In high school, I worked at a fast food chain with evening shifts starting at 5 p.m.
Most days, I would spend the two hours after school in the same pattern of denial, bargaining, and depression about having to leave my friends to go to work. I dreamed of calling in sick and having an adventure.
More recently, after completing graduate school and working full-time in my chosen career, I found this emotional pattern creeping back in again. I had learned my job and could do it well and efficiently, but office politics contributed to my increasing sense of dread and bitterness regarding the position. Every day was a struggle. I questioned if the job, the institution, and even if the profession were really for me. Something had to change.
I finally found that the key solution was to reflect on why I chose student affairs as a profession. I chose it because I feel most fulfilled when I’m useful to others. As someone from a lower socioeconomic background and a first-generation student, I had earned incredible knowledge about college life and could provide great resources to students.
Student affairs work also gives me a sense of purpose — at least, that is, whenever I’m engaged in creative ways to meet students’ needs. The problem was that, at the time, the core responsibilities for my job alone weren’t giving me that purpose anymore. My workdays had become repetitive and there was very little challenge to my sense of creativity.
I’ve since learned that finding a role with responsibilities that match your interests and talents is only half the battle. You have to do more to find job satisfaction, with your attitude and perspective being equally as important as your title. The following tactics helped me claw my way out of my rut, and I hope they’ll help you, too.
1. Tell your supervisor (if you trust them)
If you have a trusting relationship with your supervisor, confide in them where you’re at emotionally. Chances are, they’ve experienced this exact same thing and may have advice or encouragement to offer.
They are well-positioned to help you determine why you are feeling stagnant — whether it’s because you are bored in this particular job or if the field as a whole is no longer fulfilling to you. At worst, your supervisor will have a better idea of what’s behind the vibes you’re putting out, and at best, they may be able to assign you new responsibilities that could better stimulate you intellectually and creatively.
But I know that, for many people, the idea of sharing a lack of job satisfaction with your supervisor is far too daunting. Perhaps you fear that you would be passed over for opportunities or even that your employment would be in jeopardy. In that case, I suggest speaking with a trusted mentor instead or checking out the Global IT Burnout Index as a way to self-reflect and guide yourself out of dissatisfaction.
2. Build your professional interests in to your job functions
You chose a career in student affairs for a reason. Something motivated you to see this work as the right work for you. What was it? How does that reasoning figure into the work you do now? What are some ways you can mold your current work or find new tasks centered around this motivation?
As a grad student, I was interested in intentional program design. But as a resident director, I wasn’t responsible for designing a residential curriculum. So, what power did I have to explore my interest in this area? If I focused solely on that disconnect, I certainly would have felt stagnated and become bitter about not being the person in charge of one of my favorite aspects of student affairs.
But, I chose not to focus on that. Instead, I thought about what power and influence I did have. I was the mayor of my own little community. I could (and did!) determine how I trained my staff and how we implemented programming within the confines of the departmental program model.
During both the fall and winter semesters, I dedicated in-hall training time with my staff to thinking about the purposes that programming serves in the community. We read short articles, processed them together, and brainstormed what we wanted our residents to gain as a result of living in our community that year. From there, we determined what programs we would need to give our residents these skills and experiences.
And voila — I had worked with my staff to develop a model of programming unique to our hall with measurable learning outcomes! This practice excited me and gave me fodder for future interviews about mid-level management positions.
Look for opportunities to build your own interests into the themes of your next program or presentation. You might look towards leaders in your department or division as inspiration; see how they’ve accomplished this.
By infusing the things you care about into your work, you may find that you’re a lot more invested in your day-to-day responsibilities.
3. Incorporate your personal passions into your professional practice
Since no institution offers a bachelor’s degree in higher education or student affairs (that I know of), most of us come to this field after being trained in other professional and academic areas.
While it’s common to meet student affairs professionals with undergraduate degrees in counseling, teaching, or women’s studies, you may also find yourself working alongside co-workers with degrees in communications, English, or linguistics. I’m in a very slim minority of student affairs professionals who’ve earned film degrees. I find the fact that student affairs professionals are such a diversely trained group to be really exciting; it inspires a wide array of programming ideas and helps us connect with students’ unique interests.
