5 Career Mistakes to Avoid in Student Affairs

Mistakes in Student Affairs

1. Job Hopping – While switching jobs is endemic in higher education, job hopping is typically not a good idea. Chasing money, position titles, or trying to find the perfect institution that emulates your alma mater can unintentionally make for a sketchy-looking resume to prospective employers down the road. A resume that illustrates a job for every one or two years can communicate that you are hard to get along with, never happy, or “too big for your britches.” No one goes from being a resident director to a vice president of student affairs overnight. Promotions, responsibility, and a higher salary come from experience and patience. “Paying your dues” is very true in our field.

Friendly Advice:

  • Do your best with where you are at. While your current work situation may not be the best, use it as an opportunity to further develop your skills and your experience. If it is a negative experience, do your best to turn it into a positive for you (no matter how difficult that may seem!)
  • If you are excelling in your current role, ask for more responsibility without the expectation of increased income, which typically should not be expected anyway given the current financial climate of higher education in the U.S. This can only help you in the next step in your career path. Create the experience you want to showcase on your resume and portfolio.

2. Getting Involved in Negative Politics – Colleges and universities are rife with politics in both academic and student affairs. Unfortunately, negative politics can consume your time and energy and get you away from your department’s mission and vision. While it’s easier said than done to avoid the politics of your institution, ultimately you are in control of how to interact with your colleagues and contribute to the success of your students. That’s why we do what we do, right?

Friendly Advice:  

  • Simply put, stay away from those who exhibit negative energy. There’s enough challenges and complications within the institution outside of negative attitudes and drama. Contribute your time and energy in creating solutions and not more problems.

3. Negative Social Media Presence – Social media is now ubiquitous and entwines both our personal and professional lives. Gone are the days when all that a prospective employer knew about you was from what you listed on a paper resume. Many employers screen your online presence, and in some cases, will expect that you will have a positive and impactful presence online related to your department and the field in general. We should be role models for our students after all, right?

Friendly Advice:

  • Understand that it is extremely difficult to have a completely separate personal and professional life online. Given this, the best practice is to keep your online presence as positive, professional, welcoming, and “restrained” as possible.
  • Social media outlets are not the place for uninhibited opinion and “diarrhea of the mind,” particularly if you are looking to land the next best position in student affairs.

4. Failing to Seize Opportunities – There will be the proverbial “two roads diverged” at some point in your career in which you will be faced with a choice to participate in various opportunities. This could be anything from committees, travel, presentations, grant writing, and other institutional initiatives. It pains me when I hear colleagues complain about such opportunities and whine about extra work or not getting compensated for projects outside of their normal workload. By failing to seize these types of opportunities, you limit your exposure to meet new colleagues across the institution, share resources, and impact students on a larger (or simply different) level.

Friendly Advice:   

  • Don’t be the person who said, “Man…I wish I would have been a part of that!” Hindsight is always 20/20 so take on the prospective of keeping your eye open for opportunities as they arise. Even better, create opportunities rather than waiting for them.
  • Keep in mind that NOT every opportunity is a good one nor has to be pursued. Keep your options open and take advantage of those that will fulfill your department’s mission while also appealing to your own interests and expanding your student affairs experience.

5. Failing to Make a Difference – You are what you do; And if you’re not doing much, you’re not making a difference. I will share the same message with you that I try to impress upon student leaders: what are you creating, what are you changing, and what are you influencing? If you don’t have much to show during your next job interview other than a bland job description, others who have made an appreciable impact upon their institution will clearly win out.

        Friendly Advice:

  • Like Stephen Covey stated, start with the end in mind. What difference do you want to make? Figure that out and work toward that end. Develop goals, write them down, and display them so you can see them daily. Also, create initiatives that you can assess. This way you can qualitatively and quantitatively illustrate the difference your work has made.
  • Don’t spin your wheels to impress colleagues. You’re there to impact student learning and retention (among other goals) and not create a club of cronies. As was the case with #2 above, stay clear of drama and concentrate on your work.

* Photo courtesy of Zsuzsanna Kilian

7 thoughts on “5 Career Mistakes to Avoid in Student Affairs

  1. Jessica Fantini, MS (@J_Fantini)

    “A resume that illustrates a job for every one or two years can communicate that you are hard to get along with, never happy, or ‘too big for your britches.'” I’m warned of this time and time again, however there are quite a few entry level jobs, especially in residence life, that are 1-2 years. Every time I’ve transitioned to another job it was for an opportunity to expand my skills and learn new ones. If the resume reflects job hopping AND there are no supervisors listed for references THEN I see that as a red flag. Sometimes people aren’t ‘too big for their britches’, but they are too big for the institutions and seeking growth and development shouldn’t be a bad thing. If you ask for more responsibilities and aren’t given them, what should you do?
    “Promotions, responsibility, and a higher salary come from experience and patience.” I don’t disagree with this, but if one institution doesn’t offer everything you need in order to advance in the field, you’ll be stuck at entry level forever. I’ve moved institutions to gain experience with living-learning communities, larger buildings, international students, additional administrative responsibilities, supervision of full-time staff, etc; all things that I will need to move to a mid-level position. Also, positions are starting to come with caps, and if institutions are limiting people to how long they can stay in a certain position then this will be more prevalent in years to come. Just some thoughts.

