Thinking Outside the Professional Development ‘Box’

Providing valuable and rewarding professional development opportunities is becoming increasingly challenging within the higher education environment. Offering the opportunity for staff to attend conferences, either domestic or international, has long been a popular option, however, in reality, time in attendance at such event is frequently brief, (flying in and out in a matter of days), interaction can be limited, (it can take a while before you actually get to the interesting questions having met most in attendance for the first time), and the costs associated with both travel and registration at such events quite prohibitive.

Bearing in mind the barriers associated with conference attendance, now is a great time to get creative and ‘think outside the box’ when it comes to sourcing opportunities for professional development or reward and recognition for high-performing staff. Here are some of my top low-cost suggestions:

1. Join relevant local or international industry focused organizations or associations.

In student services in Australia, the choices are diverse and varied depending on your role and interests –AACUHO for those in student housing, ISANA or IEAA– for those working in the international higher education space, or ANZSSA for those who want a broader student services approach. Internationally, the choice is even more extensive – NASPA, ACPA or ACUHO-I in the US, CACUSS in Canada or AMOSSHE in the UK. Once you get your head around the acronyms, and decide which one (or more) takes your fancy, you will find each organization offers a wealth of resources, advice channels and networking opportunities.

2. Source a mentor or return the favour.

Depending on where your employees are in the stages of their career, they may wish to consider looking for a mentor who can provide guidance and support, or, alternatively look at providing mentoring themselves. Finding a mentor isn’t necessarily easy, but you will generally find it’s someone with whom you will have an established professional relationship – a senior colleague, past supervisor etc. It also doesn’t have to be a formal arrangement with weekly scheduled meetings, rather you should have an opportunity to chat via email, over the phone or preferably face to face on regular occasions, seeking advice and guidance on specific work related tasks or general career development goals.

If the preference is to act in the role of a Mentor, the higher education industry is the perfect place – you will always find plenty of enthusiastic students who are desperate for career advice and support on making the transition from study to work-life. Many universities also offer formal staff-staff, or staff-student mentoring programs – it’s worth exploring these as a starting point.

3. Explore an opportunity to get your name in print.

I’ll concede this isn’t everyone’s idea of fun or skill development, but learning how to craft an article, blog or academic journal is a fantastic skill to develop and possess, and a great way of showcasing your work and expertise. The key, if you’re not confident, is to start small – consider writing a post on your own Linked In page or a blog online for an industry group, (the Student Affairs Collective for example, whilst US focused, is internationally relevant), or drafting an article for your association’s magazine.

For those working in student housing, (and that can be so broad as to include anything from management, operations, and administration to student development programs), the Student Residences Management Journal is a great option. Alternatively, if you’ve undertaken research or can discuss a program or service in detail using qualitative or quantitative data then you might wish to consider writing for an academic journal. Do you research to work out which journal would be most appropriate and check the submission guidelines carefully.

4. Consider short courses, one to three day training programs or networking events.

If you do have the ability to spend budget on professional development, but have limited time to permit a staff member out of the office, you may wish to look at training and development opportunities which are closer to home or shorter in duration. Options include training courses, (computer programs or soft skills like emotional intelligence, negotiation or communication), or once-off networking events.

Often, your own institution hosts these style of programs at minimal cost or completely free. Industry associations also frequently host one day events across all states on a variety of topics, and in most cases, you don’t even have to be a member to attend. It is a good idea to follow the organizations which interest you on Linked In or sign up to email alerts so that you are aware of future events and registration deadlines.

5. See how the other half do it.

Another option is to take a day out to visit another institution to meet with key staff and see how they undertake certain tasks or roles. Not only is it cost effective, (bar the cost of travel to your hosting institution), but both groups of staff involved add to their networks and hopefully take something away from the experience.

6. Take on extra project work.

Not always the first thing you might think of – who wants to add to their workload! – but providing an extra project to a staff member is a great way of building upon skills and developing stronger networks in your institution. We frequently get stuck in a rut undertaking the same tasks day after day, week after week, so adding in something new, be it a joint project across two or more departments, geographic locations, (for example, different campuses), or even different institutions, is a great way of encouraging innovation and creativity.

7. Look beyond your backyard. 

Finally, it’s important to look beyond the higher education environment in order to keep pace with best practice.  This means comparing and contrasting your work with those undertaking similar responsibilities in the wider community, for example, if you are organising social events for students, stay linked in with community groups, councils and organisations (private and public) who organise everything from small scale events to larger festivals; if you are managing front desk staff, explore customer service approaches in hotels or customer-facing companies; or if you are responsible for health and well-being programming you would be well-placed to stay connect with community health organisations and government support groups.

What other professional development opportunities do you provide to your team? Share it with us at @CheckImHere!

This blog post can also be found on Laura’s LinkedIn profile: Thinking Outside the Professional Development ‘Box’.

About The Author: 

Laura Burge is a Residential Education Manager at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia where she is responsible for leading the establishment of a positive on-campus residential community servicing 2400 students and 200+ student leaders across multiple campuses. She is also responsible for the management of a team of Residential Education staff across two sites; the development, review and implementation of new strategic initiatives and supervision of a diverse range of projects and programs including those focused on social engagement, academic excellence, health and wellbeing, outreach and community standards. Laura loves to share and exchange practices, programs and approaches – to get in touch with Laura connect with her on LinkedIn!

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