Advice from the (Student Affairs) Pros

By Christina Ferrari

This week’s post is dedicated to those graduating masters’ students in student affairs preparation programs and individuals who are searching for their first student affairs position. I imagine some of you reading this may be worried about the months ahead.  As you gather with family and friends this week for Thanksgiving and answer (or dodge) inevitable questions about what’s next for you, I hope you find the following words useful.

The inspiration for this post came from my own anxious mind, after class one night I found myself in a state of panic: I wouldn’t find a job by next academic year and I was concerned that I might be, already, behind the curve with applications and the search process. So, I reached out to student affairs professionals and asked them two things:

  1. How long did it take you to get your first position in the field (from looking to hired).
  2. What is the one piece of advice you would share to individuals looking for their first student affairs position?
Below is some advice from folks who had already gone through the process and came out to the other side. You’ll notice a general theme here… you will be fine!

There is a job out there for you.

“It took me three months-Jan to late March with an offer. Advice: Finding a job is NOT a race with your cohort members and remember to be supportive to those members that are having a hard time. Lastly, be open and flexible with your search. You never know what may come up. Don’t knock yourself out of applying for a job; let them say no or you’re not qualified (but meet requirements, though).” -Sharee Williamson, Ivy Tech Community College

“Graduated in May, started my current position in late August. I would say don't get discouraged, the right opportunity will present itself!  I was also offered a position in April before graduating but declined. Don't feel pressured to accept your first offer if it's not a good fit!”  -Hannah Retzkin, Northeastern Illinois University

“I personally started the semester before I graduated looking and sending out resumes and cover letters. I applied to over 50 positions and was hired about three months after graduation so it was probably all combined about 6 months. I wanted Greek life but was open to other posts and now I'm a fraternity house director. My advice is to be patient but one needs to be willing to move to other places.” -Robert Smith (@Greek_Squad), University of Kentucky

“[The search took] a few months but I was geographically open - think that helps. Advice: expect to pay your dues, and don't expect to advance until you've demonstrated a work ethic and embraced the student affairs lifestyle -- our field has a funnel effect and not everyone makes it long-term, nor is meant to. Those expecting to keep a steady 9-5 Monday to Friday only will have a hard time keeping up.” -Christine Ohl-Gigliotti, Wheeling Jesuit University

Focus on you, not your peers.

“Started my search after I finished my comprehensive exams in early November, wasn't until May that I had an offer. Things to keep in mind too: if you're searching for Student Activities/Greek Life/Career Services/basically anything but housing, your housing colleagues are going to have jobs a lot sooner than you will.” -Michael Beaver, University of Arkansas

“It took me four months - December until an early April offer. My advice - put on the blinders with your cohort. Your search is yours. Everyone will have different wants and needs so there is no sense in letting yourself get caught up in comparing. Each of you can only accept one job, so the race for quantity of interviews is fruitless and exhausting but inevitably someone in your program will hang their hat on that being the success of their search. Take chances and explore institutions but also know your non-negotiables and when not to apply or continue in a process.”  -Renee Dowdy (@reneepdowdy), Synergos AMC

“2 months to first offer. 3.5 before I accepted one. Do not compare to others, stay professional, and avoid the gossip. It's an awkward time with your other friends who are also searching, but in a year it won't matter and the process isn't worth losing relationships over. Don't compete with everyone. Focus on you and only. Also, don't painc and take the first offer given. Trust your gut!” -Jena Eberly, (@jeneberly), Lake Forest College

Trust the process.

“5 months total including search, application, phone interviews, campus interviews, offer and acceptance.” -Jennifer Brad (@jennuwin_jay), Morgan State University

“I applied on January 1, interviewed the first week of February, graduated in May and started in June. I applied to four positions. I had three phone interviews, two on campus interviews, and I accepted my current position before knowing the outcome of the second interview. It couldn't have worked out more perfectly. The best piece of advice I got when applying was: ‘You may never be more brave than the day you graduate, so go for it.’ To me, that meant, let the process remove you if you aren't qualified or the timeline doesn't align neatly with graduation, don't remove yourself.” -Corey Benson (@bensoncorey), Texas State University

“Started in December and got an offer on May 24. My advice is to remember that you're worthy of this job and you know this stuff!” --Nick Daily (@NKDaily), Antioch College

