Why hiring non-traditional candidates is a hallmark of student affairs and a fallacy
The path to a job in student affairs does not allow for “non-traditional” candidates as much as one might think. I define a non-traditional candidate as one who has had two or more jobs, each lasting less than one year within the last five years and does not have or is not pursuing a Master’s degree in student affairs (or equivalent). As someone who has been on both sides of the table many times in my short career, I will try to tease out why this is happening, the significance of the trend, and how we can change.
Setting the stage
According to the Council of Graduate Schools, a massive spike in graduate enrollment occurred from 2005-2010; many people enrolled in graduate school to remain competitive in the workplace. If someone lost his or her job, enrolling in graduate school seemed like the best option. For someone still in or recently graduated from college, enrolling in graduate school felt like the only option.
So, the flood gates opened, and thousands of people—who in an earlier time would have either waited to get work experience or forwent graduate school altogether—decided to get those degrees. Today, a Master’s degree is an expectation and requirement, on top of a number of years of full-time experience.
What everyone forgot to tell us
Going to graduate school to avoid the workforce is not a good reason to go. Spending thousands of dollars and years of your life as an experiment works well for guys like Tim Ferriss, but it doesn’t work well for the rest of us. So as we enrolled in graduate school, employers forgot to tell us they wanted multiple years of relevant experience to complement our degrees.
As a non-superhuman, it is increasingly challenging to earn full-time work experience AND a Master’s degree at 22-years old. And because everyone had the same idea, the competition for those few internships increased. As a result, many people earned advanced degrees without relevant experience. When we went looking for jobs, we lost out to those who earned the same degrees but had more experience.
Experience matters, but does it matter too much?
I’m a 24-year old Master’s student without “real-life” experience—only organizational work—on my resume. I’m confident that I want to work in, for example, career services because I have some exposure to the field. I tried hard to get my few hours a week as a volunteer in the office during graduate school, and I served on committees to beef up my weak resume.
I finally landed an entry-level job as a specialist in career services. Super exciting! I spent a year doing it, only to realize that I didn’t like it. Due to lack of exposure in graduate school, I never would’ve guessed I wouldn’t like such a career. So even though everyone tells me it’s career suicide, I move to a different school and role. I would rather take a chance when I’m young than do something I don’t like for five years.
On job two, I decide to pursue, say, academic advising. Academic advising is similar to career services, and I like it a lot! This time, though, I don’t like my supervisor or my institution. So I’ve found a job that I like, but it’s in the wrong place. I am confident I will only make one more jump before I stick. I know what questions to ask in the interview and how to vet future colleagues to make an informed decision. My stay is only 9 months because I cannot take the toxic work environment. I’m still young. I now have two years of work experience and my Master’s degree; I am set, right?
Taking a non-traditional path leads nowhere
For a hiring manager, seeing a candidate with two years of experience applying to his or her third job is a major red flag. Is something wrong with this person? Why can he or she not hold a job? Why should I spend hours on training when this person could leave quickly?
These common questions race through the minds of hiring managers. This candidate’s cover letter could be incredible, the academic pedigree could be divine, but if the resume has some red flags in it that other, more traditional candidates do not have, the risk of inviting that candidate on campus seems too high. Sure, a first round interview might be appropriate, but how much can a phone screen really tell you about how well a candidate is going to perform in a position?
Is this a problem? To be determined. Knowing that many people went to graduate school for the wrong reasons and are still finding their paths in the workplace is not at the front of many hiring manager’s minds. As we know, millennials are notorious for job-hopping. Whether we want better pay, a more flexible work environment, or some novelty, millennials move around a lot. And who is hiring these fickle millennials? Managers who have been in the same position for years.
As we all know, higher education moves fast in some areas (e.g., inclusivity, diversity) and slowly in others (e.g., hiring processes). So for all of us who have been job-hopping, hoping to find that great job, what should we do?
You have the choice to follow the traditional student affairs path, or make your own. I can tell you from personal experience that the solo path is a lot harder. I hope that student affairs adapts to more “non-traditional” candidates in the future and sees potential hiring outside the box. Until then, the linear path is best way to ensure you make it to the level at which you want to be.