Oh to be mid-level…and broke.

Thank you to @SylvesterGaskin for this contribution to the #SAMid series. “Moving on up” seems to always be an influence on mid-career and mid-level pros. But, finances and family are factors, too. Is the grass always greener?


As a young child, my father told me that if I worked hard and applied myself, then I would get a job that would pay me a lot of money. As a sergeant in the US Air Force, he was one to know about working hard yet not making a ton of cash. For all the work he did, it was the officers who raked in the large paychecks. As, a kid, I always remembered driving past the officers housing, with the large lawns and big patios, and comparing it to our sparse enlisted housing and thinking it wasn’t fair at all.

Once I got my first student affairs job, I was making the most money I had ever seen. Granted I was fresh out of grad school and living on a tiny monthly stipend, but I could afford actual groceries, pay for my health benefits, and put gas in my car when it needed it, not when I got paid. I could even (GASP!) take a vacation to somewhere non-exotic! And, I was told that if I applied myself and worked hard, especially if I got a Doctorate degree, in a few years I’d make a lot of money. Hell, even moving up to a mid-level position would pay more! I’ve been a mid-level professional for 3 years (after 2 years in an entry-level position and 4 years working in the K-12 sector), and I’m still waiting for that payday. I’m a doctoral student (done with coursework and typing the dissertation) and I’m hoping that once that’s done, that mystical payday will show up and I can live more comfortably than how I do now and not have so many worries about taking care of my family.

However, I have to be realistic and understand that our field is not engineering, law, or some other discipline where the pay is greater and the workload is heavy. I’ve overheard many a professional say that they didn’t get into student affairs “for the money,” and the same could be said for me. I truly enjoy my work and wouldn’t change it for the world. However, I think that our institutions use that to their advantage: since they know we are so dedicated to our work and some of us would do it for free, then there is no impetus to pay student affairs professionals comparative to their academic peers. We are, to a fault, selfless about our work and want the best for our students, so we may be willing to sacrifice our financial gain so students can have a positive experience, thinking our salary savings go directly into student services and programs. Only once we get to VP style levels will the pay significantly increase.

Because of this, decisions to either make a lateral move or advance have to factor in compensation packages. It’s no longer about the title or the type of work that needs to be done, but more about “will I be able to earn a decent wage that honestly reflects the amount of work I will do?” And each person will need to think about their own individual circumstances. For example, I’m locked into a specific geographical location that has plenty of institutions but positions are highly competitive once they come open. In addition, I am looking at purchasing my first house, so the next professional move has to ensure I can make the mortgage payment. There is a good amount of pressure to make the “right” move, both financially and professionally, and that brings on new levels of anxiety and strategy. There’s the concern that the next move would be great for my pocketbook but terrible for my overall career, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who has these thoughts in this stage of life. I certainly didn’t have this worry as a new professional.

Being a mid-level professional has encompassed many factors that I didn’t need to think about when I was a new professional, including finances and family matters. It provides a lot of stress and some reflecting about why I got into this business.

For all the pessimism I may have about compensation, I still have a little faith that if I keep working hard and moving forward, that payday may come true, just like Dad told me.

Sylvester Gaskin

Sylvester is the Assistant Director of New Student Programs at Towson University in Maryland. In this role, he is responsible for assessment for all new student programming, student training and development, and long-range planning for future orientation programming. He is also responsible for working with the Towson University Family Network and fostering partnerships with the Freshmen Transfer Program.
Prior to arriving at Towson in June 2014, he served as an outreach coordinator at Iowa State University, where he focused on intentional programming for underrepresented communities and data assessment on retention and graduation rates. He also worked for Bay Area Community Resources, a non-profit organization involved in providing community based services to schools in Oakland, CA, and was responsible for student activities and transfer orientation at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering and his Master of Education degree at Iowa State University. Sylvester is a professional member of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, the Association for Institutional Research, the National Orientation Directors Association, and Kappa Delta Pi-International Honors Society in Education. He is currently a Doctor of Education student (concentration in Higher Education Administration) at Northeastern University at their Seattle, WA graduate campus.

