In my adult life, I've had nine positions at nine different colleges in seven different states. Some might call that picky. Others may refer to it as wishy-washy. But I like to think that I was a Job Satisfaction Seeker.
We all want to work at our dream jobs – who doesn't? We want to be part of a community of like-minded individuals who come together daily to be part of an organization, corporation, or institution that makes a difference in the world. If you just wanted a paycheck, you probably wouldn't be reading this article.
Job satisfaction doesn't just come from your job title or your take-home check stub. You feel it inside because you know you are working at a place where you make a difference. Your values align with your employers, you connect with your co-workers, and you enjoy working for and with your supervisor. You are able to see the difference you make through your performance.
That sounds lovely, doesn't it?
As I referenced in my opening line, I've worked at several different places. SEVERAL. And I wound up leaving those first eight positions for different reasons, but they were all related to job satisfaction in one way or another.
In my first position out of graduate school, I found myself in an environment quite different from the professional development I had received in my assistantship. I was doing an entry level position at a mid-size public school in the pacific northwest. I had been used to being the Big Fish in the Small Pond, but now the shoe was on the other foot.
In essence, I had accepted a position that was, how should I say this, more politically correct that I was accustomed. And I got in trouble a lot. This led me to my first lesson on understanding company (institutional) culture. Knowing that your values align with your employer and that you "FIT" there is important to job satisfaction.
At this stage in my life, I had no idea what questions to ask during the interview to get to the concept of "FIT." I was a young professional, just out of graduate school, and just married, too. The trifecta of early employment struggles. Still, I made some good friends during my two years at this position, and I can say with all honesty that I'm glad I took this position.
Using Your Skills at Work
My second professional position was at a small, private, liberal arts school in the midwest. I ran my own department – rare for someone at my age, generally speaking – and my supervisor was really cool. I loved my students and really connected with my colleagues and peers.
So, why did I leave? After almost four years – the third longest tenure in my career – I was in a meeting with my supervisor, discussing the changes coming down the pike in the next few years. My supervisor was very honest with me. "Kris, I'm not telling you to leave; but you will need to understand that the direction this department is going is highly administrative. If you want to stay successful, you'll need to adapt to that and make some changes." I thought of this for a long time and made the decision to look for a new job.
I realized that the parts of my current job I really ENJOYED – and had been successful – were not administrative tasks. They were highly relational and programmatic. And I wanted more of that, not less. I didn't believe that my skills lay in the administrative arena. I wanted to continue working directly with students and doing programs.
Trusting Your Supervisor
My third job position was at a small-ish public school in the Washington D.C. area. It was roughly the same amount of money and the same duties, but a more prestigious title. Now, to be fair, there was a certain lure with this position because my sister had just given birth to twin daughters and lived only 20 minutes from my new employer. The pull from family can definitely be a factor when taking a position – and I thoroughly enjoyed the 9 months I spent in that area spending time with my sister.
Still, there was always something behind the curtain that didn't seem right to me. And it came down to trusting my supervisor. This was a strained relationship from the beginning; and I wasn't "seasoned" enough to know exactly what I wanted to say to her to express my concerns. All it took was just one incident of getting thrown under the bus to turn the ship. It hurt, and to this day I'm not even certain that I handled it the best way. I learned a great deal about trust and communication. And that never happened to me again.
Creating Your Own Gig
From Virginia, I found my way to Chicago, working at a mid-sized urban institution. Chicago was home for me, and I relished the notion of working in my favorite city.
I honestly would have kept this position and stayed longer than 30 months – because it was a chance to create my own work experience and leave a true legacy. The position for which I was hired was a new position – I would be creating a leadership program for students living on campus. It included advising student leadership organizations and traveling to various conferences. I was given a very nice budget and a good deal of freedom in what I created.
The main reason I left this position was out of support for my husband, who was a California boy and longed for more sun and warmth. Resigning was tough for me because I had a very good experience at this institution. From the job satisfaction standpoint, I was thrilled to have the chance to create my own gig. And I truly DID leave a legacy.
But when you have a life partner involved, sometimes making sacrifices is what's needed for your partner's satisfaction. In my book, spouse satisfaction supersedes job satisfaction. And he had made many sacrifices for my career. So I made one for his happiness.
Change, Change, Change
From the Windy City, I went to Arizona with no job lined up. I spent close to six months in temporary positions and had a very hard time landing a position at the big local university in my field of housing and residence life. Not having benefits was getting pretty scary – and expensive – so I went down the road of applying for every single position I was even remotely qualified for.
I was thrilled to finally land in New Student Orientation as a Program Coordinator. I would be working directly with the Student Orientation Leaders at a slightly lower salary than I'd had in Chicago. Still, it paid the rent and I truly enjoyed my supervisor and colleagues. This job allowed for some wonderful travel and I was able to grow the Student Orientation Program to a level it had not seen previously.
But a New Sheriff was in town – President, that is – and it looked like there was going to be some major changes on the horizon. It wasn't that I was worried about job security, but I WAS worried about the possibility of my position shifting to a new division all together. And I'd finally realized that I'd been on a lateral train for close to ten years. It was time to seek higher ground and a bit more stability.
Work Life Balance
I applied only to jobs with the words "Director" and "Associate Director" in the title. I landed at a prestigious private school in the mid-south with a campus housing requirement and a very high-touch approach to student development and student conduct. My favorite theory of "Challenge and Support" was mostly support and no challenge.
But I thoroughly enjoyed my colleagues and my supervisor. We were a strong team and we worked very hard — almost too hard. As an Associate Director, I finally had a chance to supervise staff and really build a team. I loved the city and even my hubby found a way to break into a field that he enjoyed further.
This position was a live-in position. I had an amazing apartment, a great salary, and wonderful benefits. I could use my meal card to buy CD's at the bookstore as well as meals off campus at local restaurants. But I spent many weekend evenings at the hospital dealing with students who were intoxicated and made more than my fair share of parent phone calls. I was finding very little work life balance at this institution of higher education. I took my next position after only 18 months on the job.
No Upward Mobility
FINALLY – it was off to Southern California! I took a senior level position at a small private university in the very large San Bernardino County. I was running my own department, supervising staff, and found a wonderful connect with the professional association of my field.
My supervisor was amazing. He gave me autonomy and freedom to run my own show, asked my opinion on higher level matters, and did everything that he could to create opportunity for me. Things were looking good and I was being courted for an Assistant or Associate Dean-level position. This was awesome.
Then, the market crash of 2008 hit and our institution suffered greatly. There were layoffs on the private school front and many public schools were instituting mandated furloughs. I survived the layoffs at my institution, but the writing was already on the wall. In 2010, my supervisor shared with me that he did not see any possibility for upward mobility in my case unless someone in a higher position resigned or retired. And since we had just undergone our second full restructuring during my 4 year tenure here, I made the decision to start looking for something else.
The Moral of the Story
There is more to my story – after all, it IS 2019 now. I have found job satisfaction in my current position; and while there is still room for improvement on a regular basis, I don't get restless anymore. I'm able to work collaboratively with my supervisor and my colleagues in a way that leads to job satisfaction every day. I feel stable and successful. I want to work in this position and this institution for the rest of my career. To quote Huey Lewis and The News, "I've Finally Found a Home."
Do I regret being the former Mary Poppins of Higher Education? No. I learned a great deal about myself and what I'm capable of doing in my career and for students. But I'm happier and more satisfied than ever where I am now.
So go ahead – try on some different jobs. See how they fit. Ask questions. Make some waves. Participate. And don't ever stop seeking job satisfaction!