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  • Directors, Deans, Doctors, Divergers:The Four Career Paths of SSAOs
  • J. Patrick Biddix (bio)

Career paths in student affairs generally follow a conventional course: graduate degree to entry-level position, progressive responsibility until middle management (Renn, 2004; Twombly, 1990), and then a decision to remain, work to advance, or change fields (Mills, 2007; Rosser & Javinar, 2003). This middle management, or director/dean-level career stage has been considered a bottleneck (Belch & Strange, 1995), particularly for women (Jones & Komives, 2001). Research has also shown advancement is increasingly difficult without a terminal degree (Howard-Hamilton & Hyman, 2009). Studies on factors influencing career advancement have enlightened qualitative considerations individuals face when moving up (Jones & Komives, 2001; Marshall, 2009); however, few studies have quantitatively shown which positions and/or experiences lead to the most reliable paths to becoming a senior student affairs officer (SSAO).

This study examined the relationship between three experiences research has individually, though not collectively, revealed as important to becoming SSAO: being director of a functional area, being dean of students, and obtaining a doctorate. Data were drawn from résumés of 403 SSAOs collected during the 2008-2009 academic year. SSAO is used in this study as a standard title for the chief officer in charge of student services on campus. Findings update previous research by a providing a sample more congruent with a recent demographic report (NASPA, 2008). Data analysis and presentation were modeled after Birnbaum and Umbach's (2001) study of career paths to the college presidency.

Review of Literature

Middle Management in Student Affairs

Following an entry-level position or comparable experience, many student affairs professionals seek a directorship of a functional area or dean position (Renn, 2004; Twombly, 1990). Mills (2007) referred to this career area as middle management, though there are role differences by title (Tull & Freeman, 2008), functional area, and training and experiences (Rosser & Javinar, 2003). Responsibilities can include staff supervision, performance appraisal, planning, staff development, and ethics and credibility (Roberts, 2007). A recent study of SSAOs revealed residential life, dean of students, and student activities were the most common midlevel functional areas leading to the SSAO at 4-year institutions (Biddix, 2011), though a study of 2-year institutions (Biddix et al., 2012) showed midlevel directorships in administrative areas such as admissions and financial aid were more prevalent prior SSAO experiences. [End Page 315]

Saunders and Cooper (1999) surveyed SSAOs (N = 62) to determine the most important skills and competencies to obtain during middle management. Areas receiving the highest ratings included personnel management and leadership skills, conflict resolution, effectively creating and participating in teams, implementing effective decisions, and understanding organizational behavior. Roberts (2007) asked NASPA Region III middle managers (N = 331) how they gained competence in 10 skill areas and found discussions with colleagues, mentors, and professional conference programs as most effective. These findings were congruent with Janosik, Carpenter, and Creamer (2006) who rated professional association involvement such as planning conferences and institutes; sponsoring research projects; publishing in journals, books, and monographs; and providing opportunities for staff to network and share as evidence of professional development.

The Importance of the Doctoral Degree

Saunders and Cooper (1999) also found a doctoral degree essential for career advancement, lending viability to an applicant's opportunities, particularly when compared alongside candidates with a master's and similar work experience. In a dated, though frequently cited, study of higher education doctoral graduates over a 15-year span, Townsend and Mason (1990) found the degree may not be as valuable for attaining higher positions, stating, "obtaining the doctorate may now be the means for many prospective students simply to hold their current positions, rather than to advance" (p. 79).

Daddona, Cooper, and Dunn (2006) identified a mismatch between expected and attained positions among doctoral graduates 5 years out (N = 101), which the researchers posited might be related to years of postmaster's job experience prior to entering a doctoral program. Howard-Hamilton and Hyman (2009) stated, "without a doctorate, many administrators remain in entry- or midlevel positions and will often make lateral moves rather than advance to positions with authority over budgets, policies, and a large staff " (p. 390).


Data for this study were comprised of SSAO...


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