Reflections from year one in the middle

I hope you had a restful Labor Day weekend! #SAMid is back with this insightful post from Renee P. Dowdy. Leading from the middle looks and feels different than other positions. Thank you, Renee for sharing your story!

On August 19th, 2015 I marked year one in my first mid-level role as the Assistant Director of Student Staffing and Training at Marquette University. I returned to residence life from a role in association management and was itching to be back in the day-to-day problem solving, planning, and challenges that I love about this functional area. One of my greatest joys in the job is the work of developing and coaching staff. As I sat in RA training, watching months of planning flash before me, some of my most important lessons stood out.

When leading from the middle, one of your most important jobs is to give context. Tough decisions are made and entry level professionals develop their own perception and lessons from these observations. My role as a supervisor is to help provide a deeper understanding of the how and why behind these moments. It isn’t just about managing the now, but helping to prepare others for the hard decisions and stakes they may face later in their career. I want to protect our staff from unnecessary worries, but I also want them to be prepared for the very real challenges that are part of the job.

In that vein, what I say and do carries different weight. When I was a hall director, I had my 17 staff members who looked to me for guidance and support. Now there are 128 RAs, 225 desk receptionists, and 13 RHDs and grads who look at my words, behaviors, and choices as a barometer for professionalism. This may seem obvious, but the realization that I could have greater and broader influence at first overwhelmed me. I didn’t want to say anything wrong and the task of avoiding an error or mistake was mentally taxing. Now, further in, I’ve made mistakes and I’ve also maximized my influence. I’ve been able to own and apologize for mistakes, which is also a demonstration of leadership. But I’ve also been able to reach students and staff in some incredible ways. Which leads me to…

Share what you care deeply about. It will be contagious. People want to be surrounded by others who are not only invested but who offer something to get excited about, interested in, or adds new depth to their work. This year, I focused on basics of effective training methods and facilitation skills. I worked on this across all realms of my work and saw in August the impact this focus offered. After an incredible presentation by a team of RHDs, another staff member turned to me and said, “You made this happen.” I never expected that impact to be noticed but it made me so proud. At mid-level you are stretched in many directions. I knew to take our training to the next level, I needed to extend my knowledge and equip staff members with this knowledge and confidence to be an extension of my vision. And it was a success. Allowing others to be a partner in my work and to build their skills while at it was one of my smartest decisions in year one.

Many lessons lay ahead for me, but I can look at year one with pride. I took some chances and exercised great forethought to where I wanted to take our team and who I wanted to be to allow that to happen. Mid-level demands an ongoing focus on the details and the bigger picture. But most important within and between those aspects is the work of developing others. Looking forward to year two and the work and learning that awaits.

Renee P. Dowdy

Renee Piquette Dowdy is the Assistant Director of Student Staffing and Training at Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI. Her work has taken her to Fort Collins, CO as part of Synergos, AMC, the University of Chicago, and Bowling Green State University. She lives in Milwaukee with her husband, Gavin, and Goldendoodle puppy, Maxwell. Outside of work, When not training and selecting staff, Renee enjoys yoga with a recent fitness certification, barre fitness classes, hiking, and home remodeling projects. Find out more from Renee by following her on Twitter (@reneepdowdy) or on her blog, www.reneepdowdy.com

I’m a mid. But, I’m not sure my profession knows

Special thanks and shout-out to Jessica Keefer for this contribution to the #SAMid series. Being in the middle (the mid) looks different for everyone, yet the profession seems to honor traditional degrees and trajectories. Jessica shares her experiences and thoughts about that here.

