The Defectors Blog Header

So in truth, “the literature” is a bit of an overstatement. But the fact of the matter is, the idea of being a “Defector”– of doing this work in a manner different from the standard- is becoming increasingly common. For my part, I truly appreciated the testimonies of people like Kayley Robsham, Paul Gordon Brown, and Keith Edwards, all of which were extremely open about the authors’ respective experiences. They were open not just about how it was to be in a new role, but also about the motivations for their shift.

Kayley’s piece, in particular, was released just at the point where I was pondering my own transition. This passage spoke to me far loudly than I expected (and frankly, likely far louder than I’ve ever been able to convey to her):

I hope it’s understood that I enjoyed my time in student affairs and loved making impactful contributions with students and colleagues. However, I felt my greatest contributions to the field would be utilizing my talent to bring innovative tools to my colleagues and bringing more diversity to a field where we’re lacking diversity.

Even after I had made the leap, I tinkered with my routine to find a method for what felt – and still occasionally feels – like madness. I was heartened to find that Keith’s methodology was pretty similar to mine:

My goal each day is to produce the best quality and quantity of output I can. My challenge is to figure out how to structure my day so that it leads to the best writing, coaching, presentations, research, proposals, connecting with clients, social media, and more. Some times a walk, workout, or even a nap could be the best thing I can do to help me to do my best work.

Then, in the days after I conceived the Defectors series, but before it was announced, the Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice sparked just the conversation I needed. Included in this issue was an article entitled “Attrition from Student Affairs: Perspectives from Those Who Exited the Profession.” As I prepared to solicit participation from colleagues and friends, this article helped me prepare myself for what I might find. After all, I had some ideas about why people were leaving, but couldn’t be fully sure. What’s more, it was reassuring to find that the field itself is clearly concerned about the numbers in which trained and invested-in professionals are “opting out” (I’ll explain the quotations later):

This study seeks to provide increased insight into the reasons that underlie attrition in an effort to reduce the financial and organizational costs incurred when student affairs professionals leave the field. Such information is significant in that large numbers of professionals leaving the field early in their career may signal a need for better developed orientation and professional development programs that address the reasons for leaving verses other strategies targeted at more seasoned professionals.

As it happened, the article confirmed some of my suspicions while providing numbers and qualitative data to back it up.

In the Results section of the paper, Marshall, Gardner, Hughes, and Lowery cited reasons that lined up considerably with the causes for departure that I expected:

Participants were instructed to indicate any and all of the reasons they chose to leave the student affairs field. Participants’ reasons for leaving centered around seven general themes. Stress and burnout were the factors most frequently mentioned for leaving, followed by noncompetitive salary, attractive career alternatives, and the evening and weekend responsibilities in student affairs.

However, there were other causes at play that revealed themselves with more nuance than the aforementioned study was able to find. Some of the testimonies you’ll read in the month ahead will cite reasons like stress, burnout, and salary; but others cite reasons such as a need for creativity, desire to fulfill one’s own dreams and build something independently, sheer curiosity, or – in one instance – a realization that this field simply wasn’t a fit. Moreover, a few people mentioned that their departure was incidental and not intentional.

While we get little insight from the paper about where those who departed have gone, I’d argue that a great many people aren’t leaving the field, so much as they’re leaving campuses. I include myself in that “camp,” by the way. This distinction matters. Many continue to stay involved with the profession they’re invested in through roles at private companies, nonprofit organizations, or independent consultancies. By contributing in these ways, individuals are choosing to make their mark in ways that better fits their personalities and goals.

This matters for two reasons. First, with pyramid-shaped organizational structures currently in place, there presently isn’t enough space for everyone who enters the field to stay in it. What looks like a way out, may actually just be a way to “orbit” the field, affecting its atmosphere from outside its gates. This can be good if we allow it to be.

Secondly, if we do wish to reverse this exodus, closer examination of the paths people are taking “out” of the profession, could reduce the need for such a move. Organizations willing to change the world of work to let “offbeat” or unconventional skills and habits flourish within them, could retain talent as a result. Marshall, Gardner, Hughes, and Lowery say as much when they hint that study results could “be used when working to create a culture of professional flexibility and transformation versus traditional models that often provide limited options for professionals facing the challenges discussed in the literature review.”

I wanted to share these notes with you ahead of the series to provide a lens through which to look at these stories. What have the authors voiced as reasons? If you’re a staff member, are these reasons that resonate with you? And if you’re a manager, do you have the power to address some of the concerns that preceded departure? We’ll return to these driving forces, and how the field might be able to address them in order to ensure its own survival, toward the end of the month. In the meantime, stay tuned for our first contributor post next week!

Works Cited:

Sarah M. Marshall, Megan Moore Gardner, Carole Hughes & Ute Lowery (2016) Attrition from Student Affairs: Perspectives from Those Who Exited the Profession, Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 53:2, 146-159


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