SPOILER ALERT: tl;dr. This is a long post, but hopefully has some content of value for you.
Ah…spring semester. Flowers will soon be blooming, temperatures will be rising, and the air will be filled with the anxiety of the job search season that permeates throughout much of higher education. Whether you are looking for your first (or second…or third…or…) job, or you are recruiting to fill vacancies in your own institution, the spring turns into grueling process that can stress out even the most zen among us.
I have worked for over a decade with recruiting and hiring qualified candidates to positions at various levels for a number of institutions.
I have also been in many a search…some that went well, and some that took my ego and shattered it in a million pieces. And although we constantly say “trust the process” and “you’ll end up where you’re meant to be,” these platitudes don’t pay the bills or confirm to your parents that you are an actual adult.
Yes, the job search is very much about finding the right fit. But I have sat through enough interviews where the candidate could have possibly been the right fit, but did not equip themselves well enough with a solid set of “search skills” that demonstrated their ability to succeed in the role.
As such, here are my steps to “Land the Yes” in student affairs, specifically for those looking for their first jobs in the field. These by no means will guarantee that you land the job of your dreams, but they may potentially increase the likelihood.
Step 1: The Pregame
These are the preparations you do now to acquire the understanding of where you want to be after your job search. This allows you to develop strategies on how to get to the point, as well as forces you to address the hard realities that may be obstacles to your search. Ask yourself the following five questions in this process:
- What are the functional areas in which you want to work? If they are specialized functions such as working with identity centers, conduct, or even student activities, be prepared to be on a different timeline then your residence life colleagues. And if you are open to residence life, but not a “lifer,” please never make this sound like a fall-back option.
- What type of institutions will be the best fit for you? Whether they’re large, small, public, private, faith-based, secular, etc., this will direct not only which schools with whom you interview, but how to market yourself appropriately to each type.
- Where do you want to be geographically? If you desperately want to be in a city, there is nothing wrong with that. But you need to 1) tell a better reason than you want to be in the city when you are applying for this job and 2)be prepared to be on a different timeline. There are more people trying to get jobs in cities, which decreases potential opportunities.
- What have you done to prepare yourself for this position and your ability to instill confidence. If you don’t have direct skills with the job you applied for, that’s totally okay. I am a believer in transferable skills. But not everyone sees it so you need to be prepared to spell it out for them.
- What are your non-negotiables? Do you need somewhere that has a pet-policy or domestic partner policy? Do you require the ability to supervise a graduate student? Do you have a specific salary minimum? All of these things are questions you need to address prior to interviewing with any school.
Step 2: The Research Phase
So you’ve found which type of institutions you want. AWESOME! Before you even apply to any positions, you need to do a little research on the institution.
- What are their mission, visions, and values? Can you tell this from their website? Does it demonstrate how it is applied? If yes, focus on this during your application and interview. If not, use it as a follow up questions during the actual interview process.
- Do they have a strategic plan? If so, how can this position to contribute to where they want to go, and how can you add value to that direction? For me, the most valuable pieces of research come from the webpages of the President’s Office and the Office of Institutional Research.
- Do you know people at these schools? Even if you don’t, you probably know someone who knows someone. Utilize your contacts. Talk to people beforehand to see if you can get a sense of culture, challenges, opportunities, etc. Most people, especially if they are not connected to the search, will want to be honest with you.
Step 3: The cover letter (aka the first date)
There are two types of people in this world. Those who read the cover letter first, and those who read the resume first. Don’t assume you’ll have one or the other, which means that both need to be flawless.
When I craft a cover letter, I tend to think of it like a first date. Now, I’m not going to lie and say I haven’t been on plenty of first dates, or that they were good. They weren’t. And there was no second date. Why? Because they talked too much, or didn’t talk enough, or only talked about themselves, or honestly made me feel like I was copy and pasted into a poorly organized outing. But I digress..
So in cover letter writing, as in dating, you need to follow the same advice.
- Don’t talk only about yourself. Don’t hash out exactly what is already on your resume. This isn’t an abstract before a research article, it’s a unique opportunity for you to tell them why you would be a good fit at their institution.
- You need to talk about what makes them special. I have worked at a women’s college, a performing arts conservatory, and large state schools. All of them have something different and wonderful to offer. But if I am interviewing people for a position at a faith-based, mission-driven institution and they don’t know that mission (or even worse haven’t realized it’s a specialized institution), they’re dead in the water. Recognize their uniqueness.
- Keep it to one page. Leave something to the imagination, huh?
Step 4: The résumé
A résumé is meant to be a snapshot into your career, not a laundry list of regurgitated position descriptions. There are loads of resources out there that go into how to best craft these, so I will just name a couple of my pet peeves.
- If you are an undergrad applying for a full-time position or grad assistantship, or if you are a grad student applying for a entry level job, your resume should absolutely not be more than 2 pages. If you are an entry level applying to mid-level, you can go to three pages.
- If you are applying for your first entry level job after grad school, take ALL undergrad stuff off your resume, unless it dramatically outlines your experience with a specific skill set or institutional type.
- If presentations are part of your job, DO NOT list them out under the “presentations” section. If you are a grad in residence life, I am going to hope you know how to present on managing roommate conflicts without it be explicitly stated.
- Do not list all the conferences you have attended. I really don’t care if you went to NASPA in Orlando a handful of years ago, unless you presented or were a part of the actual conference implementation.
- Do not use multiple colors, graphics, or pictures of yourself.
