3 Months Until #ACPA18!

 

“Everything happens for a reason.” I’ve used this phrase without hesitation for years now because it offers a poignant answer to life’s most illogical sequence of events. Looking back at #ACPA17, I can’t believe that its been nine months since I landed in Columbus, Ohio, unsure of what lay before me at my first ACPA convention. I had no idea what to expect because I had only attended one professional conference before and that was NASPA when it was in Chicago, Illinois. All I remember about Chicago was cold wind, lots of walking, and cheesy slices of deep dish pizza.

In terms of the ACPA versus NASPA debate, I’m a proud member of both professional organizations. I’ve been a member of NASPA since graduate school and I joined ACPA in Fall 2016. I will say; however, that part of me wishes I had joined ACPA sooner. I made a lot of valuable connections at #ACPA17 and there’s a small part of my subconscious that wonders what life would have been like had I made those connections earlier. But then again, everything happens for a reason.

The single most life-changing part of #ACPA17 was attending a pre-convention workshop. The Pan African Summit served as my first introduction to the ACPA family. On the surface, the summit was a great networking opportunity where I connected with tenured leaders in the field. However, “networking” is really what I call “village-building.” If there is only one concept that I can share with others, it’s that “it takes a village to raise a graduate (doctoral) student.” There has been nothing more paramount to my success than the support I’ve received from friends, family, and colleagues. The process of building a village is merely laying the foundation for supportive relationships. It’s taken a few trial runs to realize some relationships will take hold immediately, some take a bit longer, while others will never sprout at all. My advice for any graduate student or new professionals attending ACPA is to focus on building meaningful connections rather than just hoarding business cards.

As a conference, ACPA offers attendees numerous outlets for both relationship-building and personal development. Either myself or a colleague attended every session type and I heard nothing but great feedback about the engaging content curated by our field. Unfortunately, there were not enough hours in the day for me to attend each session that piqued my interest. I had to balance my time wisely and pick sessions that spoke to my personal and professional development priorities. In addition to the Pan African Summit, I still reflect the concepts about self-care and transitioning into the world of academia that I learned while at #ACPA17. The sessions I attended felt more like a sit-down with family rather than a classroom lecture. The last important takeaway to those considering attending a future convention is that once you’re a part of the ACPA family, you will always be a part of it.

Photo: Asia R. Randolph (left) is pictured with William & Mary’s Vice President for Student Affairs, Dr. Ginger Ambler, Ph.D. at the ACPA17 Most Promising Places to Work Award Ceremony.

Asia R. Randolph is a 2nd year Ph.D. student in the Higher Education Administration program at William & Mary.

 

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#GradStudentTax Hurts Everybody

Last week, the House passed a “sweeping tax bill” that would cut taxes for all citizens in the short term, but only sustain those benefits for the richest of the rich in subsequent years. While we all would like a little money in our wallets by way of reduced taxes, the devil is in the details as this tax bill pushes our society backward in at least one important way: it creates a Grad Student Tax by taxing the full cost of education for graduate students. The fact that we are not paying attention to the extent of this bill is a huge loss for Iowans and the future of Iowa, its students.

As many analysts have reported, the people who win from these tax breaks are: extremely rich people, large corporations, retailers, and stockholders.

The people who lose: those who are sick, disaster victims, graduate students, everybody in the future who does not fall into the above list of winners.

Graduate students are important to the Iowa economy and the future of this country. These people represent a diverse swath of our population and range from young to old, represent all genders, are first-generation college students, are racially and ethnically diverse, they care about our communities, our economy, our safety, and our health. These are lifelong learners that care about our collective future – many are getting their education in Iowa to improve Iowa.
Sadly, the House bill introduces a new Grad Student Tax (#GradStudentTax), an increase in tax burden for the state’s student population. What you need to know is that the Grad Student Tax would raise taxes 30-60% for this population by eliminating tax credits for students. This will have detrimental effects on Iowans pursuing degrees in all fields, including those concerned with the future of the agrarian economy in this state.

