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Pivoting to Higher Education: Utilizing Your Transferable Skills

New Professionals and Graduate Students
December 13, 2022 Anna Springer

As you reflect on Careers in Student Affairs month and think about your goals for the new year, you may find yourself thinking more seriously about pursuing a career in the field! Whether you’re coming from an unrelated program of study or a career in an entirely different area, it can be daunting to consider how you can apply your skills and knowledge to a career in student affairs. You may be wondering if your skills and experiences will apply if you have little to no direct relevant experience.

Lucky for you, student affairs provides a variety of career paths, which can look different from department to department even at the same institution. Because of the comprehensive nature of student affairs work, a wide range of skills are applicable and people from all backgrounds make successful student affairs professionals! In fact, one of the great things about working in student affairs is the diversity of experiences that are represented. For example, on my own team our professional backgrounds range from public relations to theater to genetics. 

While you may not know it yet, you likely have a lot of skills that will help you be successful in student affairs. The question now is: how do you figure that out? Here are a few steps that worked for me! 

  1. Understand what people in your desired career do

As I mentioned, student affairs provides a lot of career options! Take some time to research what you are specifically interested in (The NASPA focus areas and are a great jumping off point).

After some preliminary research you can take it a step further and conduct informational interviews with people in the field. Informational interviews can help you connect with people in your desired field, learn about career paths you may not have considered, gather relevant and firsthand information and potentially get some insider tips!

Through this research you can learn more about the skills you will want to highlight.

  1. Take a look at the skills you have already developed

Now that you have an idea of the skills your potential employers are looking for, it’s time for some reflection. I’ll use myself as an example; I studied nutrition and psychology in undergrad and transitioned into higher education after about two years of working in the nutrition field.

I had a lot of very specific experience such as menu planning, nutrition education, and nutrition counseling that, taken at face value, may not make me a competitive candidate. However, when I break down these experiences into specific skills my qualifications become more clear.

  • From menu planning I developed attention to detail, an ability to meet deadlines, resourcefulness, creativity, and budgetary management skills.

  • From nutrition education I developed written and verbal communication skills, patience (I worked with young children and stressed mothers!), and collaboration skills.

  • From nutrition counseling I developed interpersonal and cross-cultural communication skills, an ability to stay calm under pressure, and developmental interviewing skills.

While I didn’t have much direct experience with student affairs, I was able to make it clear how the experiences I did have were transferable! This leads me to my next piece of advice:

  1. Play up the crossover in skills that you identified

What skills do you have that you found in your research? Personally, I was interested in working in academic advising. Some transferable skills I had were: developing others, collaboration, interpersonal communication, and staying calm under pressure! 

While my experience was outside of higher education, the skills I developed were the same sorts of skills that come in handy when working with students. 

  1. Finally, don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone!

 It can be intimidating to make a change, but taking the time to prepare and identify the skills you already have that will help you succeed can make it a lot less scary!

Author: Anna Springer (she/they) works as a Preprofessional Academic Advisor at New York University, is a part-time graduate student studying Higher Education and Student Affairs, and is involved in the NPGS Leadership Team. In their free time, Anna can be found sipping an iced coffee, browsing her local bookstore, or at the theater seeing a new show!