“I started searching the end of my first semester, second year of grad school. I started applying in January before second semester began. I began interviewing in the middle/end of February and accepted a position in middle/late June. My advice would be to keep trying and not be discouraged, even though it's hard not to be! With some of my applications, I received a no within three hours and some I will probably never hear back from. Until I found a place where there was a mutual connection I didn't stop applying.” –Elizabeth Cadwell, South Dakota State University

”It took me about 8 months! Sometimes it takes a lot of nos to get to the yes!” --Mike Weida, Dutchess Community College

“Six-seven months. Started in February, received an offer in August (whew!)” --Ange Joy, Iona College

It took me about eight months to land my first professional position. I started looking while doing my internship (as a compliance assistant at a college athletics conference) and had a couple of interviews before I accepted the position that I ended up taking. The most interesting thing is that my internship and job search was in athletics and for some reason, one of the institutions I worked with closely in the internship thought I'd be a great fit for student conduct. I guess they were right because I just started my tenth year in student conduct! My one piece of advice for graduating students is to understand that the transition to a full-time professional position is a process. One of my mentors told me that it takes about a year to figure out what you're actually doing. With that, you really just need to know that you're not going to know everything right off the bat. You'll also have to prove yourself on a daily basis. The process is worth it, though, especially as you make connections and gain valuable experience. The next thing you know, you're a veteran and others are coming to you for advice and consultation!” –Ben White, University of California, San Diego

“I started searching in February of my last year. I had a few offers but ended up beginning my first job that May in the office of the registrar at the University at Buffalo. My word of advice is that job interviewing is like dating! The chemistry has to be there…They may like you, but you have to like them too! Never settle for something less if you think you deserve more.”-Samantha Calabrese, University of Buffalo

“Some people I know were offered positions immediately. For others, it took or still is taking a few months. Something will work out eventually. Don't give up. One day you will reap if you faint not...”  -Ashley Stringfield, Pepperdine University

“About 3-4 months. The end of November and I was offered the first week of March. Advice: KNOW that you have the skills and the abilities necessary for your first full-time position. Rejections can sting and cause doubt, and it's the beads of confidence you hold onto that get you through. YOU ARE GOOD ENOUGH.” --Becka Bovio (@beckabovio), Trinity University

“I started my search in February and the first offer that I received was at the end of March, but I didn't take the job I currently have until September. I also graduated in May. I would say to apply to a variety of schools if you don't know exactly what you're looking for, and even if you do! This way you can get a better feel of institutions and what might work for you the best. I applied for small and big schools and through my interview process learned that I preferred a bigger school which was not my original thought! --Sarah Mruz (@smruz23), University of Maryland

“I started my search in December 2012 before I graduated in May 2013. I applied to 90 positions. I had 4 phone interviews, 3 on campus interviews, 1 on campus with the executive assistant to the VP of student affairs. I was offered an interview for my current position without a phone interview. My on-campus was Mid-August, my second on-campus was late August, offer second week in September, start date end of September. I had to wait a long, long time, but I am happy to say I landed my dream position, salary requirement, and geographically where I wanted to be (NYC). The biggest pieces of advice that I can give are: 1) Don't apply to any position that is posted, be selective about what positions you are applying to. If you read the job description and don't think you would be happy in that position, don't apply. 2) Don't compare yourself to your peers that are also graduating and on the hunt. This was really hard for me to handle. It's really discouraging to see your peers getting jobs and you're still in limbo. 3) Make a portfolio to take with you on your on-campus job interview(s). Students love it as do other professionals to see what you have accomplished. 4) On your on-campus interviews try to get a feeling of the institutional fit and gauge if you would be happy in the environment and working with the other professionals. I felt the "fit" during my interview for my current position and feel blessed every day to be working at a great public institution and with talented, dedicated, and passionate student affairs professionals. 5) DON'T GIVE UP! If I had tossed in the towel back in July and given up, I would not have had this awesome opportunity and my position where I am happy to work with students and love going to work. Good luck to everyone amidst the job search! The right job and institution will find you! I promise!” -Kayla Richardson, Lehman College

“Developing a career path is a lifelong process. There's no end point to it. It's exciting because you are constantly learning about yourself. In my opinion one doesn't become a certain position but rather we evolve into it. The Student Affairs field is very exciting. There's nothing better than helping college students grow and develop outside of the classroom environment.” --Steve Young, University of Maryland

“I started selectively applying in Nov/Dec and then started applying for nearly everything I could (not including res life, since I was not interested in that) starting in Feb since I was geographically bound. I applied for about 50 positions total. Received 3 on campus interviews in May (no phone interviews), received and accepted a job offer from May/early June for my current position (also received a call back for a second interview for another one)... shortly after that received 2 more offers to interview which I declined since I had accepted a position, and then I withdrew the rest of my applications that were still out there, so about 12-15. So total start to finish 6-7 months.” –Laura Emerick, St. Cloud State University

Make lots of friends in the field.

