Reflections on Career Change – An Autobiographical Case Study | Grites

written by: Tom Grites

Dr. Quincy Martin’s article in the last issue of Developments (March 2021) resonated so clearly with me that I wanted to share my own rather unconventional path in comparison to the one that he described. Since I have been a member of ACPA for over 50 years and was more actively engaged in it early in my career, I thought it would be good to share the experiences that enabled the transition I made from Student Affairs to Academic Affairs. First, allow me to share my experiences with our organization.

ACPA Experiences

The Dean of Students at Illinois State University (then Illinois State Normal University), Dr. Richard Hulet, was the person who first talked to me about the possibility of a career in student affairs. While the seed was planted, it did not begin to take root until two or three years later when I was asked by a faculty member from ISNU that I had for a class to volunteer to assist him as an exhibitor at the American Personnel and Guidance Association (APGA) Convention in Detroit in 1968. Dr. David Livers knew I had opted to start my career at Eastern Michigan University, just outside Detroit as a Head Resident Advisor. It was then that I learned of ACPA as the higher ed and student affairs “arm” of APGA.

Once I got to the University of Maryland and started my Ph.D. program in 1969, I learned more about ACPA and within a few years was elected Chair of what was then Commission I Organization, Administration, and Development of Student Personnel Services, reporting to Susan (Bowling) Komives, the VP for Commissions. I was simultaneously serving as the second President of the brand new National Academic Advising Association (NACADA). From that point I have dedicated my professional efforts to NACADA, but I have maintained continuous membership and investment in ACPA.

I published my first article in the NASPA Journal (1977) and several early ones in the Journal of College Student Personnel. NACADA’s journal was not yet in publication. During my ACPA experiences I became acquainted with Ted Miller, Roger Winston and Steve and Ken Ender. I also met Burns Crookston (while I was writing my dissertation) and Terry O’Banion, whose 1972 articles form the foundation of the developmental academic advising concept that is still practiced and after which many programs are modeled today. Ted, Roger, Steve, and I subsequently co-authored the highly-cited and often-quoted book on Developmental Academic Advising (1984).

Furthermore, while at Maryland both Lee Knefelkamp and Nancy Schlossberg joined the CAPS faculty, and Susan Komives later became the Department Chair. They have been instrumental in developing the field of student affairs, in engaging with ACPA, and I am fortunate to have maintained contact with all of them throughout my career. Summarily, my ACPA roots are deep, and they bloom every year via my consistent membership. I was inspired by ACPA as an organization and helped develop the organizational structure for NACADA along the lines of what I learned from being involved in ACPA.

As I read Martin’s article, I kept thinking “That was me” or “That could have been me.” For example, I did not recognize the motivations he describes, such as a faculty position, lack of recognition for the work done in student affairs, flexibility, autonomy, and work independence, until after I made the transition. My motivations were different, as described in the “story” below.

The factors he describes were also somewhat different for me. Whereas his article focused on individual factors and social support factors to be examined prior to making a decision to transition from student affairs (e.g., socioeconomic status, psychological preparedness, culture isolation, and metrics for success), my experiences in academic affairs took place after I had already made the transition. For example, I was already in the second year of coursework in my doctoral program; I was learning the value of research skills and publishing; and I was developing ideas for the latter as I gained more experience in my first job in academic affairs. I also realized from my four years of experience in student affairs (then housing, now residence life) that I wanted to remain in an administrative role, rather than move to that of a tenure-track faculty member. However, I did teach a course as part of my doctoral internship and have loved teaching one course each semester at Stockton University as an adjunct.

Lastly, I fully agree with Martin’s implications for practice and future research. He recommends a “careful consideration of holistic factors” with an opportunity to enable stronger student affairs and academic affairs relationships when making this transition. Additionally, I concur with his conclusion that those who are contemplating a change from practitioner to faculty “take inventory of factors that will facilitate a smooth transition.” I would have benefitted from his insights earlier in my career as I learned in reflecting on my own story as described below.

My Career Story

As we approach the 100th anniversary of ACPA and engage in reflection, I find myself reflecting on my own experiences during almost exactly half that time. Just as I think my career path exemplifies a story worth telling, I would encourage others to share their experiences – whether you have been working in Student Affairs for a year, ten years, or decades. Let me begin with my decision about where to attend college.

