Meeting in the Middle: Faculty Perspectives on the State of Graduate Preparation and Entry to the Profession | Harrington & Wilson

written by: Mark Harrington & Amy Wilson

Context of Problem

As student affairs faculty members we have connected as colleagues in locally adjacent student affairs professional preparation program to collaborate in a variety of ways. Recently, our conversations have been centered around the pervasive dissatisfaction that is seemingly consuming our recent graduates and the supervisors of these new professionals. What have previously been identified as simple generational differences in the workforce, has seemingly burgeoned in some cases into philosophical differences with practitioners and students questioning of each other’s values, priorities, intentions, and actions. As faculty in the middle of this dynamic, preparing the next generation of student affairs professionals, we feel the tension. We hear and see the concerns from both sides.

A recent study on the state of the profession asserts that more than ever, professionals in student affairs want to feel valued, properly compensated for their education and experience, and do not want to be burnt out by unrealistic performance expectations in the first five years of their career (NASPA, 2022). Newer professionals have also expressed their desire post-COVID to reconstruct professionalism in student affairs in such a way that deconstructs professional boundaries, values flexibility, allows individuals to show up authentically, and challenges norms of appearance (Diaz et al., 2021). In looking at traditional aged graduate students representing Generation Z, research suggests flexible work, liking their co-workers and boss, being able to bring their authentic self to work, and having a clear path for advancement are factors that may influence their retention in work (Center for Generational Kinetics, 2022).

These thoughts, beliefs, and ideologies are no doubt factors in both the attrition of new professionals and what has been referred to as “quiet quitting” – people who are not engaged, do the minimum required, and are psychologically detached from the job (Harter, 2022). This downward spiral of dissatisfaction and disengagement has implications for the individual and the organization as dissatisfied employees are less likely to engage in organizational citizenship behaviors or voluntary activities (de Clercq & Belausteguigoitia, 2020). Furthermore, within the field of student affairs, dissatisfied newer professionals (5 years or less of experience) are exiting the field at a higher rate than their more seasoned colleagues (Sallee, 2021).  This larger attrition phenom has been referred to as the “Great Realignment” (Center for Generational Kinetics, 2022), a reframe of the “Great Resignation,” which seeks to shed positive light on the factors that drive Generation Z employee retention: having a flexible schedule, liking their boss, and feeling like they can bring their authentic self to work.

Then there is the supervisor perspective. Senior student affairs officers (SSAOs) have suggested new professionals struggle to understand the difference between ideal and reality, implicating professional preparation and socialization (Ardoin et al., 2019). A SSAO referred to new professional’s unrealistic expectations as “graduate school syndrome” referencing the frustration of new professionals when their professional experience and reality do not match the best practice scenarios they talked about in graduate school, giving off the appearance of rigidity or general unpreparedness (Ardoin et al., 2019). Similarly, this same research suggested SSAOs believe new professionals are seemingly unprepared for the realities of entry into the profession and advancement, particularly as they relate to salary expectations, navigating the political terrain of higher education, and performing professionalism.

Expectations of a New Generation

More generalized research on the challenges in supervising Generation Z employees revolves around a perceived difference in work values including work-life balance, a sense of meaning at work, and opportunities for growth and innovation. Research suggests this generation desires greater work-life balance, which may result in more established boundaries around work and desire for greater work flexibility. These aspirations may be leading others to erroneously view new professionals as lacking a strong work ethic. For example, a recent study that was conducted by 4 Day Week Global found that organizations who move to a four-day, 32-hour work week have positive impacts for both the employer and the employee. For the organization, the pace of production increased and on average revenue was up by 8.1%. For employees, anxiety, burnout, and stress decreased while job satisfaction, well-being, and work-life balance levels increased (4 Day Work Week Global). Being open to innovative ideas like these would be fruitful for the higher education workplace.

Additionally, research suggests that it is important for Generation Z to find meaning in their work and seek an entrepreneurial workplace environment (Chillakuri & Mahanandia, 2018). If this is lacking, Generation Z is likely to leave the organization. While some may view this behavior as simply jumping around or younger staff lacking commitment, this generation is asserting their values and their worth are more meaningful than loyalty to an organization or industry.

