Finding Jobs in Student Affairs
Sonja Ardoin explains how to identify good openings and how to decode job descriptions.
Although the process of lifelong learning is vital, if you are anything like me, you know there is also practical value in being able to put that learning into practice to assist others in their growth and development (and pay back your student loans and afford to support yourself). The job search process in student affairs can be a time-consuming endeavor full of self-assessment, anxiety, excitement, and a host of other emotional and logistical complexities. It is also a numbers game. For example, in my last job search after my Ph.D. program, I applied for 46 jobs, participated in 12 phone interviews, visited 5 campuses for in-person interviews, and received 3 job offers. I like to think I am a solid candidate; the numbers also show you that I did not receive interviews with half of the places to which I applied. In fact, if you do the math, I was asked to interview with only 23 percent of the institutions to which I applied.
That’s real talk. I do not tell you this to discourage you. I tell you this because it is factual. You may need to apply to many jobs to ﬁnd a job. So, let’s discuss a bit about the job search process. Because whether it is your first time or 10th time on the market, the job search is quite the process.
The first aspect of the job search process is locating positions that are open and seeking applicants. There is no right way to look for job postings. There are, however, a few methods of searching that allow you to make the most of your time. Several online higher education job repositories – including one on this website -- provide options of ﬁltering your search by job type, location, and so on.
Realize, though, that colleges and universities have to pay to have their positions posted on these sites, and not all institutions have the desire or financial resources to market to a national, or international, audience. Thus, it is also important for you to review the human resources websites for any specific institutions in which you have an particular interest because institutions are required to post any position they have open on their own human resources job postings list. This even applies for internal-only positions that are posted for short stints of time.
Outside of websites, you can learn about postings from various email lists, colleagues, your own connections and network, and search firms (for upper-level positions). Similar to “word of mouth,” these tactics let individuals spread information about open positions to groups of people or individuals with whom they share a common interest. It is likely that your graduate program has an email list for alumni where others connected to the program or institution can post open positions. National organizations and other professional development groups have email lists or job boards where they send out opportunities. Colleagues may send things along to people they see as potential fits for open roles, and if you inform them of your search, your connections can keep an eye out for anything fitting your needs and notify you when opportunities arise. Finally, search firms are entities that not only head-hunt for institutions for upper-level positions but also serve as resources for job seekers. You can sign up with search firms and send in your résumé in order to be on email lists for postings for which they think you may qualify.
Finding Your Filters
As you peruse job postings, you will realize that there are hundreds of options that you could pursue. Even if you feel like your search has no limitations, it does. Seriously. You just may not have thought about it long enough yet to realize it. Why? Because there are places where you do not want to live. There are types of institutions you prefer. There are functional areas to which you are drawn. You probably have a range of salary and benefits that you need in order to live comfortably. You may need to consider loved ones and whether you need, or want, to live in proximity to them. See? There are things that will shape, or filter, your search. So, as you review those open position postings, consider the following as elements to help filter your search:
- Supervisor and colleagues
- Salary and benefits (insurance, retirement, gym memberships, meal plans, professional development opportunities and funding, free academic courses, etc.)
- Opportunities outside the job
- Balance and quality of life
- Fit (with the position, staff, office, institution, location, etc.)
Narrowing your search by determining which filters matter most to you will help you focus on positions that more accurately meet your professional and personal needs.
Decoding Job Descriptions
Once you ﬁnd position postings that ﬁt your ﬁlters, it is important to critically assess what they are saying. Job descriptions are not always simple or easy to read. Often, they involve jargon or acronyms that may not be easily deﬁned, they leave out key pieces of the everyday realities of the position, and they incorporate that elusive phrase “other duties as assigned.”
It is extremely important for you to learn how to decode job descriptions. So, how do you do that? Good question. First, print out (or bring up on your electronic device) a job description that appeals to you. Next, use the following suggestions to make notes on, and sense of, that job description.
Notice numbers. As you review a job description, notice numbers that are included. How many staff or students would you supervise? How many student groups would you advise? What, if any, is the size of the budget you would manage? Are the salary and benefits listed? What about the number of days of annual leave and sick leave? Numbers like this will clue you in on the scope of the job itself and the package that comes with it.