For a while, I didn’t use my film studies knowledge in my student affairs work; film was just an intellectual hobby — only that I greatly missed utilizing.
Whenever I got bored at work, one of the first things I did to occupy myself was try to find ways to pull my passion for film directly into my job. At first, this meant using film and TV clips to illustrate ideas during RA training and in-services. (The “two wrong feet in f-ing ugly shoes” scene from Erin Brokovich still slays RA training sessions on workplace conflict.)
Eventually, I decided to ask the residential hall association if I could select one movie a month from their Residence Life Cinema lineup to turn into a film programming series. Because I was interested in working with living-learning communities, I had one community sponsor the film I chose each month, which fit within the theme of the community. Doing so also gave me a built-in audience and expanded my reach beyond my own community.
I got to dabble a bit in graphic design by creating the advertisements for the events — something I had long wanted to do but hadn’t found an opportunity for. I picked Blackfish for the environmental and sustainability LLC and A Better Life for the International LLC, to name a few examples.
Suddenly, my work was really fun and creatively engaging! Plus, it met the professional expectations of programming for the broader campus community.
Finding ways to incorporate your interests and passions into your work will not only help you feel more interested in your job but sharing a bit of yourself with your students and colleagues will also help them better connect with you. I once bonded with a supervisor over a mutual admiration for Madonna’s ability to endlessly reinvent herself. This led to us collaborating on a session about RA staff burnout that was themed around Madonna and the Art of Reinvention.
Such collaborations can go a long way in changing the perspective others may have of your level of positivity toward the position and lead to collaborations you never considered before.
4. Build something that makes you excited to get out of bed in the morning
After a few successes, things were looking up for me. However, I knew that I still had the capacity to achieve more and to expand my intellectual curiosity. I began to think about the question “what gets me out of bed in the morning?”
As much as I valued the work I was doing, the core responsibilities weren’t enough. I knew I enjoyed the work of creating and sustaining LLCs. I also knew that I felt a sense of satisfaction whenever I helped mentor a fellow first-generation student. The decision to combine these two professional interests ultimately changed my career and pointed me toward my doctoral study.
Diving headfirst into creating an LLC for first-generation students was a lot of work — exactly enough to fill all that time that I previously didn’t know what to do with. Beyond proposing the community, selecting RAs, and creating a logo, I found myself reaching out to faculty of first-year seminars to lobby for the creation of a first-gen seminar for the LLC. This required me to conduct a lot of research and collaborate with faculty on a level that I had not previously engaged with professionally. And ultimately, it earned me an invitation to co-teach the course!
Once again, I found myself in a flurry of exciting work that engaged me intellectually, spoke to my core values, and fit well within the confines of what was expected of me professionally. I had built my job to be something that I really enjoyed doing, and even better, I was building something that was of value to others and that improved my community and the experience of students I served.
This is something that is possible for you, too. Once you’ve workshopped a strategy or two for including your professional interests and personal passions into presentations, trainings, or programs, consider building something bigger.
How can you design a committee, a program series, or even a community around the concept that you find value in? Invite the people who responded favorably to your earlier efforts to join you in the creation process. Remember to ground that effort in serving students and actively include them in your planning and implementation. You might find that you make a name for yourself on your campus as a go-getter who can get things done.
Very few of us do our jobs with no financial motivation in mind. Stagnation is soul-killing and, yet, we show up to work every day because our finances depend on it. This can turn you into an unhappy and (in my case) bitter person.
But, I slowly dug myself out of the rut I was in by building one small thing at a time. And you can too!
Figure out your motivations and your passions, then find ways to get paid to do them within the confines of your job. If you don’t know for sure what those passions are, ask to be put on projects or in collateral assignments that will allow you to explore and see what works for you. Ultimately, you’re the one who has to live with yourself and show up to work each day. Make yourself pleasant company.