Here’s how it will work: Many graduate students, particularly in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math fields (or STEM; including those that work with the agriculture industry) receive tuition remission credits. Tuition remission credits provide cost breaks to graduate students for their work conducting research that benefits the state of Iowa and the country at large. Additionally, depending on the school, these students may also receive medical insurance and a stipend (or a paycheck to pay for daily expenses like food, clothing, and housing). Currently, students are only taxed on the stipend and health insurance.

Under the new Grad Student Tax, students would be taxed on all of the income they receive (including the stipend, insurance, and tuition). For example, when I was at the University of Maryland College Park, my stipend was $14,000 a year for 20hr/week work, but usually much more. That is already a measly salary where housing costs run $900+/month and cost of living is one of the highest in the nation. Ames, IA and other college towns are not so different. The Grad Student Tax in the new House bill would force me to pay additional taxes on the cost of tuition which current tax law does not require. This is money that students never touch, meaning students can never spend this money on anything except education. It would reduce my take-home income and it would not provide me the ability to deduct costs for books, technology, or other school-related expenses. In my grad school scenario, my flexible income outside of housing costs was only $3,200/year. This Grad Student Tax would reduce that number even more forcing thousands of students to take out loans or not enroll in school at all. Sadly, this new Grad Student Tax also eliminates tax credits for loans adding insult to injury.

The new tax code would 1) change the tax brackets pushing some students into the 25% bracket from the 15% or lower bracket and increases taxable income for those who stay in the 15% bracket; 2) it increases the standard deduction to $12,000, a deduction that all individuals receive; 3) while at the same time, eliminating the personal exemption to $0 (impacting those with children); 4) lastly, it eliminates any deductions for tuition and related expenses.
But let us bring this closer to home and apply this to Iowa State University where I am a professor and where I work with graduate students who will be punished by the Grad Student Tax. I will round the numbers and use the most current data I have in hand. In the following scenario, taxes are raised for this student by 58%!!

Tuition: $11,000/year
Health Insurance: $2,500
Stipend (department dependent average work 20hr/week, but usually more): $24,000
Total= $37,500

Current Law:
Total Income: $26,500
Standard Deduction: ($6,350)
Personal Exemption: ($4,050)
Taxable Income: $16,100
Tax (15% Bracket): $2,415

New Law:
Total Income: $37,500
Standard Deduction: ($12,000)
Personal Exemption: ($0)
Taxable Income: $25,500
Tax (15% Bracket): $3,825

As you can see, taxes paid went from $2,415 to $3,825, a 58% raise. This is a simple scenario and each student’s situation will be different. However, the math is clear: the new Grad Student Tax in the new House bill will significantly raise taxes on graduate students who are training to be future educators, researchers, and leaders in our community. Multiple scenarios floating around the internet from individual graduate students to major universities show a 30-60% increase in taxes for graduate students, Google it yourself.

We must resist this bill in both chambers of Congress. Sen. Chuck Grassley is on the Senate Finance Committee and will need to reconcile this bill with the Senate’s version. Therefore, I implore you to speak out, write letters, and tell him that this tax bill hurts Iowans!

There is still time to save Iowa’s future and the great education that this state produces. Removing this provision from the bill is of dire importance to the sustainability of Iowa’s education, Iowa’s industry, and Iowa’s future. Let us all take a few more moments to fully understand the ways that this tax bill does not support individuals, but rather corporations. In the case of the Grad Student Tax, it hurts students, the future of our state.

Dr. Dian Squire is an Assistant Professor of Higher Education and Student Affairs at Iowa State University. 

