Job searches aren’t easy for new higher education administration graduates, especially at this time. I started my search in January of last year, unsure about how to begin and which jobs I would qualify for. Over the course of creating 345 application documents, applying to 164 jobs and attending 41 interviews during the past 10 months, I learned a few things in my first professional staff job search. I want to share them in the hopes that it can improve the experiences of others in similar shoes.
First, I should tell you a little about myself. I worked in student and civic engagement as an undergraduate at Swarthmore College, and the experiences in vitalizing campus involvement during Swatoberfest and other activities changed my life. I knew then I wanted to continue to support, nurture and educate students. In grad school, I worked in student programming, co-curricular advising and summer STEM bridge counseling, and I collected various perspectives on advising, coaching and student development. Following dual graduate assistantships and a NODA internship, my goal was to work in a position that bridged academic and student affairs.
I also knew that my surface-level and deeper identities would factor into the job search process, as I am a male-identifying Asian American with a background in science and the liberal arts. From my experiences, I recognized that I faced distinct barriers related to systemic racism as well as certain personal challenges when looking for jobs. In higher ed, where I had already struggled to belong, I looked for places to work that would see my perspective, skills and insights as assets for innovation as well as equity in the field.
Unsure of how to start, I simply began applying for positions last January, writing cover letters and sending résumés that, I now see in retrospect, were of poor quality. Hesitance was the feeling of the day, and I was blind to the details and effort needed to advance in the application process. But, as most job searches responded with “the applicant pool is very competitive, and we have moved on with other candidates,” I found myself learning and reflecting on how to improve my efforts.
When April 2020 rolled around, so did all the disruptions of COVID-19. Institutions struggled with how they would address the pandemic, as did the job market. During that month, due to lack of time and job openings, I applied for only five positions in total, as compared to a peak of 10 a week in the later months of the search. That slow period gave me time to consider ways to enhance my application materials, and I created a makeshift assessment system to identify which jobs I should apply to and how I should tailor my application. Also, I networked and reached out to many alumni and other individuals as possible, and I learned to ask useful questions to build professional relationships.
Unfortunately, however, over the following months, I had to swallow my share of bitter pills. Two second-round interviews fell through, partly from factors outside my control. I experienced firsthand the difficulty of finding a job during economic hard times without professional experience. At the nadir of my search, I even acknowledged to myself — and made peace with the idea — that I might have to look outside higher ed to support myself before returning to it.
But what I was prepared to give up in career advancement was not mirrored by my will to grow from the processes. With each rejection, I learned how to improve my applications and interviews — crucial during a time when only a 20-minute phone interview could separate my advancement in the process from the rejection pile. Committing to persistence and learning during this period, I strove to learn and open my mind to other work possibilities.
I learned how to draft compelling cover letters and created a consistent, precise routine for synthesizing materials to apply for jobs and advance in interviews. And ultimately, my approach paid off. During one week in September, I had five interviews. A month later, I had five more interviews in a week, with three being second-round interviews. Of the two concrete offers that resulted from my interviews, I accepted one and concluded my search.
It was a long and demanding journey, and I won’t sugarcoat it: the process took massive amount of time and preparation. But I grew a lot as a result, and here are a few things I would recommend to others embarking on a job search at this time.
- Learn continuously. The job market is not a classroom, but take every possible opportunity to collect information and learn as much as you can.
- Approach jobs without hope of an offer or fear of rejection. You will experience happy surprises and unexpected disappointments in the search process. Remember: anything before accepting an offer is not getting a job. Be disciplined and steady — not only in your actions but also in your reactions — throughout the application processes until you accept an offer.
- Build a process to apply to jobs and to network in the field. No matter how strong or weak the economy is, your process is everything. Learn how to write a compelling cover letter; highlight precise, relevant credentials; and identify jobs you are qualified for and can potentially obtain. Have a good process, and time and patience will reward you.
- Build your network. Everyone who has been through a job search generally knows how difficult it can be. Find other people who are doing the work you want to do, connect with them and identify good questions to ask them during informational interviews. Understand that each connection may not help you in the ways you anticipated but in others, and take some time to reflect upon the nature of your networking approaches, support and coverage.
- Know that something’s out there that you are suited to do. During the nadir of my search, I interviewed for a job for which I was overqualified in education but underqualified in skills. The fit would have been misaligned, and even in the depths of the pandemic, I decided to seek other options.
- Look for ways to supplement your skills and financial health. Most of you who want to work in higher ed will graduate with an advanced degree. That means you can and should innovate based on what you have learned. For example, in addition to finishing my degree, I have also become a tutor in STEM, English literature, college admission essays and SAT prep; have obtained a certificate in college teaching; and have studied a few academic advising manuals.
- Don’t sacrifice long-term happiness for temporary comfort. People regularly counseled me to give up on my field and find employment in another. I’m glad I didn’t take their advice.
- Know your worth — and never split the difference. Despite the challenging economic times, I passed up a job offer that did not meet all of my standards for a starting postgraduate position — knowing full well that I might lose out in future searches to other candidates. While I am humbled that they offered me the position, I made the tough decisions that it wasn’t really what I was looking for.
- Be stubborn about your values. Know what you value in life, and look for anything you can do to support that. Making sure you are fulfilling your mission should be just as important as the benefits a job can provide. I used this time to reflect upon my values and will make sure that they are an essential part of my work going forward.
- Stay positive. Never forget that you inherently contribute and add to the world just by being in it. Life is about what you make of it. Do something you find productive. Learn, read, exercise. Spend time doing other things that give balance to your life.
- Be patient. Trust that there is something out there for you
My journey was not easy, but it allowed me to improve my job-search skills in ways that not only paid off now but will continue to do so in the long run. Such a process can test you in many ways, but know that if you keep trying, you will ultimately have success.