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10 Things Student Affairs Programs Don’t Teach You

Graduate programs in higher education and student affairs provide budding professionals with educational theory and insights that will be invaluable when working at a college or university. However, there are many lessons that will only be learned by actually being a student affairs professional.

While internships and practica linked to the graduate program can offer some skills development, they can perpetuate bad practices, particularly because there may be little if any direct curricular connection between the academic program and the department hosting the internship. Unfortunately, these practices then become ingrained in students’ minds and are carried with them throughout their professional lives.

Here is a list of topics that student affairs programs do not teach:

Budgeting & Finance – One of the key lessons for moving up the administrative ladder in student affairs is having a working knowledge and experience in budget and finance management. Unfortunately, any higher education finance courses taught are cursory in nature and do not provide any opportunities to learn how to create revenue and cut spending, which is almost certainly a requirement for department heads and executive higher education administrators.

Management & Supervision – Hiring and firing, assessing performance, and motivating employees are not areas that student affairs programs teach to students who will be prospective employers. Generally, these skills are learned best on-the-job and are influenced by the specific policies and procedures of the department and institution for which you work.

Political Saavy – Institutions of higher education are rife with personal and political agendas. While classes in ethics and discussions of case studies occur in student affairs programs, there typically are not “How To’s” taught in regards to holding your own in the political arena of higher education.

Theory vs. “Real World” – As is the case with any discipline, the ideal standards taught in class are going to differ from what occurs in actual practice. You can learn all there is to know about Astin, Chickering, and Tinto, but work with colleagues who never heard of them nor care about their place in the practice of student affairs.

Emergency Preparation – The health, safety, and security of our students has become one of the top priorities of all colleges and universities. Student Lifers outside of Residence Life (i.e., admissions, career services, etc.) typically do not have day-to-day operational concerns related to this area so it can be more difficult to get direct experience in this area.

Fundraising – University foundation and alumni departments are typically charged with raising external funds to be used for scholarships and special projects. This is another area that is particularly specialized and subject to specific institutional policies and federal and state guidelines and laws.

Program Development – Civil engineering programs teach students how to build bridges, medical programs teach students how to diagnose and treat illness, but student affairs programs do not teach prospective student affairs professionals how to develop, manage, and assess departmental programs. Having the knowledge to put these type of strategic plans together is crucial. Unfortunately, new professionals carry around “bad habits” learned from their undergraduate and even graduate institutions. They can incorporate these philosophies and practices into their new professional lives without being knowledegable about how to fully develop a department through evidence-based practices.

Marketing & Publicity – Now more than ever, colleges and universities face multiple challenges for attracting and retaining undergraduate students. Marketing has become essential in order to publicize both student affairs departments and institutions as a whole. Social media has now become ubiquitous in our world and especially in the lives of our students.

* Photo courtesy of Craig Parylo  

Choosing Graduate School Programs for Student Affairs

Student Affairs Graduate Programs

Many of our readers are looking for advice and information related to chosing the best graduate programs for student affairs and higher education (SAHE). Here are some questions you should consider and seek answers for when searching for SAHE graduate programs:

1. Why Am I Seeking the Degree? First and foremost, you need to establish why you are seeking a master’s degree. Is it simply an ends to a means for your career path? Are you looking to become a professor or a student affairs professional? Are you searching for an graduate assistantship that will give you direct work experience? Answering these questions should lead you to the type of program that will help you to accomplish your specific goals.

2. What Is the Program’s Emphasis? Different institutions offer different programs with a whole host of varied courses. Take time to look at the course of study for the programs you are considering. Because there is no specific credentialing or licensure required to be a student affairs professional like there is to become a doctor, psychologist, or social worker, you have the ability to select from multiple programs that will lead you to employment in student affairs. Here are some examples of graduate programs that are applicable to working in student affairs:

  • Higher Education Administration
  • College Student Personnel
  • Counselor Education
  • International Education
  • Policy Studies
  • Student Affairs
  • Leadership Studies
  • Educational Psychology
  • Human Development / Psychology
  • Mental Health Counseling

Keep in mind that none of these programs actually teach you how to perform the duties of every type of student affairs position that is out there (e.g., resident director, academic advisor, student activities coordinator, etc.) Rather, the curriculum will enable you to become a student affairs generalist and understand the issues surrounding higher education and working with students.

3. Are Assistantships Available? If you have the ability to get your degree paid for and gain some practical experience in the process, apply for graduate assistantships. In many cases, paid assistantships may not have anything at all to do with the actual academic program, and you may have to interview separately for both the academic program and the assistantship respectively.

For example, I was in a mental health counseling program (M.S.), but had an assistantship in the university’s student activities department. I received tution remission, a stipend, housing, and a meal plan from student activities. Outside of the department paying for my tuition, my assistantship and my program were not connected in any way academically. However, there are other cases in which an assistantship directly relates to the curriculum, particularly if there are administrators teaching in the program from the departments that are funding the graduate assistantships. Simply ask if there is a direct link between the assistantship and the academic program.

