This is part of a blog series dedicated to exploring if going to graduate school for student affairs – or even going into student affairs – is worth it. To see the introductory post on this blog series, please visit this page. To contribute a guest post, visit here. Peruse past posts on what to look for in a #SAgrad program and alternatives to #SAgrad programs to pursue related interests in different careers.
In this guest post, CJ Venable shares their thoughts on what graduate school really means – it’s more than getting a piece of paper at the end. Welcome to #RGS4SAM.
I am writing this to encourage you, gentle reader, not to reconsider (make another decision), but to re-consider (consider again) graduate school for student affairs. By this I mean, I want you to enter into the prospect of graduate work with a clear understanding of professional preparation in student affairs as a formative academic and professional endeavor.
To start, a few caveats. Graduate school is terrible for one’s mental health, largely because of cultures that encourage competition and superhuman work habits, compounded by all the preexisting isms that are built into higher education. Ableism in particular can make graduate school inaccessible, based on myths that graduate study should be limited to only a select few. Graduate school is financially precarious–even departments that offer “full” funding expect graduate students to be unmarried, without children, and capable of living on poverty wages years at a time (I received a $9000/year stipend and, as I had no savings and a family recovering from medical bankruptcy, depended on my partner to survive). These problems are real and deserve critique and reform. And as I’m sure other essays in this series will argue, not everyone needs to go to graduate school (period, or in student affairs).
Also, I’m a doctoral candidate in the cultural foundations of education, studying whiteness in student affairs. I have a master’s degree in college student personnel and I hope to someday be faculty in a graduate professional preparation program. My scholarly work is largely about how we fail, as a field, to live up to the commitments we make to social justice and envisioning possibilities for how we can actually do better. All of that, from being a full-time grad student in student affairs right after undergrad to pursuing a degree outside of HESA (higher education and student affairs) shapes my perspective on this topic. It’s up to you to judge whether or not I’m just trying to secure my own future. Onward.
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Often I hear folks say that a HESA degree is ‘just a piece of paper,’ that it is merely a ‘ticket to entry’ into the profession, or that the classes (especially…dun dun dun…the theory class(es)) don’t really matter compared to the experience of an assistantship, internship, practicum, or other hands-on work in student affairs. I won’t say that those people are entirely wrong, even though there may be dimensions of those claims I would like to unpack further (lucky for you, I’ll have to do that somewhere else). But I am here to argue that if you choose, despite the problems and caveats above, to pursue a graduate degree in student affairs that you should consider it an academic undertaking.
I’ll give you a preview into one of your first classes. It will probably be called something like “Introduction to Student Affairs” or “Foundations and Functions of College Student Personnel” (that was it in my program) or perhaps even “Introduction to College Student Personnel Work.” At some point, you will be introduced to the idea that student affairs is a profession, a word that refers to a complex sociological phenomenon but which often gets used as a stand in for “a field which deserves to be respected.” Sociologically, we are not a profession–we don’t have the same kinds of ethical oversight, control, or prestige as professions like law or medicine. We do, however, have a growing body of specialized knowledge that should* undergird our practice.
*I said should here quite intentionally. Truthfully, there are many working in student affairs who do not use any kind of theory, research, or pedagogies to shape their work day-to-day. It is my belief that everyone should be using some kind of theoretical foundation for their work, even if that foundation is not the specialized knowledge of student affairs.
You will likely develop your own opinion about how much of a ‘profession’ we in student affairs are. You might even be asked to write a paper on it for a class or two. But even if, like me, you are unconvinced by the ‘of course we are a profession’ stance, you still have an obligation to operate as a professional (as opposed to a para-professional, like a Resident Assistant, or a person entirely unaffiliated with higher education). If you choose to pursue a graduate degree in student affairs, you should take seriously the development of your understanding of the knowledge the field has developed, collected, uncovered, created (pick your preferred epistemological verb).
