Student Affairs & Graduate School: A Brief “How-To”


I remember the day I decided to pursue a career in student affairs as if it was yesterday. I was sitting in my apartment and texting back and forth with my supervisor. He said he was going to Penn State University in the coming days to register for dissertation classes and to speak with his advisor. He asked if I wanted to go and talk with the chair of the master’s program to see if this would be a career I would be interested in.

Prior to this conversation, I had my life planned out. I was going to teach, become a principal, earn a doctorate, and become a superintendent.

I thought about my experiences as a RA, student government member, and Student Trustee. I really enjoyed my experience at Bloomsburg University, but was this something I wanted to make into a career?

After speaking with the program chair and a bit more with my supervisor, I decided to apply to graduate school. After a two-month rat race of researching schools, registering for the GRE and speaking with advisors and professors, I submitted application materials to schools. After several interviews and campus visits, I accepted an offer from Bowling Green State University. There I would have a two-year assistantship as a Graduate Hall Director in the Office of Residence Life.

As I think back to my journey from undergrad to graduate school, I want to offer advice for those considering going to grad school for a master’s in student affairs.

  • Know thyself – I took a chance on a new career path and it has been rewarding. However, graduate school and student affairs are not for everyone. Graduate school should not be an avenue to delay “the real world” (for those going from undergrad straight to grad school). Likewise, viewing student affairs as an extension of undergrad or to “relive the best days” are two poisonous thoughts. Going into student affairs is a commitment to helping college students develop the necessary skills to be successful and mature adults.
  • Start early – My journey was unique. I did not make a decision until the end of September that graduate school was my next step. As a result, I rushed through certain steps and did not get the recommended preparation time for the GRE. Give yourself enough time to make correct decisions on how many and which schools to submit applications, who to ask for recommendations, drafting application essays, and proper preparation for the GRE.
  • Be prepared to get and give rejection – One of the key words you will hear on your search is “fit.” Just as schools are considering you, you have to consider the institution, program, and location. I interviewed with several schools (who accepted me into their program), but I felt it was not the best “fit” for me. Likewise, I was rejected from many programs where I thought I had a good “fit.” I learned to be honest with each school through the process. If you feel it is not a good fit, be open and honest with the department/program chair.
  • Patience – Everyone works with deadlines. Every school has a different deadline date, review date, and interview date(s). Being patient and trusting the process is all part of the application process.
  • M.A., M.S., or M.Ed.? The difference between the types of degrees depends on whom you ask. Traditionally, the M.A. is viewed as a generalist degree; having transferrable skills and prepares one for a variety of jobs. The M.S. is viewed as a degree with one specific focus such as microbiology or organic chemistry. The M.Ed. is rooted in educational disciplines such as guidance counseling, curriculum & instruction, or instructional technology. Whatever the type of degree it is, it will vary institution to institution, and in most instances, you will find answers in the program curriculum guide.
  • Type of Program – When researching student affairs graduate programs you will come across a variety of program names. Some of the more common program names include College Student Personnel (CSP), Higher Education and Student Affairs (HESA), Educational Leadership with a focus in Higher Education, and Higher Education Administration (HEA). While these names sound similar, their functions can be different. Some programs are student development focused while others are geared towards the administration within student affairs and/or higher education in general.

Below are two excellent web resources you can use when considering graduate schools for student affairs:

American College Personnel Association’s Directory of Graduate Programs

National Association of Student Personnel Administrator’s Graduate Program Directory

Steve Knepp (@stevenknepp) is currently finishing his first year as a full-time professional in higher education. His areas of interest include residence life, student government, and student leadership development. Steve earned his B.S. in Elementary Education from Bloomsburg University and his M.A. in College Student Personnel from Bowling Green State University. His hobbies include camping, golf, and traveling. You can follow Steve on his blog at http://steve0709.wordpress.com

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3 Responses to Student Affairs & Graduate School: A Brief “How-To”

  1. I disagree with your description of the Master of Arts (M.A.) as a generalist degree, Steve. The M.A. is an advanced postgraduate academic degree traditionally awarded in English, Fine Arts, History, Humanities, Geography, Philosophy, or the Social Sciences.

    • steve0709 says:

      Thank you Debra for your comments. While I understand and appreciate the variety of degrees the M.A. encompasses as well as the academic rigor of an advanced degree, I believe that it does prepare you for a variety of positions within the scope of a particular field. For example, someone with a M.A. in English certainly has an advanced understanding in that field, but that person could potentially work in the academy or as an independent author. Similarly, someone with a M.A. in CSP or HESA/SAHE could work in a variety of positions in both the non-profit and corporate sectors. Both of the degrees described above prepare you for a broad based range of positions within that field. The same can hold true for other M.A. degrees in Philosophy, History, Humanities, and the Social Sciences. Again, I want to thank you for your comments.

  2. [...] Student Affairs & Graduate School: A Brief “How-To” [...]

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