    1. studentlifeguru

      I appreciate your comments. Yes, there are going to be situations in which the context of the position matters, particularly if a position is limited to a short-term contract / employment period. I recommend that someone in this situation clearly illustrate this in the resume so the evaluators understand that (e.g., fulfilled two-year employment contract at public institution with enrollment of 15,000 undergraduate students; or something similar).

      As for asking for more responsibilities and aren’t given them, do your best to create the experience you want and develop the skills you need. Of course you need to make sure that what you are doing is copacetic with your supervisor and is not detracting from your current work responsibilities. For example, I saw the opportunity to develop and advise a living-learning community at my current institution for this year. It wasn’t on anyone’s radar here prior to my bringing it up so I saw an opportunity to propose what I wanted to do. Granted, it took a lot of convincing on multiple levels and a lot of work, but eventually I made it happen. You will have to determine what potential opportunities can be created or explored without stepping on toes, creating more work for colleagues and supervisors, and costing your department / division resources they’re not willing to expend.

      There’s nothing inherently wrong with moving to different institutions to gain different experiences, but every decision is going to have consequences. Given the current fiscal climate, it is expensive and time consuming to recruit, interview, hire, and train new employees. When a resume displays a pattern of multiple jobs over the course of a few years, it’s going to trigger red flags to HR personnel and screening committees, particularly if you don’t have some sort of “in” with that college or university that’s going to be an advocate for your story. Speaking from experience, when I was going through the hiring process for my current assistant director, I reviewed over 60 different resumes of candidates. Multiple individuals had an average of one job (i.e., full-time professional) for every year over the course of 5 – 10 years. Past behavior usually predicts future behavior so there was a strong chance that if I hired any of these folks, they’d only stick around for a year or two. The gentleman I finally hired (out of a final candidate pool of three people) was at his previous institution for 4.5 years and has since been here for 2.5 years and doesn’t have any intent on leaving anytime soon. Sure, that is only one example, but I have been on search committees and have been directly hiring for the past 15 years so I’m just sharing my experience in how student affairs candidates can make themselves more marketable in the field.

      Thanks again for your thoughts!

      1. Jessica Fantini, MS (@J_Fantini)

        Thanks for the reply. Sometimes asking for more responsibilities doesn’t work out for everyone. I’ve had experiences where I was asking to take items off of a supervisors plate so I could gain experience in a particular area. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I think that mid-level professionals have a hand in the development of entry level staff and are prime resources which shouldn’t be taken for granted or looked at begrudgingly.
        I do believe that the more time that passes, there will be more applicants with a red flagged resume because positions are not adapting to their skill sets or that they’re being capped off. I just don’t agree with the red flagging for entry-level applicants/positions. I know I’m among few who believe this and that is fine.

  2. J. Vincent Nix, PhD

    Jessica has some good points there; the last three admin jobs I had working with students were all interim gigs with caps: 2-yr, 1-yr, and 2-yr. I’m currently serving a faculty gig to “help out” a department as they hire. I jump around, but generally within an organization. 🙂 I’m also asked to jump around; that’s a big difference.

    Great points in the article too. Thanks for the post!


  3. Steven Knepp (@stevenknepp)

    I think this post brings up a lot of great points. When it comes to job hopping there are so many variables that go into why someone searches. As someone who has chaired a couple search committees, I can’t stress more why cover letters are important and shouldn’t be overlooked by candidates as a mere formality in the application process.

    As a live-in staff member, many times we can get stuck into the same old routine. Fortunately, I work at an institution that allows RDs to hold collateral assignments. This adds that added element of challenge to the position that I am always looking to get. However, we need to actively seek out these opportunities.

    Social media is a make or break. On a weekly basis we see at least 1 high profile person in some type of political gaffe on Twitter or Facebook.

    Being involved in campus politics is unavoidable, but it is what you make of it. Being negative is viewed as not being a team player or someone that goes against the grain. While I always value a person that isn’t afraid to speak up or question things, there is a time and place for it.

    I’m a big fan of the TV Show “Deadliest Catch” on the Discovery Channel. One of the main people on this show passed away a couple years ago. Captain Phil Harris said, “you can make this happen, you watch things happen, or you can wonder what the hell happened.” I think this really speaks to your fourth and fifth points.



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