Insight into the New Professional

The future directors, deans, and vice presidents of student affairs are sitting in classrooms or in offices on campuses today. Organizational charts for college unions, offices of student involvement, and other functional areas show the reality that new professionals serve in core roles and are integral to successful delivery of services and programs. However, since the 1980s, the attrition rate of new professionals has varied from 31% to 61%, Jenine Buchanan explained in her 2012 dissertation, Factors that Influence Attrition of New Professionals in Student Affairs. With 15-20% of the student affairs workforce being first-time, full-time staff, the high level of attrition negatively affects the field as a whole, according to ACPA: College Student Educators International’s 2006 Report on the New Professional Needs Study. As a result, intentional support, development, and engagement is needed for retention. The college union idea is grounded in the exchange of ideas, spaces in which to gather, and intentional efforts to develop community. New professionals working in student affairs seek similar opportunities to grow in their work; they want to exchange ideas with peers and their campus colleagues, feel capable in their job responsibilities, and build a professional community where their identity matters. 

Understanding New Professionals 

A new professional is generally a staff member who has worked in the field for five or fewer years. This means that an individual with 20 years of experience in a for-profit company and a recent graduate of a student affairs program can fall into the new professional category. 

A variety of articles, books, and journals have been written with a focus on new professionals. In reviewing these materials, it is important to explore the various contexts, understandings, and time periods in which the research was done. 
In their 2014 book Job One 2.0, Peter Magolda and Jill Ellen Carnaghi compiled narratives providing insights related to new professionals.  The stories shared include discussions about identity, risk, the job search, and professional development. The new professionals conveyed the lessons they learned. For instance, integrating “who they are and their professional positions” was essential to finding fulfillment, and “letting go of  our desire for perfection” in the job search resulted in better assessment of fit. In the preface, Magolda and Carnaghi explained that they “highlighted diverse pathways into the profession by purposefully selecting new professionals whose life stories and journeys in student affairs are unique” and displayed that the needs of new professionals are not the same as those who were on campus a decade ago.  This shows the  need to further examine what the literature and current research can share about new professionals.

In a 2006 College Student Affairs Journal, Janice Barham and Roger Winston Jr. published a qualitative analysis of new professionals and their supervisors in “Supervision of New Professionals in Student Affairs: Assessing and Addressing Needs” and identified that 1) new professionals struggled to articulate what they want or need from a supervisor, 2) new supervisors need additional resources to successfully supervise new professionals, and 3) there is little connection between professional development activities and what new professionals need from a supervisor. These three points serve as an affirmation of what had been said for decades about supporting new professionals in student affairs or other fields. The most important insight to take from this and other studies like it is that the new professional period is a time where someone may not be able to fully articulate what they need, but consensus is that they do need support and engagement in various ways. Breaking this down into manageable steps during the onboarding process allows for long-term success. 

In her 2012 Bulletin article, “Competencies Among New Professionals in the Union and Activities Field,” Kaitlyn Moran suggested: “Supervisors of new professionals can provide support during their difficult transition by utilizing concepts from synergistic supervision to encourage employees’ professional development, including seeking out opportunities and providing time for their supervisees to participate in mentoring programs or attend workshops and conferences.” The concept of “synergistic supervision” was first coined by Roger Winston and Don Creamer in their 1997 book, Improving Staffing Practices in Student Affairs, in which the employee and supervisor work collaboratively to identify weaknesses and development strategies together, often through discussions of good and inadequate job performance, long-term goals, and personal attitudes. Moran cited a 2006 study by Ashley Tull in which “synergistic supervision was positively correlated with new professionals’ perceptions of opportunities for professional development and negatively correlated with new professionals’ intention to leave their current position or the field of student affairs.”

Another viewpoint comes from Michael Fried, a doctoral student at New York University. In his 2011 Journal of Student Affairs article titled “Juniority: Cultivating the New Student Affairs Professional,” Fried argued that instead of looking at new professional from a deficit perspective, it is valuable to view the new professional period as a distinct part of career development with a distinct set of needs. Individual development is understood to be valuable, but a focus on more than a competency deficit of the new professional is important. Participants in Fried’s study mentioned having struggled with feeling inferior or incompetent in their role, which appears often as an issue for discussion. One contribution that new professionals make is in their examination of decisions and structures, providing a new and useful perspective to departments and supervisors. 

