Motivations and Factors of Student Affairs Professionals Who Transition into Academic Affairs | Quincy Martin III, Ed.D.

written by: Quincy Martin III, Ed.D.


Approximately 50-60% of student affairs professionals exit the field within the first five years (Marshall et al., 2016). Existing research suggests that the job attrition results from dissatisfaction with the student affairs career, which may reduce effectiveness and job productivity.  While it is unclear what percentage of the student affairs professionals proceed to become faculty members, many former student affairs employees view academic affairs as an opportunity for work fulfillment and meaningfulness. Frank (2013) noted that academic affairs affords autonomy and provides an opportunity to work regular working hours, unlike the nontraditional work schedule of student affairs. However, the literature has scarcely explored student affairs practitioners’ motivations of and experiences with the transition into academic affairs. This paper will focus on the motivations of student affairs professionals to transition to academic affairs and factors to consider in the transition decision-making process.

Motivations to Transition from Student Affairs to Academic Affairs

Scholars have not reached a consensus on factors that motivate student affairs professionals to proceed to faculty jobs. However, LaRocco and Bruns (2006), using their personal experiences, suggested the goal to prepare and inspire the next generation of professors often motivate student affairs professionals to take up faculty jobs. Thus, a desire for educating and guiding student affairs professionals is motivation for some to make the transition. However, there are other personal motivations for the career change by student affairs practitioners to seek academic posts. Austin (2010) reported enhancing knowledge, conducting research, and obtaining a new meaning in work as intrinsic reasons for making the transition. The study concluded that student affairs professionals desired to engage in work that positively and directly impacted the students with whom they had formed relationships or come into contact during their work in student affairs.

Beyond personal reasons, workplace politics and culture have been major motivations for student affairs professionals to shift to faculty. Hernandez (2018) noted that the higher education environment harnesses a culture where student affairs “do not have the same rights and privileges as their teaching colleagues” (p. 42). This culture often leaves student affairs professionals feeling they are inferior, and their work is not acknowledged compared to that of academic affairs. Some studies have asserted that academic affairs work is given higher priority and placed on a higher pedestal, making student affairs professionals feel like ‘second-class citizens’ (Hernandez, 2018; Rivers, 2017).  Such a culture in higher education directly impacts the driving force on why student affairs practitioners function and behave as they do, which may lead to hurting their intrinsic motivation for work.

Self-determination theory suggests that lack of acknowledgment and recognition have detrimental impacts on personal motivation. The literature suggests that workers who feel valued and engaged by their employers have a stronger sense of connection to their work than those who do not (Deci et al., 2001). Accordingly, student affairs professionals are more likely to move into academic affairs where they feel valued and recognized for their work.

Student affairs professionals may also move to academic affairs to have more work flexibility and achieve work-life balance. While literature does not directly link academic affairs with work flexibility, studies have found student affairs employees are more likely to work overtime and on weekends (Frank, 2013; Rivers, 2017). Thus, it is not surprising that student affairs practitioners transition to the faculty in the hopes of working less on nights, holidays, and weekends.

In addition to achieving an ideal work-life balance, the search for autonomy and work independence is a core motivator for student affairs professionals to move to academic affairs. The graduate students in student affairs programs learn to be part of a larger community of professionals inside and outside the classroom. As such, the decisions and activities involving student affairs are collectively made, thus lacking autonomy and independence. Contrarily, faculty communities are characterized by collegiality-focused cultures of autonomy, which allows them innovation and career growth (Boettcher et al., 2019). Thus, student affairs practitioners are likely to be attracted to the advantage of autonomy in academic affairs as a means of advancing their careers.

Factors to Consider for Student Affairs Professionals During the Transition

While the academic affairs profession has numerous benefits, including recognition, work flexibility, work-life balance, and autonomy, student affairs practitioners have to consider numerous factors in the transition decision-making process. This is because factors such as differences in professional culture and psychological preparedness can detrimentally affect their new roles and job performance as faculty. Anderson et al., (2012) described individual, social support, situation, and strategies factors that student affairs practitioners need to assess prior to their transition into academic affairs.

