Important Lessons You Won’t Learn in Grad School, as Told by an AVPSA

How many of us have been confronted with something we were not prepared for?

Didn’t see coming? Or said to ourselves, “Ugh, I wish I had known that sooner”?  

At some point, we have all felt ill-prepared. We had to take a breath and rework the situation. 

A graduate program can help you theoretically prepare for many tasks, but it’s a challenge to prepare for most things in practice. How will students be impacted? What are the ramifications? How do you treat each situation as unique? 

After twenty years in the field, with several institutions across the country, I’ve had a few realizations about so-called “on the job training” or OJT. 

So, in the spirit of grandpa telling the stories of his childhood from a rocking chair, here are a few thoughts about the field that I’ve amassed over the years.

9 Lessons

1. Begin with the end in mind

Envisioning where you want to end up can help steer you down a wise path. 

If, for example, you see yourself as a residence life director, then you should look for increasingly challenging roles in residence life or along similar pathways. 

When I first started in the field, I had a highly specific vision of where I wanted to end up: As president of a four-year research institution.

Life has changed that goal for me. But along the way, I’ve realized that spending time at different types of institutions is extremely beneficial to me

If you had asked me, when I finished my master’s degree, if I would ever work at small regional institutions or four-year private schools, I would have looked at you in a strange way. 

But I have worked at such institutions. This adapted perspective has been useful as I work to enhance environments around me, solve problems, and learn more about the field. 

2. You don’t always need to have firm plans

If you have a plan — great! But, if you don’t, then that’s okay, too. You should invest some thought in working towards established goals though. 

If you spend a while in this field, you will reach a point when your professional development pathway will be all on you and you alone. These plans don’t have to be firm; they just have to be something you can point toward like the end of a map. 

3. Don’t look for a straight line

Very few of us will progress in a straight line in our careers.

A mentor of mine once told me that I wouldn’t progress to a senior staff level in a straight line. To garner experience, I would likely bounce all around. She advised me to not be afraid to accept lateral roles and to even take some steps back, too. I just needed to keep moving, and keeping my eye on the ball. 

Lateral or even backward moves are okay. The key thing is being able to explain why you moved along that path. As my mentor also told me, in so many words, “life happens.”

Life may change your trajectory and alters your plans for advancement, or your peers might perceive moves you make as a regression from your path. 

But that’s okay. Consider where you are at certain stages in life as you develop your professional progression. 

4. You can’t fully prepare for student deaths

Most every institution has some sort of crisis response team, intervention team, or a protocol to follow. But you can’t plan for students’ precise reactions nor how the tragedy will impact the community day-to-day, yourself included. 

From an institutional angle, situations like a student death should be addressed as consistently as possible, treating them all as similarly as time and events allow you to. However, you have to walk a fine line, as you don’t want to get mechanical or just go through the motions. It’s vital to maintain decorum during this tense, emotional time.

5. Mentorship isn’t cookie-cutter

Mentorship comes in many forms. Don’t be afraid to seek out a mentor who doesn’t fit within the precise mentor box you envisioned. 

Consider finding someone outside of your own campus. You may be better off. That way, you can have unvarnished conversations about what you’re dealing with on-campus and how you feel about it. You may be able to just vent, too.

Plus, you’ll also walk away with specific solutions, ideas, or alternative plans to the challenges you discuss. 

6. Get involved with professional organizations, if you can

Getting involved on a regional or national level can help you expand your network and find the right person (or people) to facilitate your membership. Try connecting with program facilitators, committee members, and planners. There are many options for forming strong connections within professional orgs. 

And as you build a good rapport with someone, be sure to ask them to mentor you; don’t just assume they will. The “ask” is usually not right out of the gate, though sometimes it happens that way.  When you feel that you have reached a good point, ask a question like, “Would you mind if I discussed my professional growth with you on a regular basis?”. 

7. Think hard about that terminal degree

Let’s go back to where I started: Beginning with the end in mind and institutional type. 

It boils down to doing your homework. Depending on where you want to end up, significant experience and a masters degree may be enough. Other certifications may also be helpful. 

A terminal degree may close as many doors as it opens for you. As I was finishing my doctoral program, life circumstances meant that I need to get back into the field. So I started interviewing again. On more than one occasion, I was told, “Based on your education, you are overqualified for this job.” That always caught me a bit off-guard. 

So, you consider where you want to be, what it will take you to get there, and what could be an impediment in disguise.    

8. Find ways to separate yourself from your work

You are not your job, and your job is not you. 

My first real higher education role was my first significant relocation, and I made it all by myself. I knew no one within the new community. So, I found that I often worked extra long hours in order to avoid going home. And when I wasn’t working, I found other reasons to stay on campus. 

But, I’ve since learned that you have to take some time for you, and establish a you that is not tied to your institution.

9. Never stop learning and never compare your pathway to anyone else’s

The longer you are in the field, the more this remains true.

In order to be a good resource for yourself, your community, and your institution, you have to commit to continual learning. Professional rust can be a real thing, so stay sharp. 

Different roles you play will utilize different skill sets. It’s like learning a new language; the more you use it, the sharper you get. The less you use the skill, the easier it is to allow it to lapse. 

Different roles require different skills. As you continue along your professional journey, be mindful of which skills you are using and which you are not. 

And remember: We are all different. Our pathways and career experiences are, too. It’s human nature for us to compare ourselves against each other, but you can’t. The only thing that this does, ultimately, is inhibit your mental health. 

So, enjoy your relationships. Enjoy the ride. Learn, and pay it forward. 

What are some lessons you wish you learned in grad school? Let us know on Twitter @HelloPresence and @dbubrig.

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Denny Bubrig

About the author: Denny Bubrig is a graduate of the University of Mississippi and the University of Alabama. He serves as the Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs at the University of Southern Mississippi, and enjoys playing softball and flag football, exploring the outdoors, and entertaining his kids. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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