Phase 1

In mid-August of the summer following my graduation from high school in Danville, IL in 1962, I was sitting in the local pizza hangout with some of my high school friends. We were discussing our college plans, although mine were still uncertain at the time. I was a pretty good athlete in high school (football and track – sprints) and had opportunities to attend several colleges on partial scholarships. I was a first-generation college student and had little guidance in how to go about making that decision about higher education.

As we were chatting, another friend came in, along with a family friend of his who was passing through the area on his way to California. When I mentioned the Colorado School of Mines as a possible school I would attend, he offered to give me free transportation there so that he would have some company for the next 1,000 miles of his journey. I agreed, and that was how I decided where to attend college, at least for the first year.

I was now going to become an engineer – although I had absolutely no idea what that meant at the time. My father thought it seemed like a good idea, since I had excelled in math in high school, and he had some acquaintances who were engineers. He was a tradesman (glazier) and often had to speak with construction officials (engineers). My future seemed to be falling into place.

Phase 2:

My first year at Mines opened my eyes to real academic competition – the first time I had ever really experienced any such challenges. They really did tell us the “look to your left; look to your right” story – the one where two out of three of us would not make it through the program – at my orientation in September of 1962. I am still today counted in the attrition statistics at the Colorado School of Mines. I left Mines after my first year, barely escaping with a 2.01 GPA, but still doing well in math (and the one English course we had to take). Chemistry, Physics, Engineering Drawing, Geology – not so well.

Upon my return to Danville, I was now faced without the scholarship. We had no college savings, so I sought summer employment, but I did not earn enough to be able to return to Colorado or even to transfer anywhere. Very near the end of August (1963) I was offered a job as a brakeman on a railroad, which was one of the better paying jobs in the area at that time, so I took it and became a college stop-out.

I worked until December when I was placed on leave because the freight business was not as busy in the winter. During this time, I had already applied to transfer to Illinois State (then Normal) University for the Fall Term of 1964, and I had researched the scholarship program that provided two scholarships to every high school in the state for students who would follow a teacher education program. I had always thought about being a math teacher – at least I knew what that was. I was awarded one of the scholarships that was returned by a student who had “attritted” from another school. Rather than wait until the fall, I requested admission for the spring and was permitted to enroll. I now became a math major and English minor.

In my first English class I was faced with a new way of studying literature. Honestly, I could not take the criticism of my opinions, so I changed my minor to Physical Education. I always knew I wanted to coach as well as teach, so it made perfect sense.

I returned to work on the railroad the next summer and earned money which enabled me to return to ISU. That decision to return to school, however, was solidified when I accidentally overturned a boxcar load of soya beans because I was not being fully attentive to my work. Yes, picture it – several tons of soya beans strewn all over the tracks and roadside, not to mention the overturned boxcar that was now blocking all passenger rail traffic for two days. I knew it was time to get back to college as quickly as possible. I did, and also enrolled the next two years in summer school and graduated “on time” in June 1966, fully certified to teach high school math and physical education. I was ready for my career to begin…or was I?

Phase 3:

While doing my student teaching in math, I tutored and worked with students individually after school. I learned that I also enjoyed the individual work, so I thought it might be fun to be a guidance counselor. Why not? I could stay at ISU another year – a place I very much enjoyed, and I could earn my master’s degree. Now, picture this – a first-generation student going to graduate school. By this time I knew a little bit more about higher education, but I had to explain to my parents why I was still going to be in college for another year.

Through a series of events, I was admitted that summer to the graduate program and awarded an assistantship in general psychology with the same instructor with whom I had taken my only undergraduate psychology course. Plus, the assistantship was going to pay for everything AND provide a stipend (I did not know what that word meant at the time). I held review sessions, barely staying a chapter ahead of the students, graded papers, and even taught the course several times due to the instructor’s illness. What I quickly learned from this experience career-wise was that I enjoyed working with college students even more than I did high school students. So, what to do next?

I really did not know how to approach a job search, so I turned to something familiar. I felt I could be an asset to my high school if I could return there to teach, coach, and counsel. I inquired about the possibility and they liked the idea and offered a contract to me. However, a few months earlier I had seen a flyer in the Guidance Department office that described residence hall positions at Eastern Michigan University. I had sent an application there – even though I had never lived in a residence hall. As I waited for my teaching contract, I visited Eastern and was offered a position. Here was my opportunity to work with college students, so I took that position instead. Thus began my unintended higher education career.

