Transferable Skills Talk: Understanding Higher Ed

An ongoing series in which we identify your transferable skills. Today’s edition: your knowledge of higher ed.

When it comes to landing a staff job in higher ed, whether that’s a major university, small private liberal arts college, or community college, one thing you have going for you is your knowledge of higher ed. You might not see this as an important asset, but allow me to disavow any of you of that notion.

When I’m hiring, once we get to the interview stage, there are 3 things I’m looking for in my candidates:

  1. genuine interest in the work itself
  2. aptitude and ability to learn the work
  3. personality fit

#2 is made infinitely easier for me if you already have experience in and/or demonstrated understanding of how higher ed works. It takes alot more time and effort for me to onboard someone who is not well-versed in higher ed. And I’m not the only one; I just came back from a conference where a hiring manager at UCLA* shared that the #1 quality they’re looking for in new hires is knowledge of UCLA. (*Note: Not the real school, but trust that UCLA equivalent to the school. But also note: not all managers are looking for insider knowledge. I personally don’t care if your experience is from within my university. If I hire smart people who are willing to learn, then they can learn the nuances of my particular university.) So let’s take a moment to discuss why your knowledge is valuable.

In job families where you’ll be working directly with faculty (curriculum manager, faculty development, research administration, instructional design, lab or project manager, countless others), you will be better prepared to do your job since you’re familiar with academic culture. Let’s take a recent example from my university: an opening for a manager of online learning for a particular academic department. This person’s role is to identify appropriate programs and strategize how to make them available online.

If I were hiring for that role, two key knowledge areas I would be looking for in my top candidates would be

  • strategies that have been proven as effective for online learners, and
  • understanding of faculty teaching methods

I would take a much closer look at applicants who had some form of work experience in higher ed – maybe as a Teaching Assistant during grad school, or those who have done formal research in current trends in teaching and learning. If you were a TA at one point, you likely have experience in faculty teaching methods, and, depending on whether you TA’d for online classes, even some best practices for online learning. Reading between the lines of this job ad, those knowledgeable about the higher ed industry can ascertain that: 1) that academic department is being pressured to make its offerings available online and 2) knowing what we know about higher ed, that faculty can be reluctant to adopt and even highly resistant to online teaching. Anybody can get why it’s important that we make stuff available online but a candidate without higher ed experience might be ill-prepared for building consensus and garnering the buy-in from the, say, more prickly faculty.

Another thing I have seen is that colleagues who come from outside of higher ed are constantly amazed at how slow and bureaucratic things can be…or how quaint. In my unit at a huge R1, for instance, we turn in our self-evaluations in the summer, and performance reviews are then done…more than 3 months later by Halloween. And then any raise you get during that review starts hitting your paycheck 3 months after that! On the other hand, I’ve also worked at a small liberal arts college where getting some approval or the other is merely a matter of “Oh, just call Susan over in the Admin Building!” Wait, what? Where is this information available? Nowhere. You just ask around and everyone knows Susan to figure out how to get stuff done.

So how can you use your knowledge of higher ed to your advantage? It’s most effective to call upon this during the examples and details you share during an in-person interview. (You did know you’ll need lots of specific examples to share at that stage, right? Great!) For instance, during an interview for that online learning manager job, if asked what you would do when faculty push back on putting courses online, you could lead with a comment about you understand faculty skepticism of both change and online learning before transitioning to a solution of piloting with junior faculty to scaffold success and therefore achieve more long-term buy-in over time. Or if you are interviewing at a SLAC and asked what excellent customer service to faculty looks like, you probably should lead with something about you marching all the way across campus to where they are at because their time is so precious and valuable rather than attest to your mastery of instant messaging.

Bottom line: your knowledge of and experience in higher ed is one of your unique skills. Be sure to demonstrate it during your next interview!

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