Instead of looking at new professional from a deficit perspective, it is valuable to view the new professional period as a distinct part of career development with a distinct set of needs.

In the 2007 book The First Year on the Job, Kristen Renn and Jennifer Hodges identified issues of confidence and competence as one of three themes apparent in their yearlong study of new professionals. The main area where competence came into focus was with issues of knowledge and skills in the time prior to starting and during their orientation to their new campus. New professionals indicated they did not feel they were prepared for their role. This further emphasizes the importance of moving away from a deficit approach to development of new professionals and reinforces the importance of effective onboarding. 

In 2016, the Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice published the article “Attrition from Student Affairs: Perspectives from Those Who Exited the Profession.” In it, authors Sarah Marshall, Megan Gardner, Carole Hughes, and Ute Lowery surveyed 153 individuals who had left the student affairs profession. A key reason for the career change was in the area of burnout, which directly relates to working long hours. According to the study, 52% of the professionals they surveyed indicated that the hours they worked were excessive, and 70% reported excessive weekend and evening work-related commitments attributed to them leaving the field. An additional insight was that 48% of the respondents who left the field felt their salary was not competitive for the market. Many new professionals in the college union and student activities field are often working late nights and long hours, which can negatively affect their ability to find time for self-care, develop communities outside of work, and find space to grow. While budgets influence salary and staffing, opportunities to explore how to foster balance for staff who frequently work long and late hours can be explored to support retention of qualified staff.

It is important to note that entities outside of higher education are engaging in conversations about new professionals as well and findings similar themes. In 2014, JLL, a private facilities management company, surveyed 200 new professionals. The most resounding message from the survey was that professionals would stay in jobs “who offer mentoring, job rotations, cross-pollination of knowledge and relationships, and an exposure to multiple client accounts.” A significant motivator for new professionals to stay in a role was if there were opportunities for growth. Notably, growth and promotion were viewed as separate. Given that 33% indicated they would stay in their job for three years or less, this was not only connected to finite progression in the organization, but also limits how they could continue to grow in their role. 
The ability to grow and develop through a role is demonstrated as a need across new professionals in various sectors. New professionals who come from traditional student affairs backgrounds and those focused on other areas demonstrate similar wants from professional roles. Managers can use these insights to support their employees in more intentional ways. 

What Do Current New Professionals Think?

To inform the conversation, some new professionals from a range of colleges and universities were asked to share their experiences and perspectives. One response illustrated a common theme: “You don’t know what you don’t know.” For instance, navigating organizational politics was one of many areas in which the new professionals felt graduate school had not prepared them. After a divisional meeting in which the vice president of student affairs had encouraged staff to reach out with any ideas they had, one new professional recalled doing so and then receiving a negative response from colleagues. Another individual shared a story of how they committed to a new program with a campus partner. What they didn’t realize was that the campus partner had historically reached out to the office to get money to support an event but wasn’t interested in truly “collaborating.”

These well-intentioned actions of new professionals garnered a less than favorable outcome due to a lack of understanding of institutional politics. Graduate programs provide a variety of coursework, but new professionals explained their quick realization that institutional politics and learning how to navigate them early on are essential for success. Some said that the best insights their supervisor provided was related to politics early on, which allowed them to transition into their new role. In a 2016 Journal of Research, Assessment, and Practice in Higher Education article, Nasser Razek, Jamie McCall, and Ellie Mulherin also advocated for a system of “cool feedback” in which informal mentors provide new professionals with casual guidance that explains how procedures/practices, accountability, and institutional values intersect.

