3-minute mentor: Compartmentalize and save your brain

February 18, 2019
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"3-Minute Mentor" is an occasional Connect column delivering bite-size career advice for higher education leaders, writers, and researchers. If you or someone you know can offer insightful professional development tips, please contact the Connect editor

Unlike professionals who found their way into higher education administration early in their careers, Tom Butler fell into the field unintentionally and rather later in his professional life. Once a real estate agent, the current Associate Registrar at George Mason University has now been working in higher education for eleven years now. His unique perspective is formed both by his late entrance into the field, and the steep learning curve that he encountered.

Though Butler never strove to be a higher education professional growing up, it is a clear natural fit for him, from his fond recollections of working with students to his innovative visions for the future. From his experience, he offers these three bits of advice:

1. Compartmentalize. Butler had no prior experience in higher education when he applied for an open Associate Registrar position at Liberty University. Going through a grueling series of interviews over the course of a month and a half, Butler had thought that he had been through the most strenuous of it.

“My brain cracked in half in the learning curve,” he laughed, looking back on it. The sheer amount of processes and technical concepts was overwhelming to a newbie, combined with the everyday stress of working in higher education. His mentor who hired him, Assistant Vice Provost Larry Shackleton, helped him immensely during this period.

“I became more introspective with the job,” Butler says. “Until this point, I never realized that it was important to care for your emotional health by compartmentalizing or other methods.” 

2. Embrace a challenge. Butler had a meteoric rise in his career, going from being a “solo artist” to leading a team of twenty people in three years. For him, professional success came when he embraced a challenge and took ownership of it. 

Taking on a new project helps to demonstrate your initiative and leadership, and also helps you learn the topic as well. These challenges can form important career milestones.

3. Develop relationships. In addition to developing self-care skills and being willing to take risks, Butler has professional role models in the field that he looks up to and admires. For example, he considers Tom Black, a fellow registrar at Johns Hopkins University, as the “Clint Eastwood of registrars.” And connecting with mentor Emily Heady at Liberty University helped him, a less seasoned professional at the time, to navigate the politics of higher education.

Butler also suggested reaching out to peers at other institutions, creating a widespread professional network for support and career growth.

Interested in connecting with other higher education administrators? Join one of our profession-specific or caucus listservs. And meet your colleagues in person at the AACRAO Annual Meeting, AACRAO's largest, most comprehensive meeting, March 31 - April 3, 2019, in Los Angeles.