No One Gets a Prize for Landing a Job First

Christine Pajewski

February 15, 2018

We as a society thrive on competiton. We watch television game shows like Family Feud, cooking competitions like Iron Chef, live for college and professional sports, and always strive to achieve. One area that is not a competition, however, is the student affairs job search.

Every second-year, second-semester graduate student has the same thing on their mind: what comes next? I, speaking as a recent graduate of the Clemson University Counselor Education-Student Affairs program, will speak on behalf of all recent graduates when I say the job search is stressful and very time-consuming. So it may come as a surprise when I say no one gets a trophy for landing the first job.

Wait…what?! Being the first to get the weight of the unknown off your shoulders doesn’t warrant a celebration parade?

No, it in fact doesn’t. To help you not only survive but thrive during your final semester of graduate school, I’ve gathered some advice from new professionals who have successfully navigated the student affairs job search, including myself.

Our Graduate Experience

Before we get into the advice, I’d like to provide some context around those who are giving it. Though the three of us attended Clemson University, we all had very different goals and interests for our respective job searches.

  • Meg Burleson, Coordinator of Student Activities and Events at Samford University
    Meg attended Baylor University for her undergraduate degree and Clemson University for her graduate work. Her search wasn’t laser focused, but she wanted to be closer to her family in Texas. She was also open to most functional areas except residence life, and tailored her graduate experiences around that. When she began her search, she was itching to get back to a private institution, but still open and hoped for a place with a reputation for school spirit. Her ultimate goal was to have a group of students to advise in her new position. She completed a NODA internship in the summer prior and absolutely loved supervising an orientation team.
  • Danielle Barefoot, Residence Hall Coordinator at the University of Delaware
    Danielle attended the University of South Carolina for her undergraduate degree before coming to Clemson. She also graduated with a M.Ed. in Counselor Education (Student Affairs) from Clemson University in May 2016. She was looking at entry-level housing positions but tailored her search based on specific criteria she hoped for in her first job. First and foremost, she was looking for a housing department that utilized a residential curriculum, or had a strong tie to academic affairs as a foundational part of their program. Her graduate assistantship position at Clemson was centered on supporting Clemson’s living-learning community program and residential curriculum, so this was an area she wanted to continue to develop her ideas and skills in. This was her biggest non-negotiable. Danielle was also considering factors like school pride and identity; an institution that valued the voices of underrepresented students and student activism; a mid-sized institution that didn’t fall under any of the emerging concealed carry legislation that was developing that year; the ability to directly supervise resident assistants and potentially a graduate student; and a place that allowed dogs because she was doing a national search and wanted the chance to have some immediate companionship in a new place.
  • Christine Pajewski, former Assistant Rector at the University of Notre Dame
    Speaking for myself, I graduated from the University of Virginia and immediately attended Clemson University for my graduate work. I had a variety of student affairs and higher education experiences but ultimately decided that a position in residence life would give me direct student contact and a broad student affairs foundation to further the rest of my career. The biggest factor for me was my partner, and he was in graduate school in South Bend, Indiana at the time. For those familiar with the town, there is but two small, private institutions there; so, I determined that a three-hour radius was appropriate. Another crucial factor for me was compatibility with my supervisor. I had a very negative experience with a supervisor in graduate school but also a number of incredible supervisors and knew that would make or break the experience for me.

In total, our program had about 32 full-time students in our cohort. While the three of us would collectively say we did not have a competitive cohort, there is always an inherent level of comparison in a close-knit group and the spring semester was stressful. Though everyone in the cohort had very different professional goals, we saw each other daily and the job search was always part of the conversation. We collectively used our professional networks, knowledge learned from our incredible professors, and personal support systems to succeed and find the perfect positions for each of us.

The Elephant in the Room: The Placement Exchange (TPE)

Many graduating with a degree in student affairs wonder if they should attend TPE. I mean, doesn’t every school look for candidates there? While many schools do, there are other avenues to find positions. Meg, Danielle, and I all attended TPE but did not all find our respected jobs there. Here are brief first-hand recaps of our respective experiences.

