Xianwen “Wen” Xi
“Why should we hire you out of all the candidates we brought to campus?” That was the first question a director of residence life asked me during my on campus interview. Straight to the point. I was most nervous for this particular interview because it was just the two of us. However, I was ready with my answer. It was a common question, especially in residence life where the typical path for someone went something like this: student leader (usually as a resident assistant), graduate school (usually with an assistantship in residence life) before looking for full time work in residence life. I did not have an assistantship in residence life during graduate school and centered my interview on that missing piece. “Because if given the opportunity, I am going to dive right in.”
That answer really encapsulated my first year as a full time professional in residence life. As mentioned, since I did not work in residence life during graduate school, I was especially eager to find a job in residence life after I graduated. I dived head first into my new job and loved every moment of it. And I was able to reap the rewards of my hard work because I had a fantastic first year as a new professional. Looking back, I can probably count the number of bad days I had during my first year on one hand. I don’t think I ever woke up NOT wanting to go to work. However, this is not an article with tips on how you can succeed in your new job (I am positive that there are already plenty of those articles out there!) but rather an open letter to those who struggled in their second year. Yes. You heard me. The second year. I bet you’re asking yourself: isn’t the second year usually seen as the year you know what you are doing and generally a breeze compared to your first year where you are still learning your new job? Probably. Your second year is usually a year where you put what you learned from stumbling through your first year into practice and really get to make your mark. However, something I was not prepared for was losing my first year experience to my second year. I struggled during a part of my second year because I tried to replicate my first year. My first year was a success in many aspects both personally and professionally for me and I wanted to carry that same energy into my second year. Instead of focusing on my second year wholeheartedly, I tried to make my second year an extension of my first year. Let’s call it first year 2.0.
I didn’t know it at the time but there can be phases to starting a new job and looking back, I can see myself clearly going through some of those phases. I won’t delve into all the phases (feel free to check it out here: https://blog.timesunion.com/careers/the-6-stages-of-the-job-life-cycle/1458/) but I will use this space to reflect on how I experienced some of these phases. The first phase that stuck out to me is Phase 1: Idealize. In this phase, you are excited about the potential the new job has for you and your future. The summer before I started my new job consisted of me reading books like The First 90 Days and articles that centered on being a new professional in student affairs and making a folder where I stored pieces of advice and helpful tips I thought I would refer back to all the time. (Spoiler alert: I did not). I reached out to my mentors and my new colleagues soliciting advice from them to put into that folder! Looking back now, I was definitely overzealous. As I re-read the emails I sent to my then-new colleagues, I find myself cringing just a bit because I was just too excited and eager to start working. I mean, I had only met them one time, months ago at my on campus interview! Those emails provided a contrast to where I am now. My excitement for the work then definitely overshadows my excitement for the work I am doing now. And let me tell you, I still very much love my job now. I think I just loved it way too much at the start before I even had my first day of work. I can’t speak for others going into their first year but for me, it was easy to dive right into my new job. One reason was because of my support network or lack of one. I moved to a new state where my main support network, my family was over 800 miles away. My family was the center of my entire life for as long as I could remember so it was jarring to essentially lose a major part of what kept me grounded my entire life. I did not know anyone in my new town and since I was always someone who loved to be busy and working (after all, achiever is my top strength!), it made it easy for me to fall into the habit of making work my number one priority. I went through some of the other stages pretty uneventfully until I hit the dreaded plateau phase.
Plateau didn’t happen all at once. It took me a while to even recognize that I was plateauing. It started with a feeling. I realized that I just felt “off”. Nothing was wrong but something was not right and I just could not put my finger on it. When I realized I hit this stage, I spent time analyzing what I did my first year that helped me have a good first year. I actually made a list of things I did my first year and then made efforts to replicate those things. I confided in my supervisor that I felt stuck. I wanted to be as excited as I had been in my first year and give more than my all during my second year, just like I did my first year. Only I could not find that energy and it frustrated me. My supervisor said something that helped me reframe the remainder of my second year experience: it was not sustainable. Being as energetic and involved and working as much as I did my first year and doing that every year was simply not sustainable in the long term and it was okay to plateau. My supervisor clarified that even when I felt like I was plateauing, my version of what a plateau looked and felt like was still me giving 100% to the work I was doing. My 100% just looked differently now.
Did you know that according to Gallup, millennials often want more from their job? They want a job that feels worthwhile to them. I realized that this echoed some parts of what I was feeling as I plateaued. Just like in Phase 3, the work became routine for me. The new toy isn’t as new anymore. When I hit this phase, I started to reflect on what I valued in my life. I was faced with the fact that I missed my family and taking care of others around me. Being a caretaker was and always will be a big part of my identity. It was not until that part of myself went missing that I realized how important it was to my sense of self. I started to rebuild this identity by connecting to the local community via babysitting. It sounds counterintuitive to take on a babysitting side job while focusing my attention on my actual job and not consider babysitting work but as mentioned, I am a natural caregiver and moving to a new state away from my family left that part of my identity in limbo. I still babysit often and it has now become something I look forward to as a way to recharge when my work stresses me out. I have viewed babysitting more as my hobby than a job because of the joy it brings me. It breaks up my routine, I get to leave campus and enter a new environment, and I get to connect with people who are not students or colleagues. It’s an odd need but I get a sense of normalcy when I enter one of my family’s homes that I did not realize I was missing when I left my family. Now if you ask me, I often refer to the families I help out as my Pleasantville family! (I live in Pleasantville, NY).
According to Business News Daily, employees are most happy and least stressed in their first year at a new job. Unfortunately, engagement levels in new employees tend to drop between year one and two. So those two factors combined can mean a very difficult second year. Now it makes more sense why I struggled so much my second year! I was comparing my first year happiness to my second year happiness, which was already going to be different and I was also slowly being less engaged in the work compared to my first year. After recognizing this, I started to reach out to my supervisor and colleagues for other professional development opportunities or additional projects I could take on to add more variety into my work in order to build a different sense of commitment and engagement.
