Ellen Heffernan of Spelman & Johnson has again graced the “pages” of our blog with her excellent insights into the higher education job path.
Am I Ready to Move Up?
Higher education, much like other industries, has a pathway for advancement—hall directors are entry level professionals, the next step is area coordinator, from there assistant director of residence life, to associate director of residence life, to director of housing and residence life, to associate dean of students, to dean of students, to vice president of student affairs, and voila on to the presidency. While the pathway to the top is relatively clear, woven into this path are two significant hurdles—advancing in your career requires the successful increase in both the size and scope of your responsibilities, as well as the adoption of an expanded leadership view.
As you begin your career in higher education your focus will be narrow—you will be overseeing students in a residence hall; you will be covering a specific admissions territory recruiting students; you will be coordinating the events of specific student organizations. Entry level positions are by design narrow and focused, and serve as foundational positions for the division and institution. As you move to the next level your position will expand in scope and responsibilities—you may oversee several residence halls, multiple admission’s territories, or large scale student events. You may oversee a small number of professional staff in addition to student staff and you may have some small budget oversight. Your professional career will build from your entry level position. Building in scope means that the number of staff that you oversee will increase, as will the level of professionals; the size of your budget will increase as will its complexity; and you will begin to work more broadly in your department or division. Ultimately, the position of president is one that oversees an institution, but through a cabinet of vice presidents/deans and through an external board.
So how do you, as a professional, begin to think about your next professional move? You must start with a self-assessment. Do you like your job? Do you like your institution? Do you enjoy working with students and faculty? Are you excited about the mission of your institution? For some, you may pause with these questions and determine that you like being in career services, as a career counselor, but you find you are not happy at your current institution. For others, you may love your students and the mission of the institution, but being a student conduct coordinator does not really feel fulfilling. It is important to stop and really think about your work, your position, and your institution as a package and think about how well integrated those feel to you. If, in combination, one of those three items feels like it is not in concert with the other two, that may well drive your next career move in a particular direction. On the other hand, if responses to all three questions feel like they are synchronized, that requires a different plan.
My Next Move
There are two pathways to considering your next move—you need to move or you want to move—and like all interesting challenges there are multiple facets to this move. Many entry level positions have built in expiration dates. Hall directors are generally considered two year positions because you learn what is needed, gain experience, expand your knowledge, and by all accounts should be ready to move within that time frame. In higher education, degrees are the coin of the realm. The majority of positions in higher education require a master’s degree and most positions above the director’s level require a doctorate or terminal degree. If you plan on making your career in higher education you will need the doctoral degree so don’t drag your feet. Now is the time to pick a topic that interests you and focus on graduating. Here is a word of advice—once you have your doctorate that does not mean you automatically can apply for dean and/or vice president positions. As you progress in your career you need both a degree and broad, substantive experience in your professional area. Professionals feel the need to move when they believe they have learned what it is to be successful in the position and are ready for the next challenge.
You also need to consider what feedback you have received from your supervisor. If your performance feedback has been that you need to improve in a specific area—you need to take heed and really focus on enhancing your ability in that area. You need to consider constructive feedback against the backdrop of how you perceive your own strengths and weaknesses. For example, budgeting is a skill set that you will need in order to advance. If you are uncomfortable with budgets, not sure of the language that is used to describe different aspects of a budget, and are uncertain about how to interpret a spreadsheet of numbers, be proactive and take a class in finance and budgeting. Your goal is not to get a degree in accounting or to love doing budget spreadsheets—the outcome should be that you understand the basic tenets of budgeting, have a grasp of the language of budgets, and can generally manage a budgeting process. As a professional that desires to move to the next level, you do not have to master every aspect of the position you aspire to. You do need to have a solid working knowledge of the key areas of the position.
A Wider Lens
Moving up professionally in the higher education landscape also means thinking beyond the office, department, division, and institution in which you work. As a coordinator for student organizations you are focused on how to engage the students in their various groups in a meaningful way. If you move up to an associate director of student activities position you may have responsibility for multiple student organizations which means you will need to be thinking more broadly about how student activities fees are used to serve student organizations, managing the risk of larger student events, and creating more opportunities to involve other campus partners into the co-curricular experience. A vice president of student affairs possesses a very wide lens to consider crisis management, student retention, persistence to graduation, assessment, and accountability. To move to the next level you must demonstrate that you can consider broader issues, more clearly see how your position and responsibilities impact the division, and that you can connect your work with the larger mission of the institution.