4. What Are the Faculty’s Research Interests? The research agendas of the program’s professors will tell you a lot about what the program values. Additionally, take notice of the publications in which the professor’s works are published. If your interests lie in ACPA and NASPA, you’ll want to see if the department’s faculty are published in the Journal of College Student Development and the Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice. If faculty are publishing in journals and books that are outside of the purview of student affairs, you may want to shop around for another program as it may be indicative that the vision of the program may not appeal to your interests.

5. Are Faculty Involved in Professional Organizations? Similar to #4, see if faculty are involved in regional and national student affairs and higher education professional organizations, such as ACPA and NASPA. In some cases, students will be able to work on research and co-present with faculty at these conferences, which can be very rewarding. If faculty are not involved in these types of organizations (outside of purely financial reasons as they may not be able to attend), you may want to consider another program.

6. Can I Attend While Working Full-Time? Some departments are less “part-time friendly” than others. In other words, some programs are specifically designed and intended for traditional full-time cohorts (a group of students starting and graduating on the same schedule). Other programs offer classes in the evenings and also on weekends. Furthermore, some graduate programs are completely offered online. Weigh various options if you must work while earning your degree.

7. Is it an Online Program? There are many HESA-related programs that are offered online. If the degree is an ends to a means for you for simply getting a job or you already have a job and need it to advance, an online program may appeal to you. Understand, however, that online programs can be as expensive, if not more, than traditional “bricks-and-mortar” (on-campus) programs. While I personally do not recommend online programs for student affairs because of the loss of opportunities to network, attend conferences, and participate in other departmental activities, online programs are a viable option for those who are geographically limited or have other circumstances that prevent attending a traditional program.

8. Is There an Option to Continue onto the Doctorate? You may be able to kill two birds with one stone if you can be admitted into a program that will allow you to apply most, if not all, of your master’s coursework toward earning a doctorate. This is something that you will have to research and ask about up front when applying to various programs. If you have any intentions on continuing to earn a doctorate, this is a great strategy to use.  

9. Is the Program Endorsed by ACPA, NASPA, and Conforms to CAS Standards? Both ACPA and NASPA list top programs around the country that are searchable. Programs that have their endorsement are typically the ones that you should concentrate on. Additionally, the Council for the Advancement of Standard in Higher Education (CAS) define standards for “Masters-Level Student Affairs Professional Preparation Programs.” Be sure to ask contacts at the programs for which you intend to apply if they adhere to the CAS Standards. It’s a red flag if they do not follow these standards or simply do not know what you are talking about (rest assured that this should be very rare though).

10. What is the Best Program for Student Affairs? While the U.S. News and World Report lists the top graduate programs for education, only you can determine what program is the best one for you. No one particular program is going to better prepare you or make you more marketable in the student affairs field than any of the others. Take your time to research different programs, visit these institutions if possible, and ask a lot of questions. Additionally, talk to graduates from various programs and administrators that you may know to get their perspectives about the programs that they have attended.

For further information:

Student Affairs & Graduate School: A Brief “How-To”

7 Secrets I Learned On My Way to Earning a Doctorate

Advantages and Pitfalls of Online Doctoral Programs

Selecting A Student Affairs Graduate Program

* Photo Courtesy of Irum Shahid

7 Secrets I Learned on My Way to Earning a Doctorate

After nearly 10 years, the birth of three children, changing jobs twice, and relocating twice, I finally earned my doctorate. (Whew!) It was a lengthy journey and definitely a labor of love. As I’ve learned during this process in interacting with various faculty members and administrators along the way, there isn’t one designated or sure-fire way to earn a doctorate. However, there are strategies that you can employ to make your own doctoral journey easier, more enjoyable, and better ensure successful completion. I would like to share some secrets that I learned along the way toward earning my doctorate:

1. If permitted, transfer in credits from your master’s program. Some doctoral programs will allow you to transfer in credits from your master’s degree in order to grant you “advanced standing.” By doing this, you can save yourself both a considerable amount of time and money. I was able to transfer in 30 credits because I had a 57-credit clinical degree in mental health counseling. By doing this, I essentially eliminated the need to take a minor or cognate area. If you are just researching programs now, ask about the possibility of gaining advanced standing.

2. Start your dissertation from day one! As a high school teacher I had said on the first day of class, “It’s never too early to start preparing for the final exam.” This holds true for the dissertation process as well. Everything that you read and write in some shape or form should help contribute to your dissertation proposal. DO NOT wait until after your comprehensive exam(s) to start thinking about a dissertation topic. Look at what other topics students in the department / program chose to research. There is no “perfect” topic so do not attempt to find it. Choose a topic related to an area or concern that is dear to your heart as this will make the work more enjoyable. Read as much as you can on the topic, and complete class projects related to your topic as much as is appropriate. This will help to create a body of knowledge you can use to craft your dissertation proposal.