“After graduate school I really wanted to stay in the area I got my degree in so my options were limited. After about a year I was ready to move and search all across the US from start to finish it took me about 2 months (if that long) before I was hired. I looked during the height of job search season so I had a job by June. I think if I looked at any other time I would have had more trouble. Advice that I would give is to learn about the politics of higher education, while you are getting the swing of things in your new job. Get to know the right people that will aid you in doing your job better and may serve as great mentors to you. Understand that Universities are businesses and businesses that tend to rely on government funds to run so there is a big picture. If you don't know the big picture then seek out that information. It will definitely help you in the long run as you progress in your career.”  -Aja J. Vaughn (@MissCourtesy), University of South Carolina Aiken

“I started looking in early January, participated in OPE and C3 at ACPA at the end of Feb./early March, and then kept applying throughout my last semester in Grad school. I had an on campus interview in mid-May and offer just a few days later. I would advise those searching to keep a list (I used Excel) to keep track of where and when they applied and for the name of the position. You should also include interview dates and types (phone, in person, Skype, etc.) as well as contact people or the head of the search committee.” –Emily Meyer, Fort Hays State University

“It took me 6 months with over 50 rejection letters and three interviews. Best advice: look for jobs before you graduate and join professional organizations like ACPA or NASPA even if your institution won't pay. Then I would network with all student affairs professionals. You never know who is looking.” -Joshua Curtin (@Jcurtin1979), Georgia Southwestern State University

“It took me about 4 months. I started in January and had an offer early April. My advice is to build and use your network- don't just wait around on for the perfect job. Your network is much more valuable than applying cold.”--Ali Mears, Purdue University

Understand what’s important to you.

“I started before I graduated, so probably began the search in January or so. It took me about seven months as it I was a bit more geographically bound. One piece of advice that I always state is take the time to research fully the universities that you are interviewing at.” --Chris Lewis, Michigan State University

“I had a regional search so mine took from October (when I started looking at what was available) to August. Biggest advice is don't give up. Different schools have different timelines (and the months between April - June are terrible!).” --Henry Shin, Saginaw Valley State University

“I started searching in February during my last year of grad school and was lucky enough to have multiple job offers two months later in April. My best advice would be to keep your values in check! Know what you absolutely need/want in a job and know what you can do without. It makes the job search easier and more enjoyable.” --Justin Roe (@JustinBRoe), North Carolina State University

“Mine took about 7 months from October to April. I did a regional partner search so I was very focused in what I was looking for. I also wanted to be at a small faith based institution. My advice would be to be purposeful. Take time to engage in active reflection and think about what you need and want. Stick to those things that you know will make you happy and do not ever look at something as settling.” --Ryan Bye (@ByeByeRyan), Valparaiso University

“I started a relatively geographically-bound and function-specific search in mid-January and had an offer by the end of April. I applied to fewer than 10 positions. My advice to applicants is to focus on quality over quantity. The applicant should craft each cover letter to fit the specific position to which they're applying and prepare extensively for each interview. Sending off 100 stock cover letters and resumes won't do anyone any good.” --Lesley Bonds (@ lesley_bonds), Scripps College

A GIGANTIC heartfelt thank you goes out to all the student affairs professionals who shared their stories. I was overwhelmed by the amount of responses received in a matter of days. I thought about summarizing or omitting some of the quotes, but decided every story contains unique points and takeaways that are worth sharing.

This post was an experiment of sorts, and has proven to me we are indeed a helping profession. We aid each other, by offering perspective and providing encouragement. Thank you again to those who responded for providing some insight into the Great Job Search (that’s what I’ve decided to nickname this crazy endeavor).

Quite honestly, I will refer back to these words of advice over the next several months and I hope readers in similar situations will too. Graduate students and folks currently searching, what pieces of advice resonated with you the most? Comment below! 

Student Affairs - the First Years

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