One Foot In, One Foot Out: My Job Search In & Out of Student Affairs

written by Mandi Stewart

I've been feeling boxed into a job search that I wasn’t excited about but I didn’t know where to begin to fix it...

We moved to California because my partner, finished his PhD and was offered an awesome position at Fresno State. We packed up and spent 2 weeks journeying west: seeing friends and family, and vacationing in San Diego. We arrived in Fresno and Colin started work on July 1st.

It didn’t take long for my reality to set in. While we were on the road, it was all fun and vacation. I had applied for a few jobs but nothing I was really excited about. All were in student affairs. I was going through the motions.

I started to look more seriously outside of student affairs. I sat down and thought about my strengths.  I thought about all of the different directions this job search could go. I reflected on what made me feel excited, where I got energy, what I was looking for in an organization. 

Laying out my options on paper, seeing all of my potential avenues made me think more deeply about what I am looking for in my next role. It made me think about where I want to focus my time and energy. Forced me to think about my strengths. Sometimes, having to talk things out with someone and actually say them out load, draws out emotion on a whole additional level. Helps you reflect in a different way.

You usually have more paths and options to work with than you think you do. Don’t let yourself feel boxed in, it will only lead to boxed in decisions. Get it all down on paper and think hard about what you want. Adventure is out there, and settling for a job that is anything less than an adventure will only lead you back to this same crossroads again in a year. probably thought I was crazy with all of the different job alerts I had set up with at least 20 different keywords. I applied for jobs all over the place: target, fitness, Higher Ed, non-profit, social media, Lululemon, J Crew, sales… you name it. Somedays I felt all over the place, other days I felt excited about all of the possibilities. I applied for positions at all levels too because I knew that an industry shift might mean taking an entry level position. I talked on the phone with a colleague who left higher ed to see if the grass was really greener on the other side. (Spoiler alert: in some ways yes, in some ways no).

A big, dark, fear cloud loomed over my head. It was the idea that if I left student affairs I wouldn’t be able to get back in.

Authenticity. We talk about it with students during the work day. Our graduate programs teach on it. We read Brene Brown and watch TED talks on vulnerability. We know how to have difficult conversations about social justice, inequality… you name it. But in my opinion the student affairs job search is the least authentic process of all.

Applying and interviewing for jobs outside of higher education opened me up to a whole new world of job searching. A world where after 1 phone call and maybe an in-person meeting you could be offered a job. A world where you submit your resume one day, and get a phone call the next. A world where someone will tell you in the first few minutes of a conversation, “you know, I just don’t think you’re what we are looking for”. A job search where the hiring manager says things like “how much do you need to make?” or “how much do you think you’re worth?”. The land of a one page resume. The land of people valuing your masters degree which reminds you that having a master’s degree isn’t something that everyone has.

Previously, all of my professional interviewing experience has been within higher education. I was blown away in comparing my student affairs interviews to my “whatever-you-call-everything-that’s-not-student-affairs” interviews. For a field that prides itself on transparency, we could do better in the job search. I think we could move processes along faster, or at least be forthright if that isn’t an option. Be honest about timelines. Be real about what an office is looking for in a candidate. I think we could be more upfront from the beginning about salary, and feel empowered to ask (and get answers) to difficult questions from the start.

I applaud the professionals in the field of student affairs who go through those long, drawn out search processes. On-campus interviews that are scheduled with minimal breaks. Multiple phone interviews. Months between the date you apply and the date you accept. All for an entry level position that pays $30K/year (and requires a master’s degree)?

And so, my job search was spent in-between: with one foot in, and one foot out of student affairs. Thinking about: what is it that I love to do so much that I’d do it for free. Is it student affairs?

Very recently, I accepted a position as an Admissions Counselor. I am excited to be working with students again. When I spent time thinking about what I value and what I am looking for in an organization, the search fell into place. All of the sudden everything wasn't as complicated as I was making it out to be. As soon as I started focusing more on the why, and less on the what, I found an organization that seems to be a really great fit...and it just so happens to be in Higher Education.

I am constantly on a journey of finding my niche and I am excited about the adventure ahead. See you at #NicheCon

I'd love to hear your thoughts. Twitter/Insta @mandijstewart. Snapchat @mandijstew or by email