Narrow Down Your Next Student Affairs Job Search with These Tips

Job searching is exhausting. 

The fact that you’re likely competing against hundreds of people can be intimidating. With so many opportunities, finding the right position on the right campus can be especially challenging. 

But fortunately, I have figured out a few ways to narrow down the search! The key is to stay positive and know that the fit (including the campus culture, geographical location, office amenities, and benefits both on and off campus) is everything. 

Do not allow rejection to slow you down; that job and institution just weren’t ready for you and your potential!

6 Tips

1. Practice self-awareness

Self-awareness is critical. As William Shakespeare once wrote: “To thine own self be true.” 

Ask yourself: What is the purpose of your job search? Are you a recent graduate, ready to get into the workforce? Are you looking for a new environment that’s different from your current campus? Are you ready for the next level in your career? Regardless of your why, having self-awareness is critical before starting your search.

If you are a recent graduate or looking to change functional areas, the CAS Standards is a great resource. They provide a synopsis of 47 functional areas within higher education. The information found here could assist you in narrowing down which functional areas appeal to you the most. Understanding the different functions can help you understand which roles align best with your passions and interests. 

Another aspect of self-awareness is acknowledging both your strengths and your areas in need of improvement. Do these speak to your functional area of choice and the job descriptions you’re looking through? 

During a job search, I always write out my strengths and my opportunities for improvement within the field. Doing this allows me to identify how each position might aide in my development. And, if there is an alignment of my strengths with the position and the institution, I apply!

When I graduated from a master’s program, I accepted the first job I was offered. Epic fail! 

I was so eager to start my career in student affairs, yet I wasn’t consistently getting interviews. So, when I was finally offered a position, I said yes almost immediately. 

But within a month of starting the job, I realized it wasn’t the right fit for me. I recognized that, as a Black woman, there weren’t may support systems to aid in my transition to the campus and the city. 

Additionally, chatting with students gave me a deeper insight into the campus culture. These conversations played a role in my decision to leave, especially when students made comments like “as much as we want you to stay, you can do better.” 

Although I made some lasting connections with staff and students, I felt underused and always wanted more — included professional development and a higher salary — than what the institution was able to provide at the time.

Because of this, I began to really look into what makes a position and institution the right fit. 

2. Identify your needs and expectations

You need to be able to articulate your needs and expectations to yourself and to interviewers. Set a few deal-breakers and don’t settle. This is your livelihood. You will be spending many hours a week in this environment, so you need to set high standards.

If the institution can not deliver on these ideals, then evaluate what you expected versus what the institution can offer. 

You have to be clear on what you are looking for in your next position and institution. What are your non-negotiables? This question is important! I didn’t realize how important it was to identify my non-negotiables, especially as it relates to financial benefits and mental health support — until it was too late.

For example, my non-negotiables now include that I need to be within an hour of an international airport. I love traveling; it’s a must for my self-care. Also, I enjoy shopping so the campus must have a variety of shopping outlets nearby. 

Here are some either you might want to consider in terms of proximity:

  • Nail salons, spas, and hair stylists 
  • Restaurants 
  • Sports arena
  • Family and friends
  • Gyms 
  • Weather 
  • Mental health therapy

You might also want to consider if you’ll have opportunities to build support systems off campus. This was especially important for me as a Black woman working at historically white institutions.

And if it’s a small college town, where you’ll be likely to run into students while out and about, consider if that will bother you.

When an interviewer asks, “Do you have any questions for us?”, your immediate response should be “yes.” 

Here are some questions I have asked or advised others to ask:

  1. What about my resume stood out to you as it relates to being a good fit for the position and the departmental/divisional/institutional culture?
  2. How is data used to informed decisions? (That’s the assessment person in me. If an institution is not using data to inform decisions, it’s a major red flag.)
  3. How do you help staff develop professionally? What does that involve?
  4. How would you describe the campus and the surrounding community’s culture?

3. Research the campus culture

Research as much as you can about the campus culture. You need to research the institution like you did when you were looking into undergraduate and graduate schools as a student. 

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Here are some things you can do:

  • Talk with current students and alumni.
  • Check out the institution’s website and social media accounts. 
  • Conduct an official college visit (if you are nearby and didn’t have an on-campus interview.)
  • Ask your networking circle if they have any ties or connections to the institution, in order to help you better understand the campus culture.
  • View the college’s statistics from IPEDS, which provides various statistical data points about institutions in the United States.

You have to understand that there are many cultures within any given campus — including the broad institutional culture, faculty culture, staff culture, divisional culture, student culture, and alumni culture. That is a lot of culture to research and think about.

4. Create a plan of action

You need to dedicate time to the job hunt. Set aside a few hours a day to focus on locating openings, doing research in the institution, and applying.

I recommend using Excel to track all the jobs you’re interested in. Here are some column headings to use in a spreadsheet:

  • Job title
  • Institution name
  • Location
  • Experience required
  • Education required
  • What I like most about the position
  • Application deadline
  • Date I applied
  • Date of first interview
  • Phone/skype Interview Offered (Y/N)
  • On-campus interview offered (Y/N) 
  • Links to the job description/college website/department website

5. Network for your net worth

Sometimes securing a job is about who you know.

Not all institutions utilize job advertising systems like Indeed or HigherEd Jobs, so simply searching online won’t reveal every opening. Get involved in professional organizations, utilize coaches/mentors/sponsors, connect with current and past colleagues and/or supervisors. All of these are great ways to start networking within the field. 

6. Stay ready so you don’t have to get ready

Always ensure that your resume is updated — either for specific jobs or for student affairs in general. 

I recommend addressing specific job experiences in cover letters. But remember: A cover letter is not a summary of your resume! A cover letter allows you to synthesize your professional and educational experiences in relation to the position you are applying for.

As someone who reviews cover letters and resumes from the employer side, a cover letter gives me a reason to want to dive into your resume. A cover letter also shows me how you can effectively communicate what you have done to prepare for the position and how professional development plays a part.

When you take on new job responsibilities, update your resume. When you start a new role, update your resume. When you join a professional organization, update your resume. You get the point: Keep your resume updated! You never know what spaces you will enter and who may be hiring. Also, participate in mock interviews with colleagues who can provide critical feedback. 

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Job searching is no walk in the park. It can be a daunting process. However, I’ve found these tips to be beneficial for myself and for others. 

Continue to do the work and always discover new ways of developing yourself for that next position. Remember that the right opportunity will meet you when you’re ready!

What factors do you consider in your job search? We’d love to hear your strategies and success stories. Tweet us @HelloPresence and @MissKellie_1.

(And if you’ve been offered a role that will require a major move across the country, here are some factors things to consider in your decision.)

Kellie Dixon

About the author: Dr. Kellie Dixon is committed to student success. She's worked in many functional areas, including multicultural affairs, housing and residence life, student conduct, student organizations, and assessment. Her research focuses on assessment, organizational leadership and development, male student achievement, and mentorship. Follow her on Twitter at @misskellie_1. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

Check I'm Here is now Presence. Learn more about this change in our blog post here.