As this is the season for newly graduated students to get ready and assume their first full-time position, several people are probably wondering, “how should I prepare for this transition?” Below are 10 tips that are a combination of advice from my mentors, things I have heard/read over the years, and things I personally learned along the way about the transition from graduate student to new professional. These tips are not necessarily a template to succeed in your first year as a new professional, but they might provide some insight to make your transition a little smoother. As you read, my advice is to think of your personal goals. You might take some elements from the piece, you might leave some elements from the piece, but make your transition, yours.
TIP #1: Mentally Prepare Yourself for the Transition from Graduate Student to New Professional.
First, for those who were full-time graduate students, transitioning to full-time student affairs professional, it will feel like a huge amount of flexibility has been taken from you. To prepare for this transition, it might be good to look at all the things you aspire to do within a regular week and set a schedule. For example, if you used to have a flexible schedule to workout during the day whenever you chose, you might find it hard to rise early to workout at 6am to ensure you can leave your house by 7:30am to get to work. Start thinking about this now so that you can plan on how you will reorganize your life to fit with the new job. For those that worked full-time while in graduate school, you are probably used to a less flexible schedule at this point. One thing I would suggest you think about is how you will fill the void that you might feel once you’re done. You will be used to having a full schedule, but now that your thesis or final project is done, you might feel like “what will I do with my time now?” Will you use that time to relax? Will you pick up a new hobby? Or will you look after some things you neglected while your degree took first priority? Whatever you choose, it is wise to mentally prepare yourself that life at your job will be different from when you were in graduate school.
TIP #2: Start your Professional Development Plan.
You applied for the job, went through the tedious application process, excelled in your interview, and now you have the job. You have accomplished something great, but don’t let that stop your professional development. There is still a lot to learn. You come with many great skills, but what would you like to accomplish within the first year to the first five years of the job? What can you learn? What opportunities are there for professional development? When you start your job, review the job expectations and what experiences you can get from the job. Compare that to past work experience and where you ultimately want to end up in student affairs. For example, if you are starting as an event coordinator and you ultimately want to be a Director of Housing and Conduct, conduct experience will be helpful for you. You might volunteer for the conduct committee to achieve this experience. So, ask yourself, where do I need to develop as a student affairs professional per my goals, and how can I get this experience? You don’t have to get all this experience in the first year, so think of at least a five-year professional development plan. For example, in year one will you submit to present at your first conference? In year 2 will you join a committee to get assessment experience? Time yourself and get the skills you desire. Also, when thinking about professional development, let your supervisor know your goals and expectations. This way, they are aware of your goals and can help you achieve those goals. For example, an employee of mine doesn’t have a lot of presentation experience and when she expressed to me that she would like that particular experience, we reviewed her area of knowledge and found a conference for her to submit a proposal.
TIP #3: Find a Mentor.
A mentor will be helpful during your first year on the job. This is someone that can offer tips as you move along in student affairs, help you develop professionally, edit work, provide advice for big problems, etc. This can be someone at your current job, someone who is in a position you want to be in one day, an old professor, previous colleague, or your supervisor. It is recommended that you have multiple mentors to help you in various aspects of your career. When looking for a mentor, ask yourself, what questions do I have about this field? For example, if you choose a mentor who is in a position you would like to hold someday, your question might be, how did you get to that position? Or, what do I need to know to get to your position? Additionally, if you choose your supervisor as a mentor, you can let them know your aspirations and ask them for advice to achieve your goals.
For me, it has been important to find mentors who understand my identity and issues related to my identity. For example, as a Black woman I make sure to surround myself with and seek advice from Black women who are in positions that I want to be in one day. Their path to success might be different from mine, but there will be some very significant advice they can offer me based on our common intersections of race and gender. This is not to say that only those who hold your identities can mentor you. That is not true. However, mentors who hold your identities can help you in significant ways. And when you are facing some –isms related to your identities, they are likely to “get it.” One final point on mentorship is to be open about what your expectations are as a mentee. If you need regular meetings with your mentor, let them know that. Also, ask their opinion of what their expectations will be for you. This way, you both have entered the mentoring relationship knowing the needs of the other. Overall, know what matters to you and find mentors to help you achieve your goals while taking care of yourself in the process.
TIP #4: Don’t Re-create the Wheel.
You are excited, it is tempting to get into your new job and create something new, something that will make you stand out, but you also do not want to use this awesome energy in places where you can reserve it for other things. Make sure you look through old files and collaborate with colleagues when necessary. There are resources that can help you have an awesome start in your first year and you can still stand out. For example, lets say you are asked to create a new leadership program for your department. Do not start from scratch, there are colleagues at other institutions and within professional associations that can help you get started. Be mindful of others intellectual work in this process, but you should be able to get enough tips and templates to start your program. This way, when you actually have to start something from scratch, you will have the physical and mental energy to do so.
TIP #5: Pay Attention to your Work-Life Balance.