Your Guide to Selecting the Right Employer for your Career and Family

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Kelly McCormack, Florida Atlantic University

Job searching typically involves editing your resume, shopping for the perfect interview outfit, preparing for tough interview questions, and studying salaries and cost of living comparison charts so you are prepared to be a shrewd negotiator. However, one detail that many young professionals ignore when exploring job opportunities is the institution’s policies for new parents. Having a child is a significant life event. After the birth of a child, it is important for parents to have time away from work to bond as a family and to adjust to the many changes that accompany the addition of a new member of a household. Higher education institutions benefit from providing paid parental leave by providing new parents a chance to adjust and to return to work more rested and focused. In addition, paid parental leave can contribute to helping to recruit and retain high quality employees (Boyer, 2016). However, not all higher education institutions offer paid leave or other family-friendly benefits to their employees. It is quite common for graduate students and new professionals to experience both a job search and the journey of new parenthood simultaneously. The purpose of this article is to inform graduate students and new professionals that intend to have children about the types of benefits available for new parents, how to investigate the new parent policies of institutions, negotiate, and ultimately accept a role.

Exemplar Benefits for New Parents

Over the past ten years, technology companies in the Silicon Valley have become leaders in improving parental leave benefits in the United States. In addition to recruiting and retaining employees, Silicon Valley companies also report that paid leave programs increase the likelihood that parents return to the workforce and that employees are motivated to work harder and perform their jobs even better during the second year of their child’s life (Boyer, 2016).

Cutting-edge parental leave benefits often include benefits for new fathers. By expanding paid leave to both mothers and fathers, both parents can support the development of their child and continue to enhance their careers. Parental leave frequently includes both biological births and adoptions and typically starts on the day of birth or the arrival of the adopted child.

Paid Parental Leave Benefits to Investigate

This section will highlight the parental leave benefits that prospective employees should investigate when considering job options: paid parental leave length and length of employment requirements, health insurance coverage and payment during parental leave, and childcare/flexible work hour opportunities.

Paid Parental Leave Length and Length of Employment Stipulations

Taking the lead from companies in Silicon Valley, some higher education institutions offer competitive parental leave policies. For example, in June 2016, Emory University announced the expansion of its parental leave program which now includes three weeks paid parental leave immediately following the birth or adoption of a child for employees who have worked for the institution for the previous twelve consecutive months (Long, 2016).  Similarly, Cornell University gives employees with twelve months of consecutive service 4.5 weeks of paid parental leave (Cornell University, 2017).  At Brown University, employees receive up to six weeks of paid parental leave for those that have served the university for at least four years (Brown University, 2017).  Available immediately upon employment, Baylor University offers four weeks of paid leave for new parents (Vergara, 2017). Prospective employees should pay attention to the institution’s rules for both length of paid leave and required length of employment to be eligible for its paid parental leave program.

At institutions that do not provide paid options for new parents, employees are typically forced to use their annual vacation and/or sick leave to continue being paid while at home with the new child. When this leave runs out, many employees are forced to rely on short-term disability and/or the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). FMLA is unpaid and many young professionals starting their careers may not be able to afford to take unpaid leave, especially given the expenses inherent with adding a new baby to their household.

Health Insurance Policies

Another topic to investigate is how the institution handles health insurance premiums during parental leave. Most institutions allow for health insurance benefits to remain active, but it is a good practice to confirm whether your health care premiums will be covered by the institution during your parental leave. In addition, check out the health insurance coverage for your new child, including how to sign up your child for coverage.

Childcare/Flexible Hours

Investigate whether the institution offers on-campus childcare services for employees as well as how to get on the waiting list for these services. Although these services are not usually free, they provide a flexibility factor that can work well for new parents. Alternatively, some institutions have partnered with local childcare centers to arrange for a discount for university employees. Still others offer back-up childcare assistance when the child’s primary caregiver is unavailable. For example, Iowa State University provides Comfort Zone – a service that cares for ill children when the parent must go to work or attend a meeting (Iowa State University, 2017).

How to Learn about New Parent Policies

If you plan to have children, it is in your best interest to pay attention to potential employers’ family leave policies. To do so, go to each institution’s Human Resources webpage and search for parental leave or maternity leave.  These policies are typically located in the benefits section of the Human Resources website.

Crowdsourced websites like Glassdoor.com can also be helpful when researching benefits at multiple institutions. Another option is to reach out to your network of colleagues, through LinkedIn or other means, at the institution to learn about parental policies. Once a job offer has been extended, prospective employees will likely find that their designated HR representative is the most accurate source of information about benefits in general, including new parent benefits.