Individual Factors

The individual factors refer to demographic characteristics and psychological resources a student affairs professional needs to transition to academic affairs. Kniess (2019) noted demographic aspects of an individual such as age, socioeconomic status, health, and culture significantly affect individuals who want to transition to the academic profession. For instance, many institutions of higher education require at least a doctorate and published work to join academia. Student affairs professionals must consider their socioeconomic power to return to school and engage in intensive research projects. This psychological aspect is one’s ability to respond to a new working environment and perspectives.

In particular, one has to ensure they are psychologically prepared to adapt to the new working conditions in academic affairs. Boettcher, et al., (2019) found that student affairs professionals transitioning to academic affairs experienced a loss of community culture, isolation, loss of leadership and guidance, and collective goals. Therefore, the cultural shift can be mentally detrimental for the student affairs profession and, hence, is a core factor to consider during the decision-making process.

Social Support

Due to the psychological effects of a career change and the demanding role of faculty, it is important to consider a team of academic professionals, colleagues, friends, and relatives to support through the transition period. Mentors and current faculty provide information about academic work and work culture, while family and relatives provide reinforcement (Anderson et al., 2012). Moreover, some student affairs professionals may not have started nor completed their doctoral studies. Therefore, partnering with current faculty allows student affairs professionals to develop research skills and research agendas and increase publishing opportunities. Scholars suggest a network of professionals before the transition to academic affairs (Hernandez, 2018; Kniess, 2019; Martin, 2020).

Additionally, Haviland et al. (2017) recommended conducting due diligence on available institutional support networks in the target institution. Colleges and universities often offer various career support for faculty, including workshops for teaching philosophies, syllabus development, assessment management, and grants. Therefore, it is critical for student affairs professionals to consider mentorship and general social support as a core factor during their transition into academic affairs.

Situation Factors

LaRocco and Bruns (2006) identified eight situation factors that student affairs professionals need to consider during the transition, including the role change, timing, duration, previous experience, associated stress, and trigger. Role change for student affairs professionals is the shift from administrators to scholars. Boettcher et al., (2019) differentiated the roles and expectations of student affairs and academic affairs professionals (Table 1) and found that these differences can be unclear and challenges for the new hires as they shift to their new roles and cultures at the same time.

Table 1: Academic Affairs and Student Affairs Role and Cultural Factors

  Academic affairs Student affairs
Main role Scholar Administrator
Mindsets Self-Focused & Autonomy Oriented Learner-Centered & Community-Oriented
  Work Relationships Collegial Collaborative
Work Style Individuals working toward individual goals Individuals working toward collective goals
Measures of Success / Achievement Tenure & Promotion, Teaching Evaluation by Supervisor


Due to the change of role and career, student affairs professionals should consider the duration of transition to academic affairs. Depending on the nature of one’s faculty position, some transitions may take months, while others may take years. For instance, Kniess (2019) noted that clinical faculty often take longer to transition than adjunct and tenure track faculty. Other associated stress that comes with the transition can also affect the smooth transition to the new faculty role and job performance. For instance, student affairs professionals may need to complete a doctoral degree before assuming the new role or discover a new home for institution accessibility. Other concurrent stressors may include arranging and managing home-life responsibilities. Therefore, it is critical to find support during the decision-making process to ensure the right decision is enacted and the aforementioned situations do not affect the successful transition.


Strategies to manage the transition include seeking information before, during, and after the transition. Kniess (2019) described two types of strategies that student affairs professionals can use for effective transition, including preparation and seeking information on various types of faculty roles. Preparation is the most important factor to consider during the transition as it entails seeking understanding into faculty life before pursuing a career in academic affairs. Kniess et al. (2017) and Martin (2020) recommended seeking information such as faculty culture, development of teaching philosophy, and research topics for publications.

As much as general faculty culture is important, different faculty roles have specific cultures and requirements. Student affairs practitioners need to factor in which faculty position best suits their long-term interest – adjunct faculty, visiting faculty, tenure-track faculty, or clinical faculty. Kniess (2019) suggested that aspiring faculty should seek information about retention, promotion requirements, milestones, and expectations of each faculty type before deciding to transition from student affairs into academia.