Moving Forward

What transpires from these divergent and opposing values is the persistent attrition of new professionals from the field of student affairs and faculty questioning how to help address the problem. How do we recruit individuals to a field that is perceived as misaligned with their work values? How do we prepare new professionals to be change agents when higher education is known to be slow to change? How do we prepare new professionals to be enthusiastic and committed to values of diversity and inclusion, when they are met with work environments that ask them to conform to outdated standards and constructs of professionalism?

While we felt it important to share what we see as the context of the problem from our viewpoint, more importantly, we want to be part of the solution moving forward. The profession of student affairs is at a critical juncture. It is our assertion that there is no single answer to this burgeoning problem; rather it is going to take collective and innovative ideas from everyone in the field to change the discourse from negative to positive. Based upon research and personal observation and reflection, what follows are considerations for how graduate preparation faculty, supervisors of emerging professionals, and senior student affairs officers can work together to create a more seamless and successful transition to the field.

The Role of Professional Preparation Programs

It is critical that faculty in graduate preparation programs help students understand the current realities of the field of student affairs. This includes preparing graduate students to become entry-level student affairs educators and teaching critical skills to ensure success when students transition into the workplace. In introductory courses, a student learning outcome should include an exploration and understanding of the roles and responsibilities that successful candidates could assume as new and early career professionals and the anticipated compensation packages. Additionally, graduate students should understand the multiple and alternative pathways for career advancement, given the value of these factors for Generation Z (Center for Generational Kinetics, 2022). Additionally, we suggest introductory courses emphasize discourse around institutional and organizational culture, so students begin to consider what might be a best fit to facilitate their personal mission alignment (Hirt, 2006). This current generation of young professionals is seeking a balance of meaning making and stability in their work. Institutions that not only promote these values, but demonstrate them in practice will be most successful in attracting top talent.

In addition to knowledge of traditional theoretical frameworks which develop understanding of student diversity, graduate preparation curricula should integrate soft and hard skills that are needed to be successful in the field. Hard skills include systems thinking, strategic planning and budgeting, assessment and evaluation, which inform a broader understanding of institutions as complex and dynamic organizations. Soft skills include navigating higher education politics and crisis, engaging effectively in campus collaboration, and becoming an effective supervisor.

Effective supervision is consistently identified both as a factor in staff retention and as something in which one is rarely formally trained.  Given these opposing notions, graduate programs should critically evaluate curriculum to ensure supervision is consistently interrogated in the classroom and through reflection on supervised experiences. Theory to practice pedagogy should inform understanding of supervision as much as it is emphasized in understanding student development. Faculty should collaborate with graduate assistant and internship supervisors to ensure proper supervision has been defined and is consistently operationalized through supervised practice experiences. These direct supervisory experiences in graduate programs are often where supervision is first learned (Holmes, 2014). Graduate assistant and internship supervisors should understand their critical role in shaping supervisory practice for the field, identifying the development of supervision skills as a standard learning outcome across all experiences, as it is the foundation of one’s professional experience.

The Role of Supervisors

Supervisors of new professionals are undoubtedly one of the most important variables in the successful transition and retention of new professionals. The challenge in our traditional hierarchy of career development and advancement is that those supervising new professionals generally have the least amount of supervision experience. Therefore, we should be intentionally invested in the development of supervisory skills beyond graduate preparation and into the first few years of professional experience. Supervisors of new professionals should consider their own training and preparation for effective supervision and prioritize this responsibility. Supervision is a skill that evolves based on scope, responsibilities, and level of supervision. Therefore, a new professional who supervised resident assistants in graduate school may need additional guidance in transitioning to the supervision of graduate students or full-time staff.

Intentional, effective, and inclusive supervision will look different at various levels, but it is still necessary at all levels (Wilson et al., 2020). Inclusive supervision and understanding the unique needs of each supervisee should mirror how we interact and work with students. In this way, supervisors who emphasize holistic development of their staff are modeling principles of inclusive supervision, which may further facilitate the development of a safe space where new professionals feel their voice is value and their individuality is acknowledged (Wilson et al., 2020). Supervisors uniquely shape the environment and experience for new professionals.

Hiring and Onboarding

Supervisors of new professionals should be equally intentional about their role as a hiring manager, and create the type of job search process, onboarding, and training for their new supervisees, that they needed or wish they had been given. In an effort to conduct a successful search, supervisors should be transparent and clearly articulate to potential candidates the institutional mission, position responsibilities, office culture, work flexibility, compensation package and benefits, as well as your expectations/style of supervision. This involves sharing opportunities for professional development and growth within the organization and the broader community to allow candidates to see themselves connecting, developing, and advancing within both.