Conclusion

            In the future, hopefully more higher education institutions will follow the lead of companies in the Silicon Valley by providing paid parental leave for all new parents. In the meantime, the next time you are searching for a job be sure to investigate the parental leave policies of potential employers. Although some universities are making great strides in providing fair parental leave policies, there are still so many that do not offer paid leave. Do your homework about new parental leave policies ahead of time so that you make an informed decision about your next job opportunity!

 

References

Boyer, R. (2016). Updating parental leave policies in higher education. Retrieved from            http://chroniclegreatcollges.com/blog

Brown University. (2017). Parental leave (30.026) | Policies. Retrieved from https://www.brown.edu/about/administration/policies/index.php?q=parental-leave-30026

Cornell University. (2017). Parental leave. Retrieved from https://www.hr.cornell.edu

Emory University. (2016). Parental leave for staff, librarians, and postdoctoral Fellows. Retrieved from http://policies.emory.edu/4.125

Iowa State University. (2017). The comfort zone (ISU sick child care services). Retrieved from http://www.wellbeing.iastate.edu/wellbeing-links/comfort-zone-isu-sick-child-care-services 

Long, E. (2016). Emory University expands benefits to include paid parental leave. Retrieved from http://news.emory.edu

Vergara, J. (2017). Baylor named a Great college to work for.  Retrieved from http://baylorlariat.com/2017/09/13/baylor-named-a-great-college-to-work-for/

 

Kelly McCormack is a first year graduate student at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) in Boca Raton, FL. She has been working in higher education for over six years, joining the staff at Florida Atlantic University in 2016. She plans events and develops marketing materials for donors, alumni, and corporate sponsors at FAU’s College of Business. Before FAU, Kelly lived and worked in New York City at Marymount Manhattan College.

 

A Path All Its Own: My Journey into Student Affairs

Spencer

 

It was junior year on a trip to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl, specifically on a service-learning portion of the trip, that one of my mentors, Dr. Glenn Gittings, spoke to me about an opportunity to work in Student Affairs and work with college students on a daily basis. Turning a spark into a flame, that moment projected me into the world of Student Affairs. Like many graduate students and new professionals, a majority of my undergraduate experience was solely tied to student engagement and serving as a Resident Assistant in University Housing. Many rising professionals are unaware of the plethora of opportunities in Student Affairs that exist beyond just Student Activities and University Housing. An important part of mine and certainly others’ graduate school and real-work experience is a paradigmatic shift in how we think about our work with students pre-and-post-undergrad.

When I finally decided I was going to attend Florida State University for my master’s degree, I arrived upon the moment that feels like a ten pound weight sinking through your throat: deciding where to do your graduate assistantship. In that moment, something spoke to me and encouraged me to step outside of my comfort zone and what little I knew about Student Affairs. “Do your assistantship in the Student Disability Resource Center,” the little voice inside my head said to me. At first, that decision made me incredibly nervous. I thought to myself, “What if I completely bomb and say the wrong things or mess up?” Thankfully, I made that decision to do my assistantship in a disability resource office because it has colored my trajectory in Student Affairs and taken me to places with which I feel most in sync in my professional life. Working as a graduate assistant in the office challenged my notion of the “traditional” student, changed the way I communicate with students, and molded my professional philosophy into one that advocated for and represented students with whom I did not share the same identities.

Today, most of my work is meeting individually with students and working with them one-on-one to develop accommodation plans, so that they can fully invest their time and energies into their academics without the barriers that a typical college learning environment puts in their way. An example of this might be 400+ person class, a reality for some first-year students at a large public research institution, can be challenging for a student with attentional deficits and difficulty with focusing. I enjoy getting to meet with students one-on-one on a daily basis and directly apply student development theories and what I learned in graduate school (although I’m not consciously applying that knowledge) to support growth and learning of students with disabilities, particularly their transition from relying on others to being self-sufficient and good self-advocates. I also enjoy working one-on-one with faculty, supporting the academic mission of the university while ensuring that all course content and spaces are accessible for students. I count myself blessed to be directly supporting the academic mission of the university while also focusing on student success and direct student engagement.

