Professional Development: Getting the Most Bang for your Buck

Steph Olson

August 30, 2018

Last week, as I was walking out of a budget meeting with the department, and thought to myself, “Ok, I have some funds to work with!” I went back to my office, I started subtracting membership fees, conferences, and that number almost disappears.

Most new professionals I talk to are in the same boat: getting limited funds, while trying to expand their knowledge and professional network. When I first started in my position, I was excited to be able to have my work funding professional development, but I had a lot of trouble picking what I wanted it to go toward. Thus, I found myself reverting back to my graduate school ways of googling free webinars, and any professional development opportunities I could find.

The first thing I do with my professional development funds is look at the membership fee or fees if I am needing to join more than one organization. Paying the membership fee is the key to getting the benefits of an organization, and many times the way to take advantage of the free resources offered. If there is no membership fee, or the membership fee counts for more involvement opportunities in my interest area (an example being in a NASPA knowledge community-membership covered in your fee), sign me up!

Once the membership fee paid, it’s time to delve into what’s available: journals, conferences, webinars, knowledge communities, and make some connections! It always good to assess the reach of an organization too. Is this a national organization? Is this a national organization that connects me to regional resources or national resources and networks that I need? Does this organization help me in my area of work, example: f you work with student success, are there resources and/or professionals that you can benefit from?

One of the first things I did once paying my NASPA membership, was to join knowledge communities. Knowledge communities have newsletters, networks, and many free resources (from free breakfasts at conferences at times, to free webinars, and of course the connection to professionals working in areas similar to you).

Conferences are definitely a big ticket item when it comes to your professional development budget. Conferences have meetups with knowledge communities, socials from schools and friends of schools, networking lunches and dinners, opportunities for mentorship and mentoring, and opportunities to present yourself. The biggest pieces that can save you money for conferences:Have a reason to go (present a session, be a member of a committee, volunteer, participating in mentoring, etc.). Most institutions are much more willinging to help fund conference expenses if they get a benefit to it (such as your name as a presenter, your name and institution on a committee listing, etc.).

Share resources. This could be going family style for a meal to save some money, sharing a room (if you are up for that), walking instead of riding around a city.

Outside of organizations, there are many other ways to build yourself professionally without spending a dime:


I’ve found LinkedIn groups to be a great source of professional development and networking. There are general groups for those in higher education and even more specific groups based on your area of interest, such as career counseling, academic support, residential life, and more. Some of these groups are even connected to knowledge communities or larger organizations. These groups many times share articles and other resources, which doesn’t cost you a dime. Another plus is it’s a great way to network. I like to think of these as the new listserv. It doesn’t exactly replace a listserv, but it’s a way to be connected, where you actually get to see others faces and much more about them.


Each area of interest/speciality in higher education has a listserv most of the time. These are mostly via email, but they can be a great way to get some helpful suggestions, programming, or advice for your role. Chat with colleagues about listservs to join. Most of the ones I’ve joined have all come from word of mouth, and they are very helpful.

Local Professionals Meetups/Groups

Another suggestion to get some professional development outside of organization is joining local young professionals or professionals networking groups. has options for something more casual, but if you are looking for something more structured, many times the chamber of commerce or other government agencies may have communities or organizations for people to connect with others in all different disciplines. This can bring you diverse contacts and help with development of soft skills. Also, networking and being connected is never a bad thing.

In the end, a little bit of research and asking those that have come before you can make your small budget go a long way!

Steph (she, her, hers) works at Campbell University in Buies Creek, NC as a Support Services Senior Coordinator. She is a member of both the Professional Development and Advancement Knowledge Community and Administrators in Graduate and Professional Student Services within NASPA. In her spare time, you can find her at Zumba and drinking coffee while creating art projects with almost anything.

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