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Invisible work: Why building a new student service office can lead to burnout

One of the biggest challenges facing career services professionals who enter the field today is the many different roles they need to play to do their jobs. This is particularly true for graduate career center professionals, who are usually in 1- or 2-people offices, and serving between 500-2,000 students or postdocs.

If you’re building a new office, the job description may say that they’re looking for a self-starter to offer career development programming – and you may think the focus is on developing programs – but in reality, the scope of skills you need could include:

  1. Leadership: If you’re establishing services at your institution, you’ll need to develop a vision, mission and an overall strategy for the office. ‘Career development’ can include a wide range of topics, ranging from career options to application materials to networking) and services (stand-alone workshops, for credit courses, peer groups, online resources, 1:1 counseling, etc.). Which ones will your office focus on? You’ll also need to consider if growth is part of the long-term plan.
  2. Population Knowledge: You’ll need to gain an awareness of typical career issues, paths, and barriers for your populations.
  3. Content/Skill Knowledge: Adult/career development theory and skill development would be helpful, including an understanding of self-assessment, career exploration, positioning yourself for a career, the skills to be competitive in the application process, and the professional skills to help you succeed on the job.
  4. Program Development: You will be responsible for designing an overall curriculum and individual programs, teach workshops and moderate panels (which means that some pedagogy around lesson planning, learning outcomes, and classroom management, etc.).
  5. Counseling: Counseling skills, including defining the counseling role; the difference between an advisor, counselor, and therapist; managing boundaries; establishing, maintaining and ending a counseling relationship.
  6. Resource Development: (e.g. developing materials, and integrating career development tools into your offerings).
  7. Employer Relations: You’ll need to develop an employer recruitment effort, building out resources to support employer efforts.
  8. Assessment: Define your metrics to determine success, develop assessment tools, coordinate collection and assess the data,
  9. Operations: This includes managing a wide range of administrative issues, including hiring, managing and terminating staff; managing finances; developing new policies and processes, selecting and integrating technology (e.g., building a website, using technology and social media to connect with your community), building new infrastructure, and dealing with whatever operational issues arise.
  10. The Politics: Establishing and fostering relationships with key stakeholders, managing expectations, remaining aware of trends and issues on campus.
    That’s a lot, people. A lot of skills, in a lot of different competency areas…and it can burn out even the most committed self-starter.

How many career development staff have spent hours, not designing programs, but trying to order office equipment, or get a speaker paid? More than one of my colleagues in smaller offices have lamented at spending an entire day just trying to figure out how to teach themselves a new software program to make flyers, or how to get connected to their printer. Operational tasks always that require a certain level of knowledge and time, to address, follow up and troubleshoot. It isn’t a surprise that many career development staff are exhausted, or are concerned that they aren’t showing enough productivity.

Additionally, there’s the time it takes to develop processes and policies around one’s work. If you’re going to offer counseling appointments, someone’s going to have to schedule them – a time-consuming endeavor unless you have an online scheduling system (which takes time to research and set up) or an admin. You’ll also need to make decisions such as: are there limits on the numbers of appointments you offer? How long are your appointments? Which topics do you cover and which are beyond your scope? What’s your cancelation policy? What level of confidentiality does the university allow you to offer? Is it any wonder that you were only able to see two 1-hour appointments today?

I call things like this: the operations, the development of infrastructure, the policies, the processes…the very building and running of one’s office, “invisible work”. I haven’t yet found another phrase to capture this; everything it takes to do the work that one does.

Because what often gets counted is the number of students/postdocs you met, not the amount of time it took you to respond to the student who rescheduled at the last minute, or figure out how to get your logo onto the online appointment module. What often matters is the number of participants counted at your workshops, not the amount of time it took to set up the online registration, or to figure out how to pay for catering, or to target the publicity of your event on social media to various student groups on campus.

Moreover, I’m not sure there is a way to stop the slide that has transformed high-level skills (building a website, managing the logistics for a large scale event, etc.) into something that supposedly anyone can do well.

I’ve noted the loading up of extra work under the guise of empowerment; technology that ‘allows’ staff to book their own rooms, or schedule their own counseling appointments, edit their own websites, and create their own flyers. But honestly, tasks like managing logistics, scheduling, web management and publicity are their own set of competencies, particularly if you plan to grow your office. Yes, online tools like Symplicity and Handshake, Eventbrite, Canva, Drupal, Genbook and Fullslate and Hootsuite can do a lot in terms of running a career office; but there is often no talk of the level of technological savviness that one needs to have to manipulate all of these different tools effectively.

So, our office, the OCPD, has been thinking a lot about ways to make the invisible work, visible, steps we can take to reduce burnout and increase productivity.

One example is a staffing decision we made a few years ago. When the OCPD was a two-person office, demand for counseling appointments was up, as was the demand for programs, and we had the chance to grow. We were doing about 40 programs a year and realized that if we invested in an event planner (rather than another counselor), we could probably boost our programming numbers significantly.

It took a while to convince the powers that be, but ultimately we invested in an event planner. She doesn’t just handle our event logistics, she’s the keeper of institutional knowledge of the administrative tasks needed to pull off our programs. She knows the small details; the difference in accounting processes to pay a staff person an honorarium vs. an external speaker; which rooms you could have food in, vs. those you can’t; and handles the day of set up/break down, freeing the programming staff to connect with students.

I realize at the time it seemed an indulgence, and we wondered how we were going to convince anyone on campus to give us funding for it. Ultimately, we made a case for the need for increased programming and framed the hire as a targeted investment that would increase our efficiency.

The investment has paid off in dividends. Not just the number of programs increased, but the quality of the workshop experience went up for participants, as flyers/publicity were always out early, speakers were always paid on time, rooms were always booked, handouts were always on hand, and someone was there to handle AV troubles while a Program Director continued with her presentation. I think it contributed to the perception that we offer quality programs. Also, the Program Directors could focus on what they do best; developing content, teaching and counseling, which I think has lowered their stress levels. It’s one of the reasons that OCPD now offers or co-sponsors over 200 career and professional development workshops a year at UCSF.

We’ve adopted other strategies to chip away at the ‘jack of all trades’ scope of competencies that career development staff apparently need to do their work. But I do wonder what more universities can do to support career development staff and set them up for success as they build the services to help students succeed.