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“Is This What It’s Always Like?”: A Survey of New Professionals on Searching and Starting During a Pandemic

Supporting the Profession New Professionals and Graduate Students New Professional
April 6, 2021 Lena Schwallenberg

As a former journalist, reading the news is a steadfast ritual.

At the time of writing this, the headlines under the “Current Issues” tab on the Chronicle of Higher Education included the following:

  • How to Manage Through Emotional Exhaustion

  • How Much Has COVID Cost Colleges? $183 Billion

  • What We’ve Lost In A Year of Virtual Teaching

  • What Higher Education Has Endured for the Past Year

I read each one, feeling weighed down by the loss of this past year — of life, of community, of stability. The news is rarely a place of reprieve, but COVID-19 has undeniably altered us — and our profession — in ways that will long outlast the pandemic. 

Curious about my own experience, I searched the keywords “new professionals” to see if others were struggling the way I was. After 22 pages of results with no mention of this demographic, I stopped, feeling further defeated. Dozens of articles were geared toward and written about executives, students, and faculty, yet I could not find a single Chronicle article written in 2021 that focused on the new professional experience within higher education. 

Yet this has been an all-consuming reality for many as an entire wave of entry-level practitioners became the first to search and start entirely within a pandemic. As I explored other publications, I found some articles from the past year scattered throughout ACUHO-I’s The Talking Stick and on NASPA’s NPGS blog, but they were all spotlights or written by new professionals. Why did new professionals have to write about themselves to be heard?

This gap makes sense when, as reporter Eric Hooper phrased it in his December 18 article, “Most articles you read are in some way the product of one or more connections, good, bad, or in between.” Indeed, it becomes hard to write about a demographic you haven’t been able to see or meet. With conferences switching to virtual formats, new positions being limited or nonexistent, and professional travel remaining suspended for most schools, it is increasingly difficult for new professionals to enter the field and connect outside of their institutions. As such, individual campuses have become small islands of operation, where these practitioners continue to tread uncharted waters, peering out from half-utilized offices and hunching over the fifth Zoom meeting of the day.

While this may make it difficult for journalists to add us to their sources, we can continue to amplify our own voices in the interim. As I focus on my own experience, I have found myself often asking mentors, supervisors, and peers, “Is it always like this?” With no context for what a traditional year looks like, chaos has become the norm. As the data will show, many other new professionals feel the same, and it’s causing them to reconsider their careers in higher education -- before they’ve really even started.

In recognizing the nuanced perspectives and lived experiences of practitioners, I asked my peers to share their own stories of struggle and success, which I examined and summarized here. 23 first-year professionals across 17 states and 19 institutions, from varying functional areas and institution types, responded to a survey distributed over social media and through our pre-existing professional networks. While their answers represent a small sample of a much larger collective, they remain illuminating, pointing to larger trends that accentuate disparities and issues already present within our field.

The first question, for example, produced jarring, though not unsurprising results. 96% of respondents stated that, during their job searches, they were notified that a process was being frozen, postponed, or cancelled due to COVID-19.

Respondents shared that they applied to anywhere from two to several hundred jobs during their first search, with the average number of applications sitting around 48. This is a steep jump from 28, which was the average number of applications as reported in the 2015 survey results of Lena Kavaliauskus Crain and Kassey Steele’s ongoing National Study of the Student Affairs Job Search (NSSAJS). This is likely to due to the increase in candidates either naturally entering the field post-graduation or searching for new employment after quitting, being furloughed, or being let go during the pandemic. While the candidate pool increases, many schools are still stuck with hiring freezing or budget cuts, creating a surplus of candidates for a shortage of positions. Now, it takes twice as many applications to snag an interview in an oversaturated and overqualified candidate pool.

However, when asked if they would have accepted their current role, had they not been searching during a pandemic and an economic crisis, 70% said yes and 30% said no. This remains fairly consistent with the NSSAJS findings, which suggest that 75% of candidates accept their first offer, with women accepting at higher rates than men. While first jobs aren’t always dream jobs, many respondents shared in their later responses that they were immensely grateful for employment and wanted their employers to recognize that their limited options were more a reflection of their circumstance, rather than their capability. 

When asked to break down their satisfaction with several aspects of their role and quality of life within it, responses were particularly telling. 

Most (74%) noted feeling either extremely or somewhat satisfied — collectively referred to hereafter as “expressed some satisfaction” — with their job responsibilities. However, as respondents were asked to examine other aspects of their work experience, answers began to vary more widely.

While 65% expressed some satisfaction with their job safety, it is important to note that the 13% who expressed dissatisfaction with their job safety were all practitioners in residence life/housing or multicultural & diversity affairs. There is insufficient data to explain why this correlation exists, though it may be tied to the amount of student interaction and required on-campus presence, especially during times of illness, violence, and the recent election.

65% expressed some satisfaction with the level of departmental support they were receiving, though 26% expressed some dissatisfaction. This shifts dramatically when compared to satisfaction related to supervisory support, where 78% expressed some satisfaction. More specifically, 61% said they felt extremely satisfied — the greatest area of satisfaction and the lowest area of neutrality (neither satisfied nor dissatisfied) across all categories.