This is hard in your first year, because you are excited and have the energy to volunteer and assist where you can. I have done it myself. Before you even get on the job, think about what “extra” committees or tasks help you accomplish your professional goals. Hopefully you wont find yourself spending too many late nights or early mornings just to get things done. We know that every now and then you will have to arrive early or stay late. However, every week should not be a 50-60 hour workweek. My advice here is to keep track of your hours each week and compare that to what you are doing to enjoy life outside of work. You likely sleep for 45-56 hours a week, and you work 40 hours or so. Therefore, what are you doing for the other 70+ hours during your week? Does work take up one too many evenings and weekends? Are you able to work and do at least 2-3 things that help you enjoy life during the week? Do you find yourself saying, I would love to be able to do “X,” but I have to get this project for work done? Self-care and balance are important. If you are not happy with your work-life balance, you cannot be a huge help to others. We often work to take care of or help others, but it is important to take care of ourselves as well.
TIP #6: Set Boundaries
As you start your new job, it is important to set boundaries early. This way you don’t get caught up in feeling guilty when you need to take back parts of your life. As you work the first few weeks, keep track of your busy times and times when you are most productive. The boundary examples I give below may not work for everyone, but they might give you insight as to what boundaries you want to set. If you know you work well in the mornings, but get interrupted often, your boundary might be to shut your door for one hour each morning. Some people worry about taking time from others that might need them, but what is one hour a day out of eight. You are still spending the majority of your day helping others. It is not as if you are goofing off during that hour, you are just taking some quiet un-interrupted time to get some important administrative tasks done. Another boundary might be owning your time in general. For example, do people approach you as soon as you enter the office so that you end up starting the day working on someone else’s tasks? If you need 15 minutes to get yourself together in the morning, that is fine, tell your colleague that has you pinned at the door, “I can get to that as soon as I get settled in the office for today.” As I have stated earlier, you have to rejuvenate yourself to be able to help others. If closing your door to complete tasks or taking 15 minutes to get yourself together in the morning helps you to feel accomplished, I assure you that you will be in a better position to offer your services to others. Now take some time and think about what some reasonable boundaries might be for you on your new job. These should be boundaries that assist with your overall productivity, not just ones you make up to stay away from people. It would also be wise to discuss your boundaries with your supervisor. Your supervisor can be a huge ally in helping you stick to your boundaries.
TIP #7: Ask Questions and Observe Your Environment
While you were hired for your specific skills and traits, it is ok that you do not know everything. You should have a healthy understanding of your job, but being at a new institution means that you will need to ask questions to get to know how things run at that particular institution. This is not to say that you are confined to doing things the way they have been done, but understanding campus culture and how you fit within that culture will be important.
TIP #8: Meet Co-Workers & Network
As you start the new job, you will automatically network with those in your department and it can be easy to get stuck in your department. Make some time to get to know colleagues in other departments. It might be awesome to set-up lunch meetings and learn about what another colleague does on the job. These on-campus networks can become helpful when you need collaborators to work with your department in the future or general help navigating things on the new campus. While you are meeting new people on the job, be aware of people who have an agenda. There might be people at your new job who want to get in your ear about “how things should be done” for your position. As you meet people, take some time to evaluate what people say and determine what you feel is better for your position or department based on your skills, knowledge and understanding of the institution. Networking in professional associations is helpful as well. Be mindful of groups within these national associations that can be helpful to you (i.e. Graduate Students and New Professionals KC in NASPA).
TIP #9: Get Organized, Keep Reports
Starting within your first few days on the job, you will likely receive access to a shared drive for your department or you will be notified of the ways your department keeps files. Determine how you will stay organized so that you can easily access what you need. Keep track of your work and progress because this will be helpful when evaluation season comes. Once you plan an event or complete tasks, evaluate yourself and write down any areas of improvement (i.e. more advertising or collaboration next time) or significant accomplishments (i.e. how attendance improved, student retention increased). Therefore, during evaluations, if there is an issue you can always discuss how you already plan to improve certain areas. You can also use that opportunity to discuss the many ways you have made significant accomplishments for your department.
TIP #10: Take Ownership of Your Journey.
Finally, take ownership of your progress; be confident in your skills and ability to get the job done. Understand what you need and let people know. Look at your career as a journey, set your plan and pace yourself.
Dr. Evette Allen is the Director of Student Life, Leadership, and Involvement at Utah State University Eastern where she oversees leadership programs, diversity and inclusion programs, student activities and student government. She is incredibly passionate about helping students reach their full potential and develop new skills along the way. She currently serves on the NASPA Region V board as the New Professionals and Graduate Student Knowledge Community Representative (NPGS KC). She also serves a leadership role in Region V as part of the social justice strategic planning committee. Outside of work, Dr. Allen conducts research to enhance social justice education and to review the college experiences of Black students in higher education. She also currently chairs a college and career preparation program for high school students of color in Utah. She can be reached at [email protected].