Phase 4:

While working for two years at Eastern I realized how the world of student affairs in higher education worked and that I had found a niche. I also discovered that I needed to pursue a doctoral degree in order to advance in this profession. As a result, I began exploring these programs, but knew that I had to work full-time to be able to afford further education.

I was fortunate to be offered two residence hall positions where I could simultaneously pursue a doctoral program. The combination of the degree program I wanted (College Student Personnel Administration) and a full-time position offer (Assistant Director of Housing) at the University of Maryland College Park seemed to fit, so I accepted both. I was on my way to a career as a future Dean of Students or Vice President for Student Affairs…  so, I thought.

During my (only) year in residence halls at UMCP I became aware of the first Director of Housing position at a new branch campus – the University of Maryland at Baltimore County (UMBC). I applied and was hired. Of course, this meant commuting back to College Park for graduate courses, but I was ready to do that. However, certain personnel decisions on the UMBC campus frustrated me, so I considered going to school full-time in order to complete my degree sooner and move on.

I consulted with the Dean of Graduate Studies in the College of Education about graduate assistantships (since I now knew what benefits were associated with them). She had also been one of my instructors in the doctoral program, but she had to inform me that all assistantships had been awarded. However, she noted that the Dean’s Office had a full-time position available, but that it was an entry level position and would not pay as much as I was currently earning. I interviewed for it with the Associate Dean – mostly because it was going to be a lower stress position than what I was currently doing. Additionally, my office would be located across the hall from my academic department. The Associate Dean also indicated that I could work on my degree as much and as hard and as fast I wanted. I accepted.

As Supervisor of Admission to Teacher Education and this new environment in an academic dean’s office rather than a residence hall, I became exposed to an entirely new higher education environment. This world included faculty, curriculum, no late-night meetings or mischief, academic standards, and academic advising. The latter work – academic advising – that I began doing as a matter of course was exactly the nature of work for which I had a latent passion that enabled me to unleash and flourish.

During my first three years in this position, I found the happy medium between academic and student affairs work. I even changed my dissertation research because of the work I was doing and the personal rewards I was experiencing. Upon completion of my Ph.D. in 1974, I remained in the position for three more years until I accepted the position of Director of Academic Advising – a relatively rare title and position in 1977 – at (then) Stockton State College. This was an institution that was barely six years old, but with opportunities to experiment and develop an academic advising program from its beginning.

At Stockton I continued to learn about students, faculty, curriculum, collaboration with other units, administration, technology, and campus politics. Most importantly for me, I learned that the academic advising process interfaces with all these other areas. As such, I have held several positions in academic affairs, although I have never held faculty rank. I have reported to work in academic affairs for the past 43 years, and I do student development work every day. What a job!

Lessons Learned

The first thing I learned from all this is that it is really difficult to “plan” a career. Some people do and are successful, but I expect those people are quite rare. I can only talk about my career where almost every aspect was somewhat accidental or circumstantial. In fact, I changed my academic/career plans every time I earned a degree: math teacher to counselor; high school counselor to college residence hall director; student affairs Ph.D. to academic administrator.

Another thing I learned is that you just never know when your true passion for the work you love will become evident. For me it was not until I accepted a “lower-level” position in a relatively unknown environment. Similarly, I did not realize I had a passion, and even a skill, for writing until I began writing my dissertation. I changed my English minor, but not because of the writing aspect. I just never had the opportunity to have my writing ability surface until the dissertation experience.

Finally, I learned (for myself) that one’s college major does not dictate what your career will eventually be, or even your first job. My math major was my strength and my interest at that time in my life, and I use some of that, but not to the extent or in the context that I originally thought I would.

Advice Given

To Undergraduate Students

Major in what you enjoy studying. If you try to pursue something that is not your passion, you will probably not reach your optimal level of success or satisfaction. Also, remember that you never know when your true passion will emerge and evolve.

