Student officers in the departure lounge

Annie Gainsborough is a Project Consultant at Gradconsult 


Gabi is Policy and Research Manager at AGCAS.

In our experience the world of SU sabbatical officers is either invisible or just wildly misunderstood.

While making the post-graduation move into the world of work is hard for all students, we thought it was important to dive into the reasons this transition can be particularly difficult for student officers.

March marks one of the highlights of an SU year – election season. It’s an emotional rollercoaster, and not just for the candidates – as officer elects celebrate their success, it’s the beginning of the end for current sabb teams.

But when we were officers at Sheffield Students’ Union, we didn’t know this yet. We were too busy tackling the stigma around mental health, making activism more accessible and providing support for students who take drugs to think about what we were going to do after the high of the year was over.

Luckily, five years on, we’re both now working with organisations we love – and that sees the value in hiring ex-officers. But getting here wasn’t straightforward, and not all officers have positive experiences when it comes to leaving the role and finding a new job.

While making the post-graduation move into the world of work is hard for all students, why is this transition particularly challenging for student officers?

The challenges for officers

At this point in the year many officers, like students, will be facing the reality of leaving their adopted city, leaving support networks, and maybe one of the closest teams they’ll work in – and all during a pandemic. For better or for worse, being an officer does not feel like a job, rather part of your identity.

From the moment you win your election you become “the [Welfare/Education/Sports] Officer” and the loss of that identity coupled with an abrupt end to the good (working with inspirational students and feeling like you are changing the world!) and the bad (sleepless nights and near-constant scrutiny) can feel like a crash and is difficult to adjust to.

Moreover, holding such responsibility (line-managing the CEO and £million budgets) at such an early stage in a career can create a sense of self-importance in some officers (including ourselves!).

So when everyone else becomes more interested in your successor and the prospect of a “normal” job looms, it’s a slippery slope to feeling inconsequential. “Normal” graduate jobs seem like a huge step-down the career ladder – lacking the autonomy, gravitas and passion that go hand-in-hand with officer-life.

Whether you succeeded in organising an NSS boycott or campaigned for decolonizing the curriculum – or just communicating with clarity the depth and breadth of student concerns during the pandemic – these achievements will appear to count for nothing if you cannot articulate your experiences to recruiters.

Careers services offer great guidance to students/graduates on this, but an officer’s experience is unique – so support should be tailored to help them demonstrate relevant skills. Prioritizing career development whilst the students who voted for you are still expecting you to fulfill the promises made to them is tricky.

All students find it difficult juggling job-hunting alongside final-year, but we believe that time to dedicate to proactive employment preparation is something that officers are lacking.

Whilst we know that some SUs provide excellent support to officers throughout the year, we’ve spoken to some ex-officers who say the support they were given declined throughout their term, culminating in little to no support as they left. As one ex-officer said:

It felt a little like we were used until the last minute and then discarded”.

Improving the transition experience

This shouldn’t be an afterthought, but if career development hasn’t been a theme from day one, it isn’t too late now. Below are five tips for officers, SUs and the wider sector to start working collectively to solve these problems for future officers. Nothing written here is prescriptive and we would love to hear your thoughts and suggestions.

1. Talk to ex-officers

This is a powerful way for SUs to learn how good your organisation is at supporting officers to leave and a way to identify effective measures to make this period easier for the next cohort.

Officers, make an effort to re-connect with the previous team – what advice would they give you as you make this transition? Even just talking to someone who’s been there before can make the world of difference in this stressful period.

2. Who else can help?

By sharing real-life examples of what worked and what didn’t, senior leaders and ex-officers can really support you as you during this transition. And just across the virtual road, the university’s careers service is the in-house expert on careers guidance and graduate jobs.

From Sheffield SU’s Careers Week to Nottingham Trent SU’s Postgraduate Employability and Wellbeing Workshop (both officer led!), there are a number of great existing partnerships between careers services and SUs, but if this isn’t something you are already doing why not set up a collaborative session or seek out this support on an individual basis?

3. The importance of wellbeing

The key to improving the wellbeing of officers during this period is through providing practical support (see easy tips above) and by fostering a positive and relaxed environment towards the end of their term. Organise an event to celebrate their achievements or just let them know what has impressed you about their time in office.

Officers, remember you can’t change the world in a year and your achievements may be obscured by Covid, so instead encourage your team to reflect on what you’ve managed to do and spend some quality time together before you go your separate ways.

4. Mentoring

We believe an officer alumni mentoring programme would be massively beneficial for helping officers figure out their next steps. A mentoring scheme like this has benefits for the mentee (support, advice and skills development), the mentor (develops their mentoring skills and can be incredibly rewarding) and for wider student politics, by keeping ex-officers engaged with the issues that students are facing.

We’ve found many officers would be willing to give their time in this way, so why not get in touch with your networks!

5. Invest in their development

A tailored support programme that focuses on reflection and articulating skills and successes from day one would be a game-changer for officers. There is a lot to fit into the officer year, so developing the coaching and workshops that many SUs already provide, to consider life beyond the SU could make a real difference.

We know that there are barriers for SUs in providing this, but many people can help in making sure this support exists – including people who understand what it is like to have been in that situation.

We would love to hear about what you – as an SU, university or careers service – do to support your officers already, as well as your ideas for what a tailored support programme could look like.

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