On Monday morning I woke up and rushed my kids through their waffles and cartoons. Drop off at daycare was hurried, so I ended up feeling guilty all day about not having asked my son’s new teacher how his first days of kindergarten had gone. But I had a long day of student affairs work to do, from representing my office at the M Climb (our traditional first year right of passage) to attending faculty conference, serving as leadership on a First Year Experience committee, and holding a training for the 135 people that teach the course I coordinate. I am a mid level professional. I had a job to do.

For me, being mid level is as much about my age and stage in life as it is about my career. I am 37, the mother of two, and married to someone who is also mid level in his field. I have been out working in “the real world” for 15 years now. I spent last night teaching my kids about Nirvana (which led to a discussion about the Foo Fighters, of course), and I am excited by craft fairs and antique shops. I’m a mid. But, I’m not sure if my profession knows that.

Although I’ve been working for 15 years, I’ve only been in Student Affairs for 8. I was never an RA or a student ambassador. I didn’t have a calling to graduate school directly following undergrad. I never had an assistantship or a live on position. Instead, I worked in finance for 6 years after graduation. I specifically did customer service, collections and fraud for various credit card companies. I hated it with a white hot hate, but it made me a kinder and more understanding person. I learned how to deal with difficult people and be solution oriented. I can also calculate a mean APR. I didn’t go to grad school until I was 30 and I worked full time at the university to pay for my tuition. I defended my capstone project while 8 months pregnant. None of this matches with the paths of my colleagues and supervisors.

Flash forward, and I am currently an Academic Advising Coordinator at a public STEM institution. I love it with all of my heart and I joke with my supervisor that I am never leaving. This is my fourth position in student affairs and I feel as though each job I’ve taken has been a step up from the last. I hold a great deal of responsibility including coordinating two courses, managing a caseload of 450 undergraduate students, maintaining a large budget and supervising student staff. I serve on numerous committees and I am respected by my faculty and staff colleagues across campus. But if you go by title alone, I am a coordinator. Depending on area and institution, that may appear more entry level. I also do not currently supervise professional staff, which I’m learning is the new chicken-or-egg conundrum. And the problem is I am driven and determined. I DO eventually want to move up.

What I have learned is that as much as people cling to titles, and even hire based on them, they are arbitrary. The work and responsibility that are required of me as a coordinator is just as much, if not more, than many assistant or associate directors at other institutions. Sometimes I wrestle with whether that is “fair.” I honestly don’t care what my title is- I know what I do and how important it is- but if it determines my next position or how much I am valued, then I do mind. Those title conversations are when the impostor syndrome creeps in and I wonder if I will ever make it as far as the person who spent years in the Residence Halls or the one who is nearly a decade younger than me and already managing their own department.

I am also starting to feel a nagging anxiety when it comes to realizing my career goals. None of us have good work-life balance, it’s the nature of our jobs. But I know that if I really intend to move up the ranks, I will need to get my PhD. I fully intend to do that. Still, I will always need to work full time, proving my worth, grit and dedication along the way. And then I have these two kids at home. The ones I rushed through their waffles. And I just wonder how I will do it all.

I am so very lucky to be supported entirely by my family and my institution. My husband and supervisor both tell me regularly what a great doc student they think I’ll be. My colleagues think I’m a great mom. My kids think I toast a great Eggo. My mom thinks I’m pretty (and posts it awkwardly on Facebook). They don’t mention who will take care of sick kids, cook dinner, and fold laundry while my husband works a weekend shift. We don’t talk about how I will afford my education. But I have to be honest, I believe in myself. I am happy where I am for the moment, and I know I will find my path to my next joy and challenge. I always have.

Jessica Keefer

Jessica Keefer is an Academic Advising Coordinator at the Colorado School of Mines. She has worked in several advising and student services roles over the past 8 years. She is an alumna of both Ohio University and University of Denver, and is currently eyeing various PhD programs. Jessica is interested in social justice, first year experience, fostering meaningful relationships, and Cleveland sports. When not at work, you can find Jessica wrangling her two small children, hiking, enjoying cheese, or collapsed on the couch. Connect with her on Twitter: @jesslkeefer