The notion that geographic mobility is needed for advancement is a widely held belief in the profession and is often reinforced through socialization practices (i.e. career advice, graduate school preparation, national job placement conferences). These norms may be limiting to women and people of color, who may be geographically bound based on personal situations and personal values (Kodama et al., 2021; Rhoades et al., 2008). Career advancement and development should be intentionally discussed apart from “moving out and up” as a way of engaging new professionals in meaningful work and reinforcing a commitment to their professional identity (Kodama et al., 2021; Wilson, et al., 2016). Facilitating a successful search is predicated on one’s ability to recruit a diverse pool of candidates and hiring someone who can be their best self within your department. Helping candidates see their potential for success and growth through a connection to the work, the surrounding community and the institution may ensure a successful search.

A successful search process can be quickly tainted by an ill planned onboarding process, particularly for new professionals. There is often an assumption that recent graduates should be equipped to navigate a new office transition with little guidance or support and that once you have the credentials of a graduate degree, your professional preparation and training also ceases. However, never has this been more untrue. The pandemic and the lack of engagement in official office settings has created disparity in experience that has not only challenged traditional knowledge of office culture and basic practice, but has also created some resistance to traditional norms of office culture. We recommend the hiring supervisors create an onboarding schedule to assist new employees with the transition to their role, the office, and the institution. Onboarding begins at the time an offer is made and extends through a new professional’s transition. This does not occur in a morning, a day or a week. Onboarding should involve regular, ongoing feedback about job performance and opportunities for growth, emphasizing the requisite coaching and mentoring involved in supervising new professionals (Green & Davis, 2021).

During the onboarding phase, supervisors should intentionally connect new staff with campus partners and facilitate their understanding of the history of the institution, campus governance and campus culture. Conversations about culture should help new professionals navigate professionalism within that space. How is it defined?

New student affairs professionals post-COVID are looking for professional environments not only where there is greater flexibility in when and where work happens, but they are also looking to deconstruct traditional professional boundaries and notions of professional dress in an effort to facilitate greater authenticity in the workplace (Diaz et al., 2021). Largely, emerging professionals are looking for campus environments where they can show up to work as their authentic selves and feel a sense of belonging and appreciation (Reece et al., 2021). First impressions about authenticity and sense of belonging are quickly formed in the job search process and continue to develop through one’s onboarding. Perez and Haley (2021) refer to this time with new professionals as re-socialization, which can be positively and negatively shaped by supervisor practice, leading new professionals to re-evaluate their commitment to a job and the field.

The Role of Senior Leaders

Finally, as staff advance in their careers and take on greater supervision responsibility, they should reflect on whether they are curators of established culture or co-creators of a new emerging culture. Do they seek to preserve what once was or do they seek to innovate, expand, and create? Senior leadership, role modeling and intentionality of practice is equally important in helping bridge this gap, enhance retention, and change the narrative about a career in student affairs. As individuals who are in positions of power in developing culture and creating expectations, senior leaders must be re-thinking their own leadership and professional practices to re-imagine and respond to a rapidly changing field.

Evaluate hiring practices, including intentional and unintentional messaging, and department culture. In what ways are new professionals invited to be part of co-creating a new culture of student affairs on campus? How are supervisors prepared to supervise new professionals? In what ways is professional development provided and are there pathways for advancement? Are senior leaders serving as an example of intentional and sustainable practice? Critical attention to the culture of student affairs work on campus is needed. How can senior leaders provide the support and recognition that is needed to ensure the success and sustainability of their staff? How can a culture of student affairs be developed  that centers wellbeing for staff, as well as students? And finally, how can senior leaders help staff create more meaning through their work?


As faculty, it is our responsibility to prepare graduate students for the new realities of a career in higher education and student affairs administration, serving as a bridge to the profession. We certainly have a unique view from the bridge and understand the concerns on both sides, which often leaves us feeling a lot like middle management…preparing front line staff and communicating expectations from the top. The tension between both sides has been growing and resistance to change on either side only serves to widen the gap and create greater instability in the profession.

Our call to action here is to open the door for conversation on your campus as you consider the state of the profession.

For faculty and professional preparation programs:

  • How are you collaborating with your division of student affairs and supervisors to intentionally prepare this new generation of professionals?