Writing this reflection helped me recognize that I placed one unwritten rule on myself that enabled me to dive head first into my first job. The rule was this: since I am in a new state with no connections and no family, I might as well make work my ONLY focus and make every effort to do my very best. My first year was an intentional choice to be what I have always been advised against: be a workaholic and make work my life. Countless articles I read before interviewing at TPE warned new professionals (especially those who lived on) about the pitfalls of burnout and working too much and the importance of setting boundaries. I knew all these things and still chose to go against them. I would work late nights often (I recall one night where I decided to go into my office at 1AM because why not? It was easy since my office was about 20 steps from my apartment!), I would drop everything anytime my RAs needed me and I would always volunteer to help out both in and outside of my department. Let me be clear. I have no regrets with how I navigated my first year. I loved it. My first year and the way I navigated it provided the groundwork for relationships with those around me that made that year so memorable. It connected me to my RAs, peers, and colleagues very quickly and closely. It helped me build a different kind of support network. How I navigated my first year helped establish my identity on campus as someone others could rely on to get things done and done well.
My first year experience played to my strengths very well and fulfilled me as a new professional but I also recognize that this is not the case for others. It’s common for burnout to occur that can lead to hating the work you do and add stress to your life. Thankfully that was not the case for me. My burnout and stress filtered in during my second year, in part because of my well-meaning efforts to replicate my first year. But of course, as we all know well in student affairs: intent is not the same as impact. Now I am entering my third year in my role and I hope I won’t make the same mistake I did my second year. While I had good intentions with wanting to recreate my first year, I’ve come to realize that is not possible because we all learn and grow. Many aspects of our lives change and we should learn to change with them (that’s saying a lot from someone who has consistency as a strength). What I have kept consistent will always be my dedication to the work and students but I have been able to recognize that I can also add dedication to myself in that mix.
What are some pieces of advice I wish I could have given myself at the start of my second year?
Don’t be consistent for consistency’s sake. This quote has stuck with me ever since I heard it. It helped me reframe my need for routine and aversion to change. I didn’t like the idea that my first year was ending so I tried to prolong it as best I could and when I realized that while I externally wanted consistency in my work, I internally just could not sustain that energy any longer. So I was at odds. I wanted to dive all in again but also could not buy into it anymore. Now I know it’s more important to not just be consistent for the sake of consistency but to be consistent if it’s what is best for you and those around you and adjustment to the levels of consistency is okay. Even if it doesn’t feel okay all the time.
Work is not all that I am. Those who know me know how hard it is for me to say this. I am someone who just genuinely enjoys working. I can never sit still, even as a child I enjoyed working and being productive in all aspects of my life. I always need to be moving and doing something. This love of work (of any kind!) fueled me my first year and continues to fuel me to this day. However, I have also been able to slowly appreciate not working. Or rather, reframing what work looks like for me. Some say that me taking on a side gig and babysitting is LITERALLY working (I have heard the lecture before from well meaning peers and friends about how babysitting is work and not a hobby) but I don’t see it as that. I see it as my escape from campus life and gives me some sense of normality that does not include duty calls or residents. It physically moves me not just off campus but into a home of a family which helps me create that mental barrier in my mind that helps me de-stress.
Perfection is the enemy of progress. This was also something difficult for me to come to terms with. I still struggle with this today since I usually strive for perfection in my work! I focused so hard on having a “perfect” second year and trying to emulate my first year that I did not fully experience my second year until the very end. Who knows what experiences and opportunities I missed out on just because my focus was on perfection and not progress?
Be thankful for what you experienced or had. Quantum Workplace preaches this as an important piece of advice when you feel burnt out. This was a big realization for me and something I do not take for granted. Unfortunately, I know there are colleagues out there who did not get the great “first job out of graduate school experience” that I was lucky enough to have. I am eternally grateful for the positive and impactful first year I had. It will be an experience I will not forget. But it will also be a reminder to me that it’s okay to work hard but to also play hard. It reminds me that I am capable of more than I give myself credit for sometimes and it is okay to cut myself some slack when I do not do things perfectly.
- What are some ways that new professionals can prepare for their second year if returning to the same job that can help mitigate plateauing or burning out?
- Who can help the new professional in navigating their second year to avoid plateauing?
- How can graduate programs help prepare new professionals for managing their job and expectations of their jobs?
Adkins, A. (n.d.). Millennials: the job-hopping generation. Gallup. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/231587/millennials-job-hopping-generation.aspx
Banks, J. (2014, August 20). Prolonging the workplace honeymoon phase. Quantum Workplace. https://www.quantumworkplace.com/future-of-work/prolonging-workplace-honeymoon-phase/
Brooks, C. (2017, February 10). The honeymoon phase: why the first year on the job is the happiest. Business News Daily. https://www.businessnewsdaily.com/9741-employee-job-honeymoon-phase.html
Denham, T. (2012, February 16). The 6 stages of the job life cycle. Times Union. https://blog.timesunion.com/careers/the-6-stages-of-the-job-life-cycle/1458/
Xianwen “Wen” Xi is currently a residence director at Pace University in Pleasantville, NY. She has been with Pace since 2018. Prior to Pace, she was working as a graduate assistant in various departments while studying for her Master’s degree in Counselor Education at Clemson University. Wen was originally born in China and moved to the United States when she was a little girl where she lived in Georgia and attended the University of Georgia where she graduated with Bachelor’s degrees in psychology and sociology. Wen is interested in working with first year students, first generation college students, international students, and students of color in order to effectively support their various pathways to higher education.