As we think about our careers as women in student affairs, I think we sometimes struggle to see how we can demonstrate the relevance of our current duties and skills in other functional areas. As women we can often underestimate our abilities, or forget to see where and how we have the potential that can help us launch into a new position. It can also be incredibly hard to take that next step – what if you see a posting for your dream job but you don’t meet all of the qualifications? Maybe you don’t manage a budget in your current position, or the new position requires supervision of professional staff and you currently only supervise undergrad or graduate students? In this post I am sharing some creative ways to develop your skills by seeking out experiences that will help you grow into a new position.
Develop Marketable Skills
When thinking about your next steps in higher education, it can be challenging to identify ways to gain new skills, especially if they are beyond the purview of your day-to-day position. Perhaps you don’t do a lot in terms of assessment beyond collecting data, or maybe you want to know more about what a hiring process looks like. Or maybe you want to participate in social justice activities beyond the confines of your division. But how do you find those opportunities?
A lot depends on what you are interested in and what your institution and community have to offer. Whether you are at a large, public institution or a small college or university, you may find opportunities outside of your job description that can help build those experiences for you. It is important first to always discuss these opportunities with your supervisor, so they can support and advocate for you should any other opportunities you may be interested in crop up. You can also conduct informational interviews with folks in other functional areas in order to learn more about their roles, what their path was, and what areas they recommend you continue to build in your own professional journey. Over the course of my career, folks in other departments have been nothing but supportive when I explained why I wanted to meet with them.
Once you have identified the areas you would like to grow in, see which opportunities your department, division, and institution have to offer that are different from your day-to-day responsibilities. For example, my department occasionally requires additional support for projects that including researching and implementing new technology and curriculum development. I make sure to tell my supervisor when I want to be considered for committee work involving these projects, since they are outside of my normal responsibilities.
Also consider what may be available to you outside of your department and within the larger division in which you work. At my institution, The Division of Student Affairs offers opportunities to be part of an assessment committee. Although I conduct assessment on a smaller scale (mostly collecting data for our Residential Learning Model) I do not get to see the bigger picture of the impact that data has on the development and changes to our model over time. With an ever increasing focus on assessment, many professionals in my department have pursued this opportunity to learn more by volunteering to join the divisional assessment committee.
Finally, consider what may be available at the institutional level. Although I am happy in my current functional area, I participated in the search committee training at my university to be able to support other departmental searches. Gaining interviewer experience has helped me learn more about what hiring managers in other functional areas are thinking, the skills they are looking for, and what its like on the other side of an interview process. I recently participated in an assistant director search which helped me really understand what my institution is looking for in candidate experiences and how to answer interview questions well. This has also allowed me to build a list of the skills and experiences I still need in order to prepare for the move to the next level.
Adjacent to my institution is the union that represents us. Our union has a plethora of opportunities to get involved – even beyond the representative level. As a union member I can choose to attend some of the social activities they hold regularly or develop relationships with other employees and build skills by joining the Constitution & Bylaw Committee, Finance Committee, Job Classification Committee, or Social Justice Committee, among others.
Most of student affairs’ professional associations, including NASPA and ACPA, have opportunities for regional, state and national involvement. I also recommend checking out NASPA’s Knowledge Communities and ACPA’s Commissions to help you identify areas of interest. Don’t be afraid to try something different! Are you in Residential Life but interested in Student Activities? Check out NACA. Working in Orientation and interested in Student Conduct? Check out ASCA. All of these organizations can help you find the right place for you.
Identify Your Transferable Skills
Once you are ready to start applying to jobs and have identified a position you are interested in, it is important to take a close look at the job description. While reading it, you should be able to identify key skills via the action verbs in the description, commonly: supervises, coordinates, oversees, manages, etc. From there, you can start to identify a list of skills that you already have, as well as skills you feel you need to improve or strengthen. Perhaps the new position requires specific skills that you do not yet have, but you have relevant experiences that you would like to highlight. This is where transferable skills come in.
Forbes.com lists the top seven general transferable skills to help you change careers as: technical, communication, critical thinking, multitasking, teamwork, creativity, and leadership. You may notice that many of these skills are interconnected. To be an effective communicator, you need to be able to speak clearly to individuals and groups of people, and listen well to others. This often requires you to be skilled in critical thinking.
A transferable skill I have developed on the job is a knack for working with policy and procedure. At a previous institution, I saw a need to improve a residential life duty response procedure. I worked with our departmental leadership, campus partners, as well as my peers to develop a new and comprehensive guide to duty policy and procedure for both student and professional staff. While I specifically developed this skill while working in residence life, I will need to tap into this skill in any new role, even one outside of Residence Life. In interviews up to this point, I have been able to use this experience to discuss collaboration, attention to detail, and a project or initiative I have lead. Being able to talk about that kind of experience, along with how I collaborated with others, paid attention to detail and led an initiative helps show in interviews that I am capable of displaying these same skills in a new role.
In the field of higher education, many jobs seem to require transferable skills such as supervision experience, the ability to work in a fast paced environment, budget management, or crisis response. If you are interested in a move that requires crisis response experience, but that is not part of your current role, consider asking if you can shadow a colleague who does this. Observe not only what they do, but how they do it. When they receive a call from a student or staff person reporting an incident or concern, how do they speak with the person on the other end? What language or vocabulary do they use? How are they connecting with that person and offering support? If you accompany them to respond to the call, consider how they interact with folks in person. What is their body language? What do they say? What notes are they taking? Paying attention to how they act is almost as important as what they are actually doing. Also observe their follow up. Ask to read their report or listen in on any other calls they may need to make. Ask them why they do what they do and even what they’d do to improve the processes they follow. Understanding the “whys” can help you understand the bigger picture of the mission, values and concerns of the department or the institution. Debriefing the experience can also help you begin to imagine how you might handle the same situation yourself.
At the end of any shadowing experience, take time to say thank you. A short thank you note that mentions something you learned and what you admire about the person’s approach to their work is a great to show your gratitude. Simple, thoughtful gestures go a long way when it comes to building relationships and expanding your professional network. Also, don’t forget to ask if they’d recommend anyone else in their office that you can shadow.
While an experience shadowing another professional does not give you the direct experience you might need for a new role, you can talk about your shadowing experience in an interview and how it would inform your approach in the job. It shows a hiring committee that you are motivated to learn and committed to understanding the way things work outside of the position you currently hold.
If there is one thing I hope you take away from this post, it’s that there are always opportunities or responsibilities you can take on outside of your day to day duties. A lot of it starts with expanding your horizons, building new relationships and trying new things – but take that step. Even if the opportunity does not pan out in the way you hoped, you are likely to find a new friend/colleague, a new hobby, or a new community outside of your current job – and who couldn’t use that?
What ideas do you have about identifying and developing your skills? Is there an experience that you have had that you are interested in sharing with others? Head to the comments to share that experience so we can all learn from each other.
Angela Marchio is a Residence Hall Director at the University of Connecticut. She did her undergraduate work at Bryant University and got her Master of Education at the University of Maine before heading west to Ohio for her first full-time position. She’s happy to be back in Connecticut where her family is, and a proud UConn Husky.