While campus politics was an area in which new professionals felt less confident, they also echoed previous research on the problematic nature of the competency deficit approach to supervision. They wanted both the work they do and who they are to be seen as valuable contributions to the workplace. They wanted a place to develop community in their work and to simultaneously develop themselves as professionals. They noted that to find a good fit professionally, they needed to feel they could express who they are and what they value personally. One person said she knew she had found the right position when her supervisor encouraged her to bring her full self into the office and encouraged being an ally and advocate for the students she serves. “I am a professional and a radical queer black woman,” she said. “There needs to be space for me to be both all the time.” Several professionals shared that they felt a tension between being their authentic selves and being “professional.” At a minimum, a segment of the new generation of student affairs professionals is working toward enhancing their competency in the area of social justice and inclusion, as Jelane Kennedy, Wendy Neifield Wheeler, and Stephanie Bennett discuss in their chapter on new student affairs professionals in the 2015 book The Ethics of Cultural Competence in Higher Education. In supporting and developing these professionals, exploring how to foster cultural competency and engagement around identity in the workplace is of growing importance.  

In reviewing the literature and in conversations with new professionals, the theme of investment was discussed in various ways. Some new professionals spoke about their supervisor being willing to invest in them with either institutional resources or their time. All the new professionals indicated having some sort of designated professional development budget ($400–2,000), which could be used for formal and informal professional development. Purchase of books, certifications, and attendance at regional or national conferences were all considered. One person noted that: “Professional development is my institution saying they want me to grow and succeed.” However, more important than formal professional development, was having a relationship with a supervisor that involved developing goals, identifying opportunities for growth, and taking on new responsibilities. One professional explained why this informal professional development was so valuable, echoing the findings of the JLL survey of facilities professionals: “I am proud to come to work every day, and I don’t want to leave. The reality is I have worked here for two years, and there just aren’t opportunities for me to grow in our current structure.” The comments of new professionals emphasize the importance of development and growth, but also challenge the understanding that professional development is just through formal conference attendance. Finding ways to support development on campus can contribute positively to the ability of staff to be retained. 

Supporting New Professionals

A foundation of the experience of new professionals is the value of a strong onboarding program for new professionals that allow for understanding of daily tasks, long-term expectations, and campus culture. As Rezack, McCall, and Mulherin asserted, “A new professional should not be expected to know how to perform every function and responsibility of their position. Adequate training, supervision, and mentorship should exceed the orientation phase in order for a new professional to have a positive start to their career.”  In planning for supporting and developing new professionals, three key components are: 1) transition, 2) development, and 3) expectations. 


The transition from a graduate program or a previous professional role begins as soon as the background checks are complete and announcements have been sent. Finding ways to provide information, counsel, and context are valuable for a successful transition. 


As a profession focused on education, those working in the field appreciate opportunities to learn and grow. Volunteer leadership roles and program attendance are helpful in supporting new professionals’ development of community and job knowledge. However, essential complements to those opportunities are conversations about long-term growth to set a specific path forward and envision a long-term future at the institution.


Outlining expectations for evaluating new professionals addresses the confidence and competence issues reported in the literature. These expectations go beyond communication of standards to include comprehensive professional development plans, what “professionalism” means in the unique institutional context, and how new professionals can best share their perspectives. Explicitly addressing these areas helps avoid a competency deficit approach and shows new professionals how to be successful in their work.

In their recent Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice article, “People are Messy: Complex Narratives of Supervising New Professionals in Student Affairs,” Tiffany Davis and Diane Cooper studied strategies to strengthen supervisory relationships with new professionals. The authors investigated the messiness of supporting new professionals who “think they know all the answers” and the difficult task of deciding “when to offer guidance and direction and when to ‘back off’ and let them ‘spread their wings.’” Their findings indicated that characteristics supervisors appreciated about new professionals “included being open to feedback, willingness to learn, demonstrating initiative, managing up, having talent, and possessing good judgment in decision making.” Davis and Cooper also reinforced the importance of acknowledging that one’s supervisor also has someone to whom they report, as supervisors discussed the challenge of being accountable to their own supervisor and being “ultimately responsible for the work of the new professional, whether good or bad.” The authors emphasized the importance of one-one-one meetings beyond the orientation period, as a space for relationship building, feedback on job performance, and generally socializing new professionals into the organization. Davis and Cooper’s article can be a resource for those who currently supervise new professionals are looking for insight from colleagues. 

Finally, seasoned professionals in the college union and student activates field are in unique positions to contribute to the development and success of the next generation of community builders. Research and the stories of new professionals shared demonstrate that it is important work that requires time, commitment, and investment. As professionals continue to be faced with challenges and demands, it is the commitment to development that is critical to the success of the field and respective organizations.  
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