  • Meg: If I’m being honest, TPE was very discouraging for me. I spent a lot of time worrying about the number of interviews my cohort members had, how many second interviews they were getting, and how much mail was in their TPE mailboxes compared to mine. In the end, I left after a great second interview with my current institution and an offer to come to campus for an interview, and the rest is history!
  • Danielle: Going into my job search, I knew I was highly interested in going to The Placement Exchange and utilizing that as my main platform to meet schools. However, I was wary of potentially exhausting myself at TPE so I was very purposeful in how I set up my experience to maximize my ability to have a productive search there. Being an introverted person, I knew I would need time to decompress. Thankfully I was in a financial position where I was able to share a room with only one person, and we registered early enough that we got a conference hotel connected to the convention center. My roommate (Christine) and I also had very honest conversations with each other before arriving at TPE about what we did and did not want to talk about within the room and what we would like in support from each other. This was a critical part of having a good experience for both of us.
  • Christine: Even though I was bound by location in my search, TPE was held in Indianapolis (right in the middle of my search area) so I decided to attend very early on. We registered very early to secure a room at the conference hotel and had honest conversations about what we needed while at TPE. This did turn out to make my experience; we both respected each other’s time and space and thus prevented external distractions. Though I did not end up in my position through TPE, the experience helped me network and better understand the uniqueness of student affairs departments across institutions in the United States

Words of Wisdom

Collectively, the three of us put together information for this blog post that includes our shared thoughts and experiences. Here are eight pieces of advice we compiled for the upcoming job search.

  1. Don’t worry if your job search isn’t laser-focused. Some people may know they want to work in residence life at a school with a curriculum-based model and living-learning communities. Others may only want to work in Boston. The best way to start thinking about the job search is to make a list of factors to consider when researching institutions and future positions.
  2. Apply to and interview solely for positions that fit your personal and professional goals. If you establish your wants and needs for a position as well as non-negotiable factors before beginning your search, you will end up with less wasted effort and a smoother search process overall. If you have something specific in mind, don’t accept lots of interviews – either at TPE or in the job search in general – that don’t fit with your goals.
  3. Take time for yourself. Self-care during the job search is crucial. Danielle preemptively blocked an hour for lunch every day to make sure she had time to eat and decompress if needed, and tried to space out interviews to avoid back-to-back timeslots. It’s important to have a healthy balance of making sure you’ve had enough opportunities to highlight your experience, without becoming exhausted to the point where you won’t have productive interviews.
  4. Know yourself, and know your needs during stressful times. As mentioned above, Danielle took time to carefully plan and self-reflect before attending TPE during the job search. Though she was invited to two socials at TPE, for example, she only attended one. After a tiring day of second-round interviews and another early the next day, she prioritized sleep and interview preparation. Meg on the other hand, needed a personal pump up song for TPE. Everyone reacts differently to the job search, so know what you need.
  5. Establish support networks. Danielle took the a very proactive approach by discussing with her friends how to support each other. This holds true for both TPE and the job search in general. By establishing expectations, no one will be let down. Don’t have a cohort or friends attending TPE? Reach out to other candidates, volunteers, and even interviewers. Student Affairs is full of supportive people who want to help others succeed, and many of them volunteer their time to work with candidates at TPE. Don’t be afraid to utilize the resources they are providing. They give invaluable advice and can help you maximize your experience.
  6. Don’t waste your energy worrying. You are worthy and valued, and there is a place for you in this crazy job world.
  7. Always put your best foot forward. You never know where that first conversation might lead, and even if it doesn’t lead anywhere, you’re practicing a habit of good first impressions for the future.
  8. There is a perfect position for every professional. It comes down to mutual fit. The job search may seem like a competition. Every day, you and your friends are applying, waiting, researching, waiting, interviewing and waiting some more. You don’t need the most jobs, you need the best job for yourself. You will be surrounded by many others who are on their own job search journey. Each one is different, because each one of us have different needs, desires and wants.

Keep this in mind this semester, and you will find the best place for YOU!

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