To Student Affairs Graduate Students

Keep your eyes on the prize: a job, but work in this field is about student success: personal, academic, and career development. Supporting student success occurs in a multitude and wide variety of jobs. I was often encouraged to seek employment in the corporate world, but after two or three interviews, I quickly learned that I could not “sell” anything but a college education. That passion always surfaced and prevailed in every aspect of my professional life – advising, teaching, writing, making presentations, holding national offices, and even helping found a national professional organization – NACADA: The Global Community For Academic Advising with over 12,000 current members.

I do not expect every graduate student to engage in all these areas – and there are other areas in which you may choose to invest your time that have not been a part of my career experience. Regardless, make your presence, your passion, your skills known through all the professional activities in which you choose to engage. Bear in mind that “student success” means something different to different students and can change for individual students over time.

To Academic Advisors

Relate your career path to students, especially if it is as checkered and unplanned as mine has been. I would even suggest you post a diagram, or prepare a handout, that illustrates your path to where you are.

Additionally, do not be afraid to share your experiences and insights. Another anecdote I learned was that a significant reason I was selected for the position of Director of Academic Advising at Stockton was due to the influence of a very well-respected political science faculty member on the Search Committee. That person had read my NASPA article and advocated that I “actually thought about this stuff.” As practitioners your knowledge of student experiences is current, based on student engagement, and invaluable to our profession.

To Faculty

In all honesty, I saw my undergraduate advisor only once, and never thought such a person could make any difference in what I was doing. Faculty have more opportunities to facilitate student success than most other individuals on campus simply because they have more regular contact with students. Do not overlook the opportunities to teach students more than accounting, biology, computer science, fine and performing arts, history, literature, etc.

As for graduate faculty, you now teach mostly graduate students – about undergraduate students, characteristics, and behaviors – and often advise, engage and sponsor research about the same. Try to engage yourselves in undergraduate learning opportunities as frequently as you can, e.g., attending athletic events and/or live music and drama performances, advising student clubs and organizations, sponsoring undergraduate research projects, or even academic advising (small numbers, of course) where permitted.

My learned experiences, both in student affairs and academic affairs, have enabled me to adopt the “academic advising as teaching” mantra as an opportunity to teach every student something when I am engaged with them. I never know what I’ll be teaching until they give me a cue, but I can almost always probe beyond the simple questions to attempt a more developmental conversation.

To Administrators

Resist establishing policies that force or require students to make major/career decisions prematurely. I realize and understand the reasons for doing so, but such actions might be unintended and serve as contributors to students leaving our institutions prematurely. Obviously, this approach suggests that a very strong academic advising program on the campus needs to be in place so that students have access to someone who is able to challenge and support students in their quests for the perfect fit.

To Parents and Other Constituents

The college experience is a time for exploration and growth. Students need space and time for their own development journeys. Undue pressures, mandated policies and requirements, and financial burdens can compromise the value of this experience.


I hope my response to Dr. Martin’s excellent transition guide will generate many conversations about the value of collaboration between student affairs and academic affairs units in order to foster the best learning for your students. I also hope that those now working student affairs realize both the value and the expectations of making the transition from one “side of the house” to the other, irrespective of the uncertain and perhaps twisted path that might lead you there.


Grites, T. J. (1977). Student development through academic advising: A 4X4 model. NASPA Journal, 14, 33-37.

Martin III, Q. (2021, March). Motivations and factors of student affairs professionals who transition into academic affairs. ACPA Developments (2).

Author Biography

Having retired on July 1, 2020 Tom Grites served as Assistant Provost for Academic Support in his nearly 43 years at Stockton.  He primary responsibilities were in academic Orientation programming, First-Year Experience efforts, and transfer student initiatives. He regularly teaches his transfer seminar course for new transfer students.

He was a founding member of the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA) and served as its President.  He serves as Senior Editor of the NACADA Journal.

Dr. Grites has written over 60 professional publications; delivered more than 120 conference presentations and webinars; and he has conducted academic advising workshops and program reviews on over 100 campuses.

Tom earned his B.S. and M.S. degrees from Illinois State University and Ph.D. from the University of Maryland.  Both institutions have awarded him distinguished Alumni Awards; he was inducted into the ISU College of Education Hall of Fame in 2007.  He was recognized as a Transfer Champion by the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students in 2015.  Most recently, he received the 2021 NACADA Region 2 award for his Outstanding Contribution to Scholarship; additionally, in 2021 Region 2 awarded the Thomas J. Grites Service to Region 2 award in his name.