Pay attention to percentages. Some job descriptions will list job responsibilities with approximate percentages of how much time you will be spending on each aspect of the job. It may say 10 percent next to supervising staff, 25 percent next to advising students, 50 percent next to event planning and execution, and 10 percent next to other duties. That tells you that the role is primarily centered on events with student support as a secondary focus. That may work for you. It may not. But you need to recognize what the expectations will be about how you spend your time and decide if that will suit your work style. And if the job description does not list percentages next to the responsibilities, you should ask for them or for a general sense of where the majority of your time will and should be spent on a weekly basis.
Scope out similarities. Speaking of responsibilities, when you are decoding a job description, you need to determine how the listed responsibilities are similar to your past or current experiences. If the position lists supervision, what supervision do you have on your résumé? If it talks about adjudicating conduct cases, when have you worked with conduct, crises, or personal counseling? If it speaks to extensive collaboration, what examples do you have of projects where you partnered with multiple constituents? In other words, how does your current portfolio of experiences and skills stack up against the job description responsibilities? You will need to assess this in order to write a solid cover letter, to prepare for any interviews, and to feel confident going into the job. It also allows you to reﬂect on how you will get to put theory and prior experience into further practice.
Glance for growth areas. Jobs should also, ideally, provide you with opportunities for continued growth. Look in the job description for a few areas with which you may have only tangential or no prior experience. Are these areas that you want to learn about? Will these areas fill gaps in your portfolio? What new skills or knowledge could you gain? This is important to think about for your own lifelong learning and also for elements to mention in the interview process that excite you about the job and serve as areas for development. It is also a way to assess where the holes may be between your experiences and skills and the job’s qualifications and helps you to determine how to sell your transferable skills (see the following section) or your ability to be trained and continue developing.
Question the qualifications. Another key aspect of the job description is the section that lists the required and preferred qualifications for the ideal job candidate. This is where employers tell you what formal education, training, experiences, and skill sets they are looking for in the future employee. They want you to read it and determine if you “ﬁt the bill” or not. A great piece of advice that someone shared with me once about the job search process has always stuck with me, and I think it applies well here. I was told to “never tell yourself no; let them tell you no.” Wise words. If you are interested in the job but may not meet all of the listed qualifications, apply anyway. Let them tell you no.
Because maybe you have something they did not even realize they wanted. Or maybe they see something in you that makes them want to bend their qualifications a bit. Now, I wouldn’t suggest applying for a vice president role upon graduating with your master’s degree; let’s not get too outlandish. But let them interpret if your graduate assistant years count as “years of experience” (personally, I think they should), if your undergraduate study abroad covers the “international education” requirement, or if your personal involvement with alumni clubs in the various cities where you have lived meets the “experience with alumni engagement” facet of the job.
Ask about what may be missing. Sometimes what is not listed is just as telling as what is covered in the job description. Is the salary range listed? Does it mention whether you will receive professional development funding? Are committee roles specified? Are there any details about the “other duties as assigned” bullet point? Although job descriptions have only so much space to work with, if you want to know more about missing items in the description, it is O.K. to ask questions about them. Just be smart about to whom and when you ask those questions. It would not be the best idea to ask about salary when they call you to offer a phone interview. Rather, it is more appropriate to call human resources to inquire about some things before ever applying for the job, to wait until they call you with an on-campus interview offer to ask some of the financial details in order to not “waste” the interview, or to ask certain things in person during the on-campus interview process. Whatever you do, ask about things that are red ﬂags or gut checks before you accept and start the job.
Rewrite to reflect the realities. Finally, it is vital that the job description reflect what you actually do within the role. Once you get into a job and have experienced an entire cycle (probably a year or so), you need to revisit the job description to determine if it is an accurate reflection of the job realities. If it is, superb! If it is not, then you need to talk to your supervisor about rewriting the description to be more representative of what you really do and how much time you spend doing it. This will be helpful in the expectations people have of you, in how you manage those expectations, and in any future scenarios if and when you decide to look for another position.
A subsequent essay will discuss interviews in student affairs.
Sonja Ardoin is director of student leadership and engagement at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. She is the author of The Strategic Guide to Shaping Your Student Affairs Career (Stylus), from which this essay is adapted.
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