Things I didn’t learn in graduate school


For more than 30 years now, I have benefited in my professional practice in student affairs from having attended some terrific graduate programs. It’s important to say that explicitly, upfront, as I’m about to focus on the things I didn’t learn in graduate school.

My lack of knowledge of certain topics wasn’t necessarily my programs’ fault. Maybe the information was presented, but I wasn’t ready to take it in. Or perhaps certain topics weren’t considered important back then or were viewed as inappropriate to discuss or too difficult to teach. Whatever the explanation, I began my career not knowing certain things that I now realize would have been helpful to have started learning in graduate school.

Giving depositions and court testimony. As it turns out, that is a practical skill, and worth learning. We in student affairs tend to be explainers. We have a keen interest in finding a way for all parties involved in a dispute to come out of the resolution process feeling heard and valued. Of course, that is precisely the wrong approach to take in depositions or court testimony.

I’m not a lawyer, but I have found that there are four acceptable answers to legal questions in those settings: “Yes.” “No.” “I don’t have knowledge about that.” And “Would you repeat the question?” In court, avoid amplification, clarification, or explanation—three daily activities in student-affairs work—and be aware that in a deposition, you can always ask for a break to speak with your lawyer.

Graduate programs and professional-development programs in student affairs would do a great service by offering brown-bags or workshops on this topic, with role-playing opportunities. It is a skill you may not need often, but it is one you (and your institution) will be glad you have.

Handling internal politics. Another thing I didn’t learn in graduate school was how to handle the political environment in an administrative unit, on the campus, in the local city, or in the professional field. In graduate school, we had broad discussions about power, sources of power, leadership, and interpersonal communication. While helpful, those discussions never fully captured the very political nature of student-affairs work.

It has not been uncommon over the years for me to hear from new professionals who seem surprised by how political our work settings can be. They feel under prepared or overwhelmed in trying to gain competence in, if not mastery of, internal politics.

To some degree, you have to be immersed in an organization in order to develop an appreciation for, and sensitivity to, the nature of relationships within it—to understand the hidden histories and dangerous discourses, and the ways in which you can (and can’t) enter into political negotiations without harming your career aspirations.

For early-career professionals, it is particularly critical to have access to seasoned colleagues or mentors who can provide a safe, nonjudgmental space for discussion of these issues. Graduate programs could provide that space. Simply knowing that others have had similar feelings of being overwhelmed or underprepared can be helpful, as can the chance to reframe political behavior as an opportunity rather than a problem. Certainly, talking with someone who has survived and thrived in our field, and from whom you could get a reading of a particular situation, can be invaluable.

Moving up the ranks. It’s dawned on me, as I have taken on roles of increasing authority in student affairs, that I never learned how each step up the administrative ladder can leave you increasingly isolated, professionally.

Simply put, as you move up, you have fewer and fewer peers at your institution (or in the field) with whom it is appropriate to share a conversation about how things are going on the campus or in your professional life. Those are not conversations you should have either down or up the ladder, for the most part, though there may be some circumstances in which doing so is appropriate and possible.

It becomes more important than ever to have developed and maintained a network of professional peers with whom you can engage in such conversations. You need to be available for them as well. It’s important for graduate programs to convey common issues you will confront as you progress through your career. But this is an area in which our associations can (and, in my experience, often do) play an important role through their programming for senior professionals in the field.

Loss and grieving. Those of you who took part in graduate programs with a counseling emphasis no doubt have had a much different experience, but I don’t recall loss and grieving being discussed in my graduate programs.

All of us who are fortunate enough to serve students will eventually be called upon to aid those who are grieving. It may be the death of a classmate, friend, or family member, or it may be the end of a relationship or some other opportunity. Knowing how to listen, what to say (and not say), and how the grieving process may play out is invaluable. You may need a somewhat different set of skills if you are called upon to help grieving colleagues who are struggling with the death of a student, a fellow student-affairs professional, or a family member.

Finally, and on a note that resonates a great deal with me as a result of my own experiences over the past year (including the deaths of my father and stepmother), what if the grief and loss are your own? How much do you share in the workplace? How much time are you willing to take for healing when the “to do” stack is growing every day?

Graduate programs have a role to play here. But so do professional-development workshops once you’ve started your career. My quick advice on this front: Be open to accepting help, the same help that you would gladly offer others. Recognize your limits and be ready to ask others to step in when they have training or skills that might better serve the needs of the student, your colleague, or you.

I once had an opportunity to sit in on a discussion between two senior figures in our profession: Peggy Barr and Jim Rhatigan. I felt like a kid in a candy store as I got to hear them talk about the field they loved and had contributed to in so many ways. Peggy was interviewing Jim and asked him about the challenges he had faced over his career. He quickly mentioned the deaths of student-athletes, colleagues, and others in a 1970 plane crash while he was at Wichita State University. The sense of loss still in his voice, many years later, was palpable.

At the time, I remember thinking that I hoped I could be in the profession as long as he had and still have that same passion for students—even if it included carrying painful memories as well as joyous ones.

In graduate school, we didn’t talk much about passion. I recall that we all pretty much came into the program feeling that passion already. Folks like Peggy Barr and Jim Rhatigan provided examples for me of how to sustain it, and it is my hope that new professionals today have the same quality of role models and mentors.

No doubt some of you learned these lessons in different ways in your graduate programs or later in your careers. Perhaps there are other topics that you felt went unlearned in graduate school, and should be taught there or elsewhere. I hope this column will foster a conversation about those topics. Together we can build our own learning community. I did learn about those communities in graduate school.

Author Bio: George S. McClellan is vice chancellor for student affairs at Indiana University-Purdue University in Fort Wayne. He writes regularly for The Chronicle about career issues in student affairs.


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