For those supervising new professionals:

  • How are you intentionally supporting new professionals through the transition from graduate school and developing positive supervisory relationships?
  • What is happening at the individual, departmental, and divisional levels that may be perpetuating the negative discourse and the attrition of new professionals?
  • Where might you lean a bit more toward the middle as it pertains to new professional concerns and their hopes for establishing a career in student affairs?

Through this reframe of dialogue, we hope to re-establish a career in student affairs as one of great significance and opportunity, restoring a collaborative commitment to transforming lives through higher education. Professional preparation and the success of new professionals is a keystone in the sustainability of the profession. We are at a critical juncture in our professional history, which requires a collective effort in building a strong and sturdy bridge from graduate preparation to successful new professional.


American College Personnel Association & National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. (2015). ACPA/NASPA professional competency areas for student affairs educators. Washington, DC: Authors.

ACPA (2022). Report on 21st century employment in higher education. American College Personnel Association.

Ardoin, S., Crandall, R. E., & Shinn, J. (2019). Senior student affairs officers’ perspectives on professional preparation in student affairs programs. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 56(4), 379-393.

Chillakuri, B., & Mahanandia, R. (2018). Generation Z entering the workforce: The need for sustainable strategies in maximizing their talent. Human Resource Management International Digest, 26(4), 34-38. doi:

De Clercq, D., & Belausteguigoitia, I. (2020). Disappointed but still dedicated: when and why career dissatisfied employees might still go beyond the call of duty. Personnel Review.

Díaz, H., Wilson, A. & Brown, L. (2021). Reconstructing professionalism post-COVID: New professional’s hope for the future of student affairs. 18(4). ACPA Developments.

Green, M. V., & Davis, T. J. (2021). A student affairs imperative: Articulating and mitigating supervisory tensions. New Directions for Student Services, 2021, 41– 51.

Harter, J. (2022, September 6). Is quiet quitting real? Gallup.

Hirt, J. B. (2006). Where you work matters: Student affairs administration at different types of institutions. University Press of America.

Holmes, A. C. (2014). Experiences of supervision skill development among new professionals in student affairs (Doctoral dissertation, Iowa State University).

Kodama, C. M., Narui, M., & Walterbusch, T. (2021). “Just over here floating around”: Geographically bound professionals in student affairs. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice58(5), 532-545.

NASPA (2022). The compass report: Charting the future of student affairs. NASPA Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

Reece, B. J., DeVore, E. N., Porcaro, G., & Tran, V. T. (2021). From fit to belonging: New dialogues on the student affairs job search In Reece, B. J., DeVore, E. N., Porcaro, G., & Tran, V. T. (Eds.). Debunking the myth of job fit in higher education and student affairs. (pp. 1 – 18) Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Rhoades, G., Kiyama, J. M., McCormick, R., & Quiroz, M. (2008). Local cosmopolitans and cosmopolitan locals: New models of professionals in the academy. The review of higher education31(2), 209-235.

Schor, Juliet B., Wen Fan, Orla Kelly, Guolin Gu, Tatiana Bezdenezhnykh, Niamh Bridson-Hubbard, 2022, “The Four Day Week: Assessing Global Trials of Reduced Work Time with No Reduction in Pay,” Four Day Week Global, Auckland, NZ.

The Center for Generational Kinetics. (2022). Gen Z as employees and workforce trendsetters: Understanding, recruiting, retaining, and developing Gen Z at work. The Center for Generational Kinetics.

Wilson, A. B., McCallum, C. M., & Shupp, M. R. (2020). Inclusive supervision in student affairs: A model for professional practice. Routledge.

Wilson, M.E., Liddell, D.L., Hirschy, A.S., & Pasquesi, K. (2016). Professional identity, career commitment, and career entrenchment of midlevel student affairs professionals. Journal of College Student Development, 57(5), 557-572. doi:10.1353/csd.2016.0059.

About the Author

Mark Harrington (he/him) is a faculty-administrator at Canisius University where he serves as Assistant Professor and Director of the Higher Education and Student Affairs Administration program as well as AVP for Student Success. Prior to his current appointment in 2018, Mark served as a higher education and student affairs practitioner for 10 years.

Amy Wilson (she/her) is an Associate Professor and current Chair of the Higher Education Administration department at SUNY Buffalo State University. Amy has served in a faculty role for 10 years and previously as a practitioner in the areas of student leadership, student engagement, and residence life.