Some of my work also crosses over into helping students in crisis. I meet constantly with students who have mental health concerns and diagnoses from doctors and psychiatrists that match those mental health concerns. While I certainly cannot provide ongoing therapy or counseling, I help student triage in that moment and guide them through the process of advocating for their academic needs related to their disabilities (i.e., accommodations our office can approve and provide). I also collaborate with other campus partners, such as University Housing, to ensure that students receive appropriate accommodations outside of learning spaces on campus, such as in their residence hall. I even work closely with staff of the university admissions office, the Registrar’s office, the Veteran Student’s office, and other academic-focused offices. These interactions with other higher education professional helped me grow my professional philosophy into one that is much more global and inclusive of other higher education professionals that do not have student affairs backgrounds. They underscore the importance of student affairs professionals’ roles in academics and other higher education professionals’ roles in student success beyond the classroom.

All of this to say that there really is no one path into a career in student affairs. For the graduate students and undergraduate students considering going to graduate school or starting work in the field immediate after graduating, take some time to explore all the paths you have into and through student affairs. All routes to a career in student affairs are valid and necessary. And you never know, you might find yourself in a rewarding and affirming career path unlike the traditional narrative of a student affairs professional. For new professionals considering a change of career path, know that Student Affairs can still be a place for you due to the plethora of opportunities, environments, and needs of the student body. And lastly, I want to encourage all emerging professionals in student affairs to embrace the spectrum of functional areas and focuses that student affairs make take on. At the end of the day, we are all focused on one thing: student success.

Spencer Scruggs graduated with his Master in Science in Higher Education Administration from Florida State University in 2016 and currently serves as a Disability Specialist in the Florida State University Student Disability Resource Center. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram at @bariginge.

“Wait, How Old Are You?” Transitioning from a SAPro to a SAGrad

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My path into Students Affairs is not what one would consider a “traditional path.” During the spring of my senior year, I struggled to figure out what to do with my life. Having worked with various AmeriCorps VISTAs on projects at my undergraduate institution, I decided to apply for VISTA to explore different career options. AmeriCorps VISTA is a National Service program through the government which allowed me the opportunity to work on college campuses on community engagement initiatives resolving around poverty-fighting initiatives. This lead me to complete two AmeriCorps VISTA terms, then a year in residence life before making my journey to start my Master’s degree, just over 3 years after I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree.

When looking at “How to prepare for graduate school” articles or resources, they often times focus on the transition straight from undergraduate to graduate school. However, this is not the case for some graduate students. Nowadays, many graduate programs are flooded with more applications than spots available. For others, even if they can get into the program, they may have life situations that prevent them from entering right away or at a full-time student pace, such as financial barriers or familial commitments.

I know that I am not the first person to go to graduate school after taking some time to work full-time, but at times I feel these stories are not shared. I felt alone at times during this transition, not having someone I could talk to who understood the unique struggles I was going through going back to school. Reflecting on the past few months as I transitioned from a SAPro to a SAGrad, I’ve hit more road bumps and struggles than I anticipated. Looking back, here is some of the advice I wish someone would have told me to help me prepare for this life change.