Step 5: The Interview Process
YAY! You landed the interview. Congrats! Now is your time to really ramp up your skill set. Now there are different approaches to phone interviews and in-person interviews. Honestly, phone (or even skype) interviews are harder. It’s harder to connect, they may not be able to see your facial expressions or to discern tone.
First round interviews:
- First of all, never EVER take an interview for a school for which you wouldn’t actually consider working. Don’t do “practice interviews,” because you are not going to get feedback, and you are just wasting their time. Which isn’t cool. Like…at all.
- If doing a phone interview, do the call on a land-line, and do it somewhere quiet. If you live in a residence hall, try to do it somewhere not in your residence hall. I once had a candidate doing a phone interview in her residence hall apartment and the fire alarm went off and she had to evacuate. Not her fault, but it threw off the interview and when we rescheduled, we couldn’t quite get back on track.
- Even though you might be in your pajamas during a phone interview, don’t sound like you’re in your pajamas. I always dress up for a phone interview.
- Remind yourself to speak slowly, clearly, and practice eliminating vocal ticks. I struggle to like, pay attention, like if every other word is like….”like.” Same things with “umms.” Be deliberative in your answers and don’t let your mouth get ahead of your brain.
- The first question is most likely going to be the standard “tell us a little about yourself and why you want to work at _________ institution.” This question should take you no more than 2-3 minutes. I once did a mock phone interview with a mentor. I was asked this question. After six minutes of talking, they hung up and made me call them again. This is a very short introductory question in which you need to answer the question “what led you to apply specifically to that job?”
- For the rest of the questions, as much as you can, answer behaviorally. Tell me about a specific situation relating to the question and how you approached it. Even if the question is “tell us about your philosophy on supervision,” sure talk about your thoughts (briefly) on it, but then tell us how you applied this philosophy. Answer in ways that make distinctions between you and the 200 other candidates that have applied for this job. Again, so much of this process is you connecting the dots for the people on the other end of the table. Are you passionate about social justice? That’s amazing. Tell me in specific terms what you have done to create a more just and inclusive environment in a meaningful way and how that may apply to other institutions.
- Do not do a humble brag if they ask you about your weaknesses. Saying “oh, I work too much” or “I’m too devoted to my students” that makes you sound like a BS artist. Give honest examples, but also tell what steps you have done to overcome these challenges.
- Make clear and concise points. I cannot tell you how many times I have had to get through 10 questions in half an hour, but the candidate took 5-6 minutes answering each question.
- Ask good (but not too hard of question).
- Ask questions that are relevant and specific to the institution… so do not ask “why do you like working there?” Why I like working somewhere means squat to determine if this will be a good fit for you (plus I guarantee you most people are going to either say that they like it there because of their students or their colleagues…). You have a limited amount of time to get the information you need. Ask questions such as “How do you feel your department models your values of inclusivity/sustainability/community?,” “how do you support students of color on your campus?,” or “what are some challenges for people who work here?” Also remember all that research you did prior to the phone interview? Ask questions about that “tell me about the success of _____ program.” “I see that you are entering into a new capital campaign. What role does student affairs have in that process?”
- Do not ask questions about salary, benefits, etc. That will come as you progress in the search.
- Everything about the phone interview now applies to the on-campus, except now they can see you. Dress your best, whatever that means for you.
- If the school is kind enough to pay for travel expenses, do everything in your power to work with the host site to make their life easier.
- Remember to ask during the on-campus offer if they are requiring you to do a presentation or to prepare a portfolio (or both). From that, try to glean what it is that they are looking for from you. Do they want to see your presentation skills? Are they looking at your knowledge around a specific topic (such as leadership development and how to implement it on a commuter campus)
- If they take you to a meal, eat conscientiously. Also remember no alcohol. No matter what.
- It is a marathon, not a sprit. Take your time, don’t get flustered, be intentional. I once was on an on-campus for a top choice school when applying for an RD position. My second interview of the morning was with the Assistant Directors. After the interview, one of them approached me and said “you are a really good candidate. I want you to succeed. But that didn’t go well [at which point I died inside]. Just calm down and breathe. You’re good enough, so relax.” I had two choices: blow the rest of the interview, or fight for what I wanted. And my choices there led to three happy years at that school.
Step 7: The Offer (or lack thereof)
Ah, the moment of truth. When you see that number flash up on your cell phone and you know that one way or another, your life may change in that moment.
- If you absolutely know that you want this job, it is absolutely okay to accept on the spot, despite what many people think. If this is your dream job, unless you are trying to negotiate certain components (in which case, read Patrick Love’s article about negotiation https://patrickloveblog.wordpress.com/2013/04/13/job-negotiation-tips-and-suggestions/), I don’t know why you wouldn’t accept right away.
- If you need some time to think about it, agree to a time that you will reconvene to discuss the offer. Have your mind made up by then. Do not take too long, because they need to reach out to other candidates who may be waiting and take this job in a heartbeat.
- Always get everything in writing.
- If you get a rejection, it is totally okay to ask for feedback. But realize that it is hard for employers to provide total strangers with honest feedback, so you may not get what you are looking for.
With that being said, I wish you the best in your job search process. So many of us have gone on interviews we absolutely bombed (in one interview, I referred to myself several times as “awkward.” They failed that search). Use your networks, learn from your mistakes, and above all, remember that job offers don’t determine self-worth. Whether you get hundreds of offers immediately or it takes you a little while to find your path, you are amazing and better just by going through the process.
I would love to hear your thoughts or what I missed. Tweet @TM_Porter with further tips and thoughts.