“What functional area of student affairs are you interested in?” Throughout the entirety of graduate school, this was the question asked of us most frequently and it caused me almost as much anxiety as my relatives asking me, “Soo… do you have a special somebody in your life?” at every family gathering. It seems like each time I was asked, my answer changed. Now with a global pandemic impacting budgets at higher education institutions, an ideal functional area seems to be the least of our worries.
If you’re approaching the end of graduate school, you might be thinking, “What’s next?” and “Wait a minute. What functional area do I really want to start in?” I’m here to encourage you that you don’t need to have a 20, 10, or even a 5 year plan figured out. Here are 5 tips to help you process through the job search.
Start considering what aspects of a job you are interested in. What kind of student populations would you like to work with? (first gen, international, at-risk, student leaders, minoritized populations, etc.) Would you like to be a part of a team or do you prefer working alone? How do you want to spend your time at your job? (event planning/programming – nonexistent right now, but I have hope it will come back one day, one-on-one student interaction, leading larger groups of students, career development, residential staff, etc.) What supervisory style do you prefer? (hands-on, high autonomy, structured, laid back) What about institutional type? (community college vs. university, public vs. private, large vs. small institution)
Ask questions and be curious. Is there a functional area you know nothing about? Ask a coordinator at your institution if you can meet with them and ask them questions about their job. Hear the truth about the best and worst parts of their job and learn what a typical day in their position looks like. If a guest speaker from another institution talks in one of your classes, grab their contact information and ask if you can meet with them one-on-one. People love talking about themselves so they will be eager to meet with you. This is also a great networking opportunity, because those coordinators will keep you in mind if they hear of open positions in their area.
Ask for help. Is your resume ready? What about your cover letter? Start working on your resume and cover letter now. Ask your professors and supervisor(s) for feedback. Take advantage of any opportunity to practice your interviewing skills. Think through your top responses to commonly asked questions and prepare stories that you might share to situational interview questions. Whenever you receive a rejection, ask for feedback about how you can improve for the next interview.
Cast your net wide. Apply to several different jobs and start early! I submitted my first application in January and would suggest starting even earlier due to hiring freezes. Know that the first job you get out of grad school won’t be a forever job, but it will be a stepping stone. You might end up in a job or an area that you didn’t originally plan on, and that’s okay.
Don’t give up. You can do it! You can find a job! You have the education. You have the experience. You have the heart. When you’re feeling discouraged or overwhelmed, remember your why. Why did you go to grad school? Why do you want to help students? That will provide needed motivation for you to continue applying to jobs, while also finishing strong with your grad school responsibilities.
I’ll end with the story of finding my first job, which I am currently in. At the beginning of my final year of graduate school, we were tasked with a project that studies how institutions succeed and fail to serve a specific student demographic of our choice. I chose to study the various needs of students who experienced foster care growing up. The project required us to talk with student affairs professionals who work with foster care alumni, so I met with the current foster care alumni program coordinators at UNT. As I started the job search, my mind kept going back to the foster care alumni program, which is run collaboratively by the Coordinator of Special Projects, a Graduate Assistant, and a professor in the Social Work department.
When the Coordinator position became vacant, I began researching the job in-depth. To make a long story shorter, I now serve as the Coordinator of Special Projects and I LOVE it. While my job includes working with Foster Care Alumni, I also get to work with other at-risk student groups, advise a student organization and help plan various events on campus to support the Division of Student Affairs (once COVID is gone).
Author: Taylor Thompson (she/her/hers) works as the Coordinator of Special Projects at the University of North Texas. Her motivation for life stems from her relationship with Jesus and she lives to empower others to discover their purpose. In her free time, Taylor enjoys spending time with friends, rock climbing, and embroidering. You can find her on Instagram at (@tee_squaredd or @taylormadecraftco)