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Changing Functional Areas in Your First Job Search

New Professionals and Graduate Students
January 10, 2017 Taylor Troxell

This time last year I found myself in the beginning of my first professional job search. The vast majority of my undergraduate and graduate experiences had been in the world of student activities. So in my sometimes-too-logical brain I assumed my first professional position would also be in student activities. I loved what I was doing as a graduate assistant in advising numerous student organizations and planning and working campus-wide events, and I was ready to take on more. So I dove into my job search. Fast forward to a year later and I’ve just completed my 7th month working as a Resident Director and couldn’t be happier with my decision to change functional areas. So, how did I get here? I was able to get through with reflection, roadblocks, and advice from my supporters.

I did the majority of my job search utilizing HigherEdJobs and having the opportunity to attend The Placement Exchange (TPE). It wasn’t easy and at the beginning of my search and I ran into a couple of roadblocks. I quickly found that the jobs I really wanted in student activities, either weren’t out there or required more experience then I currently had. I was also finding on the TPE site that student activities jobs were few and far between. I was growing frustrated and knew that I needed to change something about my search. While doing some much needed reflection I remembered something that a supervisor told me while helping me practice cover letter writing. She told me to focus less on the title of the job and more on the specific job responsibilities and skills that were required to fulfill them. Suddenly it clicked, I didn’t necessarily need to be in student activities to be in a job that would give me the experiences and opportunities I wanted.

So I widened my search and instead looked into each posting with a set of skills I wanted to gain. I knew that ideally my first position would allow me supervise a student staff, get involved in a campus community, allow me to take on departmental projects, and build my crisis management skills. Having these criteria in mind I quickly realized that the jobs that would give me this were in an area I never pictured myself working in, residence life. Don’t get me wrong, I had nothing against residence life, I had many cohort members who held assistantships in the area and loved it. Aside from an awesome summer ACUHO-I internship working in conferences, I had no directly related experience. After some encouragement from supervisors and colleagues, I was able to see that while my experience wasn’t directly in residence life, the skills and experiences I had would still allow me to be successful as a Resident Director…so I went for it. I learned through cover letter writing, the whirlwind that is TPE, and other phone and on-campus interviews how to explain why my skills were directly transferable and how I would use them to be successful in the role I was applying for.

I’m happy to say that it worked and it can for you too if you’re looking to make that transition to a new functional area. Just remember:

•  There isn’t one defined path in Student Affairs. I wrongly assumed that once I chose a functional area that’s where my career path would stay, but for a lot of people that isn’t the case.

•  Learn from others. Like I said for many of those working in Student Affairs don’t necessarily stay in one functional area for their whole career. During my search I found that many of those around me transitioned from student activities to residence life and back and their advice was crucial to my search.

•  Pay attention to the job responsibilities, not the job titles or department areas. Broaden your search criteria and think about what experiences you’re looking to gain. Who knows, maybe you’re like me and your first job is in an area you never pictured yourself working in.

•  Everything is transferrable. Well maybe not everything, but most things are. For example when explaining my crisis management skills necessary for a duty rotation I was able to pull from the experiences I had working on campus wide events and from my time working as a server throughout undergrad. You just need to believe in yourself and your skills and make that show to your future employer.

Do you have thoughts on this blog post? Share them with us on Facebook @NPGSKC, on Twitter @npgs_kc, or on Instagram @npgs_kc!

Taylor Troxell is currently working as a Resident Director at Merrimack College and graduated in May from the Northeastern College Student Development and Counseling program. She loves dogs, guacamole, and attempting to finish her ever-growing list of books to read. Taylor can be reached on twitter at @taylorelysee or through email at taylor.troxell@gmail.com.