3. Choose a dissertation topic that is “researchable” with ample existing literature – Remember the old adage: a good dissertation is a done dissertation! Also, you should not try to solve the world’s problems nor waste time trying to come up with ground-breaking and novel research; your goal is to earn a doctorate. Pick something and go with it. Seek advice from your cohort classmates and faculty if you are truly stuck. Read journal articles in your area of interest to see what current research is being conducted. This can help guide you in finding a topic. Also, DO NOT choose a topic in which there is little to no existing literature. This is going to make it extremely difficult for you to write your literature review chapter and will create problems when you seek a conceptual framework for your study. Lastly, craft research questions that you can research. Do not try to study something that is going to cost a lot of money and / or create logistical research design issues. This can cause undue frustration and easily inhibit you from finishing. Your faculty advisor should be able to offer critical advice on this.

4. Don’t be afraid to change dissertation advisors / chairs if needed – The advisor / advisee relationship, in my opinion, should be solely defined on helping the student reach their goal of successfully completing the dissertation. Unfortunately, this relationship can become a vacant formality and some students lose out on quality guidance, which can become detrimental to the successful completion of the dissertation. Please keep in mind that it is ultimately the student’s responsibility for their own success. With that being said, you shouldn’t hesitate to seek out another committee chair or dissertation advisor if they are not helpful or simply nonexistent. This isn’t personal, it is a means to an end; you need to finish your dissertation. As the case with any type of employee, faculty have different motivations, skills, and weaknesses. This is why you should thoroughly “shop around” for a dissertation advisor / committee chair. This should be a quasi-interview of sorts in which you both lay out expectations of one another. This way you know up front whether or not you and this faculty member are a good match. Just as a note, it is advisable to stay away from choosing someone who will be retiring shortly or going on an extended sabbatical as you want the advisor / chair to see you through the entire process.

5. If working full-time, ask for “staff development” time – I was lucky enough to be able to leave work early in order to attend my classes. (I had to commute 1.5 hours to Penn State so I needed ample time in order to make my 3:00 PM or 6:00 PM classes.) This was something that I had to earn and specifically ask for. If you feel you can do so, and it won’t cause you problems with your employer, see if you can be granted some leave time for working on your doctorate. This does not mean being away from work for semesters at a time (like a medical leave), but just the time you need for class during the day. Do you have room to negotiate somehow with your employer? Can you forgo attending an annual conference for staff development in exchange for a few hours on class days? (They would actually be saving money by not sending you to the conference). Also, can you utilize class projects and research to help the department you work for. I developed multiple staff training activities and curricula based upon required class assignments.

6. Eliminate distractions – Getting dedicated time to concentrate on reading, class papers, and especially the dissertation is paramount.

  • Work where individuals will leave you alone, including your family. If this means getting out of the house, do so. This may sound selfish, but if you want to complete the doctorate, you (and your family) will have to make sacrifices. I found that going to a public library was great because I was left alone. Additionally, I utilized the library of a local college that I had no affiliation with. By doing this, I knew I wouldn’t be distracted by staffers or students that I had relationships with because I simply didn’t know anyone at this institution.
  • Do without the internet, social media, and your cell phone if possible when working. When I was writing my dissertation and completing data analyses, I gathered everything I needed for the night from the internet ahead of time prior to working. Once I started to work, I cut myself off from all online distractions. It is real easy to go from multivariate analysis to checking your fantasy football lineup or how many new Twitter followers you gained in the last hour! Having Facebook, Twitter, or cell texts in the background can easily sabotage your best efforts to get work done.
  • Stay away from the TV and movie rentals when taking a short break – This should be a no-brainer, but these are major distractions that can be hard to walk away from. One episode of the Sopranos can easily turn into three or more, and you’ve just potentially lost multiple written pages for your paper. Your work breaks should be short in length (5 – 10 minutes) so save entertainment as a reward (see #7).

7. Reward yourself with scheduled leisure time – You can’t work all the time. If you do so, the work is going to be repulsive and this can be a recipe for disaster. Be purposeful in rewarding yourself with leisure time rather than just having leisure time haphazardly. This is important because working on a dissertation can oftentimes be tedious and laborious; you don’t want to side on more fun than work because you’ll never get it finished. Rather, create a reward system, and stick to it. For example, if you study or write for three hours each day on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, reward yourself with a movie rental, night out, or pleasure reading on Thursday or Friday. You can choose whatever system you want, but stick to it.

Good luck to you in your academic pursuit of a doctorate! Stick with it, and visualize yourself walking across the stage in your academic regalia. All of that hard work will surely pay off in the end.

What are some secrets you can share related to earning a doctorate? What worked for you and what didn’t? Please share your thoughts as a comment.