Implications for Practice and Future Research

Making a change from student affairs into academic affairs requires careful consideration of holistic factors that may affect one’s ability to transition into the new role successfully and overall job performance. Student affairs professionals are motivated to pursue a career in academic affairs for a variety of reasons, and how well they transition into academia is essential to their long-term success. Whether an individual decides to pursue a career as adjunct, visiting, tenure-track, or clinical faculty member, factors such as individual socioeconomic power and psychological preparedness, the existence of a strong support system, and available institutional support networks come into play. Simultaneously, situations such as role and cultural changes, transition duration, and other concurrent stressors can affect individuals and should be taken into careful consideration before making a final transition decision.

Implications for Practice

Extant research urges student affairs leadership to invest in their employees’ satisfaction and motivation. These efforts may lead to maximization of employee tenure which, in turn, result in stronger support for departmental missions, goals, and objectives of student affairs units. Consequently, the high attrition rate of student affairs professionals indicates a disconnect between what it means to work in student affairs and the experiences encountered in the field. Although this paper touches on some of the causes of dissatisfaction for some student affairs professionals (e.g. lack of opportunities to guide and create the next generation of practitioners, lack of work-life balance, lack of recognition, absence of work autonomy, and work inflexibility), it also suggests there is a need for mentorship relationships between student affairs and academic affairs to ensure student affairs professionals transition with practical information about academia.

The findings from this paper may assist academic affairs professionals to understand their roles in facilitating successful onboarding experiences for student affairs professionals, as faculty are important in the transition as mentors and career guides. Moreover, student affairs administrators and graduate students may gain helpful guidance to decide whether to or not to shift into academic roles. In addition, this paper may assist institutions of higher education in creating support systems for student affairs practitioners who transition to academic affairs through career development workshops, guidance on psychological preparedness and training, and various other opportunities that provide support to new faculty.

Implications for Future Research

Given the findings on student affairs practitioners who have made the transition to academic affairs, it remains unclear if the work environment of academic affairs meets the work-related goals and needs of student affairs professionals who have made the transition. It is also unclear why some student affairs professionals may choose to return after transitioning and what factors would motivate such a decision. The current research opens opportunities to further explore the reverse transition process and whether student affairs professionals find new rejuvenation and work excitement they desire in academic affairs. The findings will help both graduate students and student affairs professionals to make informed decisions before transitioning.


In summary, the job attrition among student affairs professionals is largely motivated by dissatisfaction with their work environment. Most of the practitioners transition to academic affairs in search for acknowledgement and recognition, work flexibility, work-life balance, autonomy and work independence. Although, the motivations typically go beyond an unsatisfactory working environment. For instance, some student affairs professionals have intrinsic motivations to prepare and mentor the next generation of practitioners, enhance individual knowledge, conduct research, or to obtain new meaning in work in an academic context. Accordingly, existing research reveals that a decision to transition from student affairs to academic affairs requires serious consideration. Since issues related to job satisfaction and work environment extend to academic affairs, it is imperative to take inventory of factors that will facilitate a smooth transition. Support systems and mentorship programs within and outside of academia, including existing faculty, are vital during the transition. Equally, individual and situational factors such as mental readiness, socioeconomic status, timing, and fit are essential elements to further consider.

Reflective Prompts

The motivations and factors for student affairs professionals who transition into academic affairs presented in this paper unveil challenges and opportunities about the work environment that should be addressed. It requires supervisors, graduate students, and new professionals in student affairs to ask themselves the following questions:

  • Supervisors: What can I do to ensure work satisfaction among student affairs employees? What practices in the institution can eliminate inequality between academic affairs and student affairs? What are the qualities of a good work environment that can help avoid considerable job attrition in student affairs? What can I do to support the professional growth and development of student affairs professionals who desire to transition into academic affairs?
  • Graduate students and new professionals: What are my long term professional and personal goals regarding student affairs or academic affairs? Does or will my current position meet those goals? Are the reasons for transition into academic affairs valid or can I influence the current student affairs culture to meet my needs? What essential skills or competencies do I need in order to have a smooth transition into academic affairs? Do I need mentoring, and how do I access mentorship opportunities as a new professional in academic affairs? How do I continue to develop professionally after joining academic affairs? What institutional resources are available to support academic professionals?


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