Wellness and belonging were the two areas of greatest dissatisfaction. 35% of respondents expressed dissatisfaction with their wellness in their roles, while only 43% felt satisfaction, of which only 13% felt extremely satisfied.

48% of respondents shared some level of dissatisfaction with their sense of belonging. Of this group, 22% were “extremely dissatisfied” — the highest percentage of dissatisfaction across categories. 39% of respondents expressed some form of satisfaction, though only 9% felt “extremely satisfied”.

Involvement and professional development split pretty evenly, with 43% expressing some satisfaction and 39% expressing some dissatisfaction. 

Overall, 61% expressed some satisfaction with their experience as a new professional. 17% expressed dissatisfaction, while an even larger percent — 22% — felt neutral about their start. 

When asked what the most challenging part of starting their role in a pandemic, almost every respondent mentioned the struggle of connection. Whether it was moving across the country alone or closing in on a full year of employment without meeting a single co-worker in person, 74% highlighted how being virtual has negatively impacted their wellbeing, confidence, and sense of belonging. 

Of this group, many talked about the difficulties of forming adult friendships, and how the nature of their roles - especially live-on positions - impacted their ability to develop essential relationships. Cigna released pre-COVID data in 2018 that, perhaps ironically, stated that Americans who work from home likely struggle to form friendships because 42% of adults meet their friends through work. That same number - 42% - captures the percentage of adults who say they struggle to form new friendships. This was before our world shut down -- before campuses closed and Zoom became commonplace in lieu of in-person interactions. If you’d like to learn more about how COVID has affected friendships, Snapchat released some surprisingly interesting data in The Friendship Report 2020

“It's much more difficult to make new friends, and I feel like most of my time is spent at or thinking about work,” one wrote. “It would be easier if I had some stronger friendships here as a way to decompress from work, but it is generally difficult making friends as an adult and even more so during a pandemic!” 

Many felt disconnected from the campus and local communities, and some articulated how the distance had caused them to develop imposter syndrome, or to feel forgotten and neglected by their departments. 

“If I can’t even build a sense of belonging, how are my students going to? How can I support that for them when I’m struggling?” one respondent wrote, citing how siloed they felt in their role. 

I included a question — what has community looked like for you during this time? — with the hope of highlighting ways our communities are resilient and persistent. An aspirational silver lining, if you will. However, the only respondents who felt they had in-person support were either referencing their partners and co-workers or had remained at the same institutions where they had been graduate students. 

“I have a friend or two, but I’m so emotionally depleted that I use TV and food as a numbing mechanism,” one respondant shared. 

A larger majority said they had a virtual network back home or with their other friends, who — in typical student affairs fashion — were scattered across the country at other schools.

“I see community in two parts: geographically and emotionally. Emotionally, I know I have a community I can rely on and call when I need to talk it out. We can FaceTime, we can send thoughtful pieces of mail,” one respondant wrote. “But that doesn’t change that none of them are geographically close to me. Moving to a new city with no one around and no ability to create that geographical community leaves you in a vulnerable spot. I got into a car accident in December, and I had no one I could call to help me on the scene, so I had to rely on my dad who is 1,400 miles away. No one was there to help me get to the car shop and I didn’t know where to turn if my car was in the shop longer than intended. It’s a different kind of isolation to know you have people but not physically near you.”

Still, 48% felt they lacked a sense of community entirely, or were struggling to find and maintain it. This isn’t uncommon for adults, even during more traditional times. According to the Cigna study, about half of Americans view themselves as lonely, with the most impacted groups being Millennials and Gen Z. 

So what is there to be done? What meaning can be made from this data, which skewed much sadder than anticipated? At the end of the survey, respondents were asked to provide one thing they’d like their institution/department to know, along with one piece of advice for their supervisor. They provided 1,600 words of insight for schools and supervisors, which you can find in their entirety HERE and HERE, respectively. However, for the time-crunched professional looking for a summary, I’ve provided some thoughts on moving forward.

Questions for Institutions and Departments to Consider:

  • Flexibility: We appreciate flexibility in our work, particularly the ability to choose working from home or in an office environment. We hope you’ll consider maintaining some of this after the pandemic passes. Where can there be flexibility in your current work structures and hours? How does providing this flexibility impact morale, wellness, productivity, and satisfaction?

  • Work-Load: While each department serves a different purpose and function on campus, it is important to be mindful about the pull. If only a few departments remain in-person, they shouldn’t have to lift more because others have allowed their employees the aforementioned flexibility of working from home. This also applies to positionality within departments, where entry-level professionals or live-on staff are often asked to carry heavier loads than their peers. Who are you asking to do the heavy lifting and why?

  • Morale: Morale isn’t just for students and student staff. We crave recognition, affirmation, and credit for the work we do and impact we make. How does your department acknowledge and celebrate its staff members? 

