Graduate assistants are key players in the work we do.
Whether they’re working on summer internships, semester projects for class credit, or full two- year commitments, graduate assistants can make or break — or, at least, ease or add stress to — your year.
And because graduate assistants play a critical role in your team’s culture, smart hires can make all of the difference.
To help ensure that your next graduate assistant hire is a good one, here are five key elements to strengthen your GA hiring process.
5 Key Practices
1. Make hiring a priority
I have worked for several supervisors who’ve said that hiring is the most important thing we do.
Although it’s easy to agree with this sentiment, it’s challenging to put into practice. Hiring committees often squeeze a half-planned “this is the way we always do it” hiring process into the middle of an already-packed work schedule.
If you believe that hiring is critical to accomplishing your team’s mission, you need to make it a priority and create space in your schedule.
For me, this means clearing my schedule for at least two days: One day to plan out the hiring process and one (or more) to execute the plan.
And I get it; most student affairs professionals don’t have time to do this… or at least that’s what we tell ourselves. But we shouldn’t let our schedules dictate our day; we should dictate our schedules. We must decide what is mission-critical to our office or department, and then let everything else fall in order to match that.
First, figure out when you are entering a hiring season, which you can determine by backtracking. For my hiring team, it means getting a grasp on where we pull applicants from.
If, for example, we pull many applicants from University A, which starts advertising available graduate assistantships on February 1, then we’ll know that we need to have all of our materials (including the job description and details of the application process) online by February 1. And once we have established this go-live date, we can fill in all of the other important dates and establish deadlines.
By creating a hiring calendar that includes days to complete the front-end logistical work, you can ensure a well designed, stress-free hiring process.
Start by figuring out when you are entering your hiring season, and then add a pre-hiring day to your calendar to get all of the logistics in order.
2. Communicate clearly and honestly
Have you ever submitted an application? It’s like sending something into the dark abyss. You push “submit”, and then, most often, you never hear anything back.
Applying for jobs is one of the most stressful and life-altering parts of anyone’s career journey. This is particularly true of prospective graduate students, as the pressure of the unknown (What institutions should you set your sights on? What sort of internship should you take?) can be overwhelming.
And although there is no way to completely eliminate the stress of a job search, creating a hiring process that treats each applicant as a future colleague and fellow human being can go a long way.
Communication is a form of care. From the beginning of the hiring process, it’s important to create clear expectations for all applicants.
After my hiring team receives an application we always send the applicant an email with the following information::
- The date the online application with close
- The date we’ll email them regarding next steps
- The date when we’ll move on to round 2 in our hiring decision
- The exact dates when we’ll let them know any other important information, including decision updates
Creating a clear process with honest communication requires time. But my experience has shown that this time commitment goes a long way in helping each applicant feel valued and respected throughout the process.
Before I roll out any hiring process, I take one to two days to create:
- a timeline of the process
- all application and interview questions
- all interview and application materials
- all emails that will be sent out to applicants throughout the process
Drafting all of the applicants’ emails has been a game-changer for me. Having all communication ready to be personalized and sent has taken a lot of stress off of my plate, freeing me up to focus on other parts of the hiring process while also keeping applicants in the know.
3. Don’t Forget About Your Current Graduate Assistants
Remember that every GA applicant is likely applying for multiple programs and assistantships. So, the first impression you give them, paired with the relational connection the applicant feels with you and your team, can make all the difference to their decision.
There is nothing more frustrating than having your top candidate pick another opportunity over yours. To help prevent this from happening, work to solidify a connection by choosing honesty over hype. Instead of manipulating the job description or exaggerating the role in interviews, provide a true representation of your department and the position at play.
I’ve found that current graduate assistants are great at communicating in this way. Consider scheduling a coffee date between the GA applicant and your current GA in the middle of the interview process. Doing all of the interviews online? Have the online coffee date as part of the interview process.
To make this interaction feel more like a coffee date than a formal interview, I recommend having the current GA send the applicant a short email letting them know the purpose of their scheduled time together, along with some personal information about themself. This will help create a more casual feel for the meeting.
I also recommend inviting the applicant to be the first person to ask questions. This will switch up the dynamic, allowing the applicant to best get to know your institution and the role at play.
If you don’t currently have a graduate assistant, ask one of your seasoned student leaders to meet with the applicants instead.
The coffee date produces two helpful outcomes: First, it will create a great experience for the applicant, giving them a better understanding of the role and your institution. Plus, they will hopefully leave with a relational connection, which will go a long way when it’s time to accept a program and position offer.
It also helps you and the rest of the hiring committee. We all know that interview settings are rather manufactured. When being interviewed, we all put on our best game face. By creating a causal moment wherein the applicant connects with someone on their same playing field (a current GA), their walls will hopefully come down.
You can get a great sense on what the applicant is like when they are not nervous or simply answer questions. All this will help you determine which applicant is the best one to pick.
4. Add a video to your process
One trick I’ve picked up along the way is to add a video submission to my hiring processes.
Here is how it works: I first create a short video (between two and five minutes) of me and/or my teammates talking about our organizational values. The video is usually very informal and conversational; I hope to give an honest portrayal of the values that ground and guides our work.
After we review resumes and cover letters, we send this short video to anyone whom we invited to the next round. Next, we ask the applicant to create and send us a short video talking about the two values they feel most connected with from our video. We stress that video quality isn’t important to us; it can be recorded on their phone.
The beauty of adding the video to your process is twofold:
- It re-enforces your values to the applicant. From the start, the applicant will know who you are and what you’re about.
- Before spending 10+ hours interviewing applicants, you can get a short glimpse into their personality, skills, and values.
Given the large number of graduate assistants that you are probably interviewing within a short time frame, the video provides an easier way to make cuts. In a short video, you can get a feel for the maturity, energy, and fit of each applicant.
Although the video requires extra work on your part, once you made one once, it will be a time-saver that you will want to add to every hiring process.
5. Add Work to Your Process
Although philosophizing theories and articulating work experience is a helpful way of knowing if an applicant is a good fit, most of the hired candidate’s workday will be spent… well, working.
So, as a hiring manager, I ultimately want to see each applicant in action. I want to see them complete several tangible tasks.
Early in her career, my wife was a designer at a local retailer. When hiring designers, she and her teammates required each finalist for an open role to create a design to bring to the interview. It was crucial to their hiring decisions. After all, you could have someone who gave amazing answers during the interview, but if their designs weren’t up to standard, they wouldn’t be a good fit.
Similarly, in the student affairs world, you can have someone who knows all of the development theories and is an articulate speaker. But if they lack the day-to-day skills of the job, they won’t be a good fit.
Let’s say the job you are hiring for is heavy on customer service. It requires responding to emails from students and their families. So, try this tactic: Create a fake email from a parent and have the applicant respond to it.
Or, if the position involves leading training session, let all applicants know (before the interview) that they will be leading a 15-minute training with current student leaders on a specific topic, like crisis management. Then, during the interview, build time for the applicant to lead their training in front of volunteer student leaders or student staff.
Although these tasks can feel cheesy at times, they’re extremely helpful in providing a snapshot of someone’s practical abilities. Plus, keep in mind that most graduate applicants do not have a wealth of experience. This doesn’t mean they can’t do the job well, but the only way to discern their potential is to see them work.
Hiring GAs doesn’t need to suck the life out of your current employees nor your applicants. You can create a hiring process that re-energizes current employees to live out your organization’s mission. Make hiring a critical component to the life of your organization, and watch how the process realigns current employees while capturing applicants’ interests in joining your team.