Basking in the murkiness of the middle

This is the fourth #SAMid guest post. Thanks to my fellow #Jesuiteducated Boston College grad & student affairs colleague, Jeff Pelletier for sharing his thoughts.

Every year, the Ohio Union hosts a summit sponsored by GE called Leading from the Middle. It brings mid-market businesses together to learn from each other. The size and scope of companies represented is vast. They come from all over the country, cover a range of products and services, and no two are the same size. They’re not necessarily the small business/Mom & Pop operation, but neither are they a huge (inter)national conglomerate.

It occurred to me during their last conference, that this event mirrors the ongoing conversation in our field about what it means to be a mid-level professional, or at a mid-career point. Over the years I’ve seen and been part of those conversations, asking how we define mid-level, at what point we’re considered mid-career, and what qualifies us for either.

If you asked most mid-level professionals why we ‘classify’ ourselves as such, we’d say we don’t fit neatly into a new professional label, and some of us may be resistant to the senior professional moniker, especially if our hair hasn’t started betraying our age by changing color! But like the conversations about title, I always ask, “does it really matter all that much?” I’d be doing the same kind of work if I was an assistant director, associate director, or a director. For what it’s worth, currently my business card sports the one in the middle. If I were at a different institution, doing the same job, I would not be surprised if I had a different title to go with it. So I try not to worry too much about what people call me, or what box I check, as Chelsea described earlier in this series.

I recognize the need for these categories in the natural course of our work. Boxes and labels sometimes help us make determinations on what we’re doing, and more important, what we’re doing next. But sometimes we spend a lot of time hand-wringing over what to call ourselves, rather than just doing the work that’s in front of us. Some of that pressure comes from the need, intrinsically and externally, to meet a pre-defined standard. If we know the minimum qualifications for a job posting, we know at a glance whether we meet those qualifications, or if our application is a stretch. For many, there is pressure to advance in the field, which means focusing on the process to get there, rather than focusing on doing some good here. This is not unique to the mid-level population either – I could write a companion post for new professionals and senior professionals. My observation is this categorization and “what’s next” mentality is most pronounced for those us who feel mired in the middle. It’s easy to advise mid-level and mid-career professional to bask in that murkiness, it’s another to actually do that.

Here’s why I think that, ultimately, it doesn’t really matter. As an associate director, I report to a director, and have a senior coordinator reporting to me. All three of us have Master’s degrees in higher education, and work in the field of union events and operations. I would consider all of us to be mid-career, albeit it at different points in the mid-career range. I think we’d all call ourselves mid-level professionals as well, again with a bit of “it’s all relative.” So we’re three mid-career, mid-level professionals, all in a reporting line to one another, all doing very different work. Side note: we’re all pretty good at what we do, if we do say so ourselves! We teach each other constantly, we learn from one another, and we have the benefit of learning from those around us. Side note 2: copy that last sentence in companion post for new and senior-level professionals.

In all honesty, being mid-level or mid-career is a pretty great place to be. I have the opportunity to develop newer professionals and help them figure out who they want to be, in or out of our field. I have a comfortable amount of direct student interaction, which is often a lament for professionals as they advance in the field. I have aspirations to reach higher in my current line of work. That aspiration comes from my own personal motivations (I’m secure in understanding my purpose in the field, which makes me a bit of an anomaly here in the middle), and it is fueled in part by the encouragement of those around me to do more. I also know my next position could very well be one I retire from, and it could be perceived as mid-level to others. I’m at peace with that, again because I know why I’m here.

There’s a lot of middle ground to try to fill, so my best advice to colleagues in the space between (hat-tip to Dave Matthews) is to do your best work, be your best self, and spend less time trying to define what The Middle actually means. I own that I am in a different place than most mid-level/mid-career people might be, but my hope is to show there is some real value to being where we are, regardless of whether we want to stay here or keep moving.

Jeff Pelletier

Jeff is an Associate Director with the office of Student Life at The Ohio State University, overseeing building operations in the Ohio Union. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from Boston College, a master’s in Higher Education and Student Affairs from Ohio State, and a master’s in Business Operational Excellence, also from Ohio State. He has been a volunteer for the Association of College Unions International (ACUI) since 2003, most recently on the Board of Trustees. Jeff is active on social media, developing his digital identity alongside students, colleagues, and mentors who haven’t yet muted his posts and updates. Jeff is often seen running the streets of Columbus, or sampling the latest offerings from his favorite craft brewers.

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