  • Belonging: We are lonely. Our isolation feels different from others in our departments. Often, we have moved away from our communities to take these jobs, and since they are our first in the field, we don’t have a network or peers close by. Sometimes, our only friends are our co-workers and partners, or we’re relying on entirely virtual relationships to sustain us. As the data shows, sense of belonging is one of the largest areas of struggle for new professionals. How are you building opportunities for connection within your institution? How are you actively creating a culture that respects the energy of your staff and now only allows, but encourages them to find additional community outside of work?

  • Confidence: The search processes we underwent were unique, difficult, and often demoralizing. How are you building confidence and competence in your staff? How are you intentionally supporting candidates through current searches?

  • Wellness: Our wellness needs to be a priority to leadership the way student wellness is to us. This means taking actionable steps toward inclusion (becoming anti-racist, accessibility needs, culturally competent supervision, etc.), assigning manageable workloads, compensating fairly so we make a livable wage, and creating departments where wellness is integrated into practice and policy, not commodified into programs or HR presentations. How are you taking these steps? How is wellness prioritized and not commodified within your department?

Advice for Supervisors of New Professionals:

  • Lend credence. Recognize that “being a new professional does not mean inexperienced.” Your supervisees bring things to the table that you don’t.

  • Set realistic expectations for your employees. Is this work meaningful in practice, or important only as a metric? If balls need to be dropped, which are rubber and which are glass?

  • Ask intentionally. In the same vein, remember your positionality holds power, which can make it difficult for your supervisees to set and maintain boundaries with you. Communicate openly about workloads and capacity, and take time to ask how you can take things off their plate, rather than if you can. Many of us have a hard time accepting help. 

  • Remain cognizant of our ability and capacity. Recognize that the transition to virtual settings may be more challenging for those with neurodivergence, those who are caregivers, and those who are struggling with mental and physical health. 

  • Have greater patience with us. Our learning curve looks different. Yes, we’re all navigating “unprecedented times” in the pandemic, but we’re also navigating our first jobs in higher education at the same time. We might still be asking foundational questions or learning who people are at the university. 

  • Affirm often. You may take a “no news is good news” approach to feedback, or be selective with your recognition, but there’s a real need for an abundance of acknowledgement right now. If you’re virtual, your supervisee isn’t getting feedback from your body language over Zoom. For most teams, recognition has fallen to the wayside as we continue in crisis mode, but new professionals need positive reinforcement to flourish. In fact, they’re probably sitting behind their computer right now, convinced you’re about to “find them out” for being an imposter in their role. Surprise them with a sincere thank you.

  • Model better behaviors. Take your time off. Step away from your email after-hours. We become the professionals you show us how - or how not - to be. Remain mindful of the asks you make of your supervisees, including setting unrealistic deadlines, sending emails after hours with action required from them, etc. Be proactive in encouraging healthy habits, such as encouraging your supervisees to take time off (and turn on their away message). 

  • Maintain transparency. Teach us the politics of our institution so we can better navigate them. Some of us still haven’t met campus partners and university leadership, or we may have only been on campus a few times. We want your guidance. 

  • Know us and invest in us. See what we’re passionate about and good at, and then connect us with people and opportunities who can cultivate these in us. Help us network, nominate us for experiences, and see us as more than our job title. 

  • Advocate for us. We have very little clout, even on small teams. We are also the people most likely to be working directly with students. Protect us from potentially damaging decisions and keep us in mind when you’re asked for input. You have access to spaces we dream of entering.

  • Give yourself credit. Middle management is difficult, and some of us have been holding on by a thread — your support. As the data showed, our relationships with our supervisors are the highest areas of satisfaction in our roles right now. You really do make the difference.

Student affairs practitioners are known for being particularly susceptible to burnout brought on by unmanageable workloads and the unrealistic expectations (read: ideal worker norms). As a result, it’s not uncommon for professionals to leave the field fairly early on within their careers. Retention is a powerful metric by which our institutions measure their success in serving students, yet it does not often translate to the ways in which these same institutions cultivate and support staff. 

43% of respondents said that this experience left them somewhat dissuaded from continuing in the field, while 36% said the experience was somewhat or strongly affirming. The good news is that no respondent said they felt strong dissuaded, which means there’s time to focus on keeping and cultivating talent. This year has been daunting, and for this group, they know no different. These practitioners, who have only known our field as it is now, continue to ask, “Is this what it’s always like?”

As we enter April, and another search season is well underway, the number of professionals whose only concept of student affairs is perpetual crisis will grow. How you lead will shape how they succeed, and even if new professionals’ experiences don’t make the news the way revenue losses do, the loss of a generation of talent, energy, and innovation will cost institutions handsomely in the long run. It’s time to reexamine the structures and culture of our field, whose pre-existing gaps - particularly around wellness, belonging, and workload - have been further illuminated by the pandemic. We have the opportunity now to do better by ourselves and by those who come after. 

It takes true leadership to hear the question new professionals are asking and respond, “No. We can make it better.”

Data slides can be found HERE (x).

Author: Lena Schwallenberg (she/her/hers) works as a Residence Life Coordinator at Tufts University. She's passionate about queer issues, mental health, and perfecting her macaron recipe. Lena is a big fan of bright colors & aesthetics, and you can find her embracing both on Instagram at @lenaschwallenberg.