buddies, you are always networking. When you receive a business card, make it a point to send the person a quick e-mail to reintroduce yourself. Even if you’re not particularly interested in the work that person does, let him or her know you were pleased to meet and would like to learn more about careers and ideas in the field. The best part about doing this is that people don’t expect it. How many times have you exchanged contact information with a person and never heard from him or her again? Seek opportunities to build relationships.

My greatest failure was my early reluctance to communicate effectively with others in my position. I am a natural introvert, and it took time (and by time, I mean the entirety of my first student affairs job) to develop a greater level of comfort in reaching out to others. Had I spent more time fostering meaningful relationships from the very beginning, my transition to a second student affairs job would be much smoother than it has been.

Don’t underestimate the value of each hand you shake, each card you collect, and each story you exchange with your fellow colleagues. The student affairs profession is small; make friends as you build, and you’ll complete every project with grace. Good luck!


Josh Milstein is a higher education professional and blogger. He earned both a B.A. in film and media arts and an M.Ed. in higher education administration from Temple University.




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