At the end of your graduate journey, you do not take a certification or sit for boards in student affairs. You might complete a comprehensive exam. You might prepare a capstone portfolio. You might even contribute to the knowledge of the field with a thesis project. Regardless, ultimately you cross a stage and are awarded an academic degree, hooded with a special signifier of your advanced knowledge as a Master (of Arts, Sciences, Education, Arts in Education, Science in Education, or some other tag your particular institution has deemed appropriate for your particular studies). If you are choosing to pursue this degree–as opposed to entering the field in some other way, which is a valid endeavor–you should understand it as an opportunity to challenge yourself academically and to gain new skills in analysis, synthesis, and critique.
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So then, what does it look like to consider graduate study in student affairs as an academic endeavor?
First, in the delicate dance that is the traditional HESA grad school experience (think full-time study plus an assistantship), make sure that your classes aren’t always your last priority. While I do think there are times when class (or reading, or finishing a paper on time) should rightfully fall behind compared to other professional or personal demands, if you are consistently missing classes, ghosting classmates on group projects, or skipping the readings, you’re missing out. In particular, grad school (unlike some undergrad experiences) generally relies heavily on the ‘seminar,’ a small class driven by discussion of closely-read texts. Your professor (and your classmates) know when you haven’t done the reading. Everyone has off weeks where they can’t make it all happen, but if you’re always the person talking about your ‘personal experience’ instead of the readings, it’s probably time to reprioritize.
Next, look for ways to intentionally apply what you’re learning in your courses to your practice. Even for folks who already work in the field, coursework is an opportunity to seek out the limits of your knowledge and experience and find out how to move beyond them by using research and theory to expand your expertise. Applying theory to practice is notoriously challenging and does not feel natural. Instead, theory should challenge us to question our ‘natural assumptions’ and look beyond what we think we know. Theory offers opportunities for critique, both of the practice that you or others are engaged in and of the structures we have created in the first place. This is a valuable mindset, even if the specific theories you cover in your courses don’t seem relevant to the work you do or the students you work with. By understanding the theories and structures that make HESA tick–including the more sinister ones, like neoliberalism–you may also better understand how to envision other ways of being in higher education.
Finally, even if you have no interest in being a researcher, look to research experiences (taking courses, writing a thesis) as opportunities for growth as a practitioner. Gaining real facility at reading, understanding, and critiquing research takes time and practice. While you might not be a practitioner-scholar who reads every new issue of every journal in your field, you will inevitably be called upon to back up your decisions on an event, program, initiative, or funding request with some research. That demands the skills of a critical research consumer. Skills from research methods courses can also be useful–improved spreadsheet skills from a stats class or listening skills developed through practice in qualitative interviewing are valuable in the daily work of many practitioners. And, you may someday decide to do research of your own. At my institution, as a professional staff member with a master’s degree, I am able to act as the Principal Investigator (the one who leads and is responsible for a research project) for my own research. You, like me, may go on to pursue a doctoral degree as well. Seeking out research opportunities with faculty, like working on a research team, can be incredibly rewarding. Either way, your skills as a consumer, if not producer, of research are useful and should be taken seriously.
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Graduate school in HESA can be transformative. Even though it is not the only way into the field, if you choose to pursue a HESA degree, I hope you will take from it as much as you possibly can. Being a student has great benefits–you have license to question and challenge in ways that become significantly more precarious as a full-time professional. You get new knowledge to explore that applies directly to your future (or current!) career. You also get to flex your intellectual muscles in ways that don’t happen in practice, challenging you to think differently and communicate for different audiences. I hope you benefit from supportive and non-exploitative supervisors and gain a new or deeper understanding of yourself as a professional and a scholar. And I hope you come to see the academics, though at times challenging, to be an essential part of your growth in graduate school.
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CJ Venable is a senior academic advisor and candidate for the PhD in the cultural foundations of education at Kent State University. They currently serve as the Chair of the Theory, Philosophy, and History of Advising Community in NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. CJ’s scholarly interests center on whiteness and higher education, the cultural politics of emotion, and trans people in higher education. Most recently, they are co-author, with Kyle Inselman and Nick Thuot, of “Negotiating Fit While ‘Misfit’: Three Ways Trans Professionals Navigate Student Affairs” in Debunking the Myth of Job Fit in Higher Education and Student Affairs edited by Reece, Tran, DeVore, and Porcaro. You can follow CJ on Twitter @cjvenable.