  1. You will have learning curves. You may have the skillsets, but learning the culture is a completely different story. I felt leaving my last institution that I had, at times, just knew how to do the job. I could go through the motions. However, when you transition to a new institution (whether you are a SAGrad or a SAPro), learning the campus culture can sometimes be harder than learning the skills needed for the position. Each school and department has “their” way of doing the same task. The struggle becomes breaking your old habits to adapt to the new “way” of handling a crisis, paperwork, or other tasks.
  2. Take some time off between ending your SAPro position and your SAGrad position (if you can fiscally afford this). I only took a week off when transitioning. Looking back, I was exhausted by the time I started classes at the end of August. I wish I would have taken more time off between my two positions so I could have prepared more not only physically but mentally for this life transition.
  3. Figure out your health, dental, and car insurances as early as you can, preferably prior to starting your SAGrad position. While working as a SAPro, I covered myself under my own insurance policies under my own name. Since I was older, I did not have the option to go under my parents’ insurance as a graduate student. As well, since I was not a full-time employee, I did not qualify for health and dental insurance under my employer. Look within the state networks for health and dental insurance options.
  4. Realize the value in your experience. Most likely, you will bring a different lens to your position and classes than some other students. Don’t be afraid to reflect on these experiences and use them to improve yourself and your roles. Sometimes, this will help you see better ways tasks can be done. Other times, this will help you learn from past mistakes and want to learn better ways to do things.
  5. Self-care is still an important thing. As a SAPro, I had developed some self-care rituals (such as scheduling Thursday nights to watch Grey’s Anatomy while on a phone date with my bestie). Don’t drop these habits. Even though you are going back to being a student, you still have to take care of yourself. In all actuality, it will be even more important for you to take care of yourself since you will have more things on your plate, such as tests, papers, and case studies. If you don’t take care of yourself now, you will burn out even quicker.
  6. Invest in yourself. This is a great time to focus on your own development, both as a person and as a professional. Use this time to think about what skills and knowledge you want to gain to improve as an SAPro. Within the first month or two of starting your SAGrad journey, think about what you want in your future positions. Look at job postings to see what skills are being looked for in your dream positions, then look at ways to gain these skills while in graduate school. As well, most conferences and professional development opportunities offer a discount to graduate students (especially the national conferences). Take advantage of going to these opportunities at a discount!

For anyone making a transition in life, it can be a scary and confusing time. Realize that you are not alone in this journey. Reach out to your support network and ask for help. Know that as a field, especially as graduate students and new professionals, we are all here for each other.

 

Written by Jacqui Rogers. Jacqui is currently a Resident Director at Salisbury University while earning her Master’s of Arts in Conflict Analysis and Dispute Resolution. Previously, Jacqui served two terms as an AmeriCorps VISTA, first with Iowa Campus Compact then with Maryland-DC Campus Compact. After serving as a VISTA, Jacqui worked as a SAPro in Residence Life at a private college in Delaware. In her free time, Jacqui enjoys binge-watching Netflix, crafting, and enjoying her Betta fish, Tony.

What is Careers in Student Affairs Month?

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Fall is officially here and October is upon us. For some it marks the start of cooler weather but for all of us it is “Careers in Student Affairs Month”. Careers in Student Affairs Month is a time to celebrate and bring awareness to the profession. It is a time to educate students, family, and friends about Student Affairs. In some cases it comes and goes unnoticed.

Careers in Student Affairs Month can be celebrated a number of ways at every level of the profession. Associations hold webinars and social media campaigns to bring mass awareness. Social media challenges are a great way for your family and friends to see what you do! Campuses host conferences and graduate program resource fairs. Partnering with other institutions and collaborating across campus are great ways to bring more awareness to Student Affairs. On the divisional level, brown bag lunch events and panel discussions are hosted and led by speakers from across the division who inform students and attendees about the possibilities in the profession.

Have yet to hear about anything planned on your campus? Plan something! You do not have to host an event as elaborate as those listed here. You can do something as simple as inviting one of your colleagues to your staff meeting to discuss what they do with your student staff. The key is to make sure you are educating others and help aspiring Student Affairs professionals.

Written by Crystal Hamilton. Crystal is an 8th Vector Co-Coordinator for 2017-2018. 

The Hardest Research Assignment of Your Life: The Workplace of your Prospective Entry-Level Position

TylerAs a recent graduate from a higher education program, I have learned so much first-hand about how to better handle this experience. As many folks reading this are likely close to beginning this journey, I cannot help but recollect my experience to help share what got me to where I am now.

I started my job search process in late 2016 when I signed up for The Placement Exchange (TPE). It was an emotionally draining process, filled with a lot of imposter syndrome and self-doubt at several points, but I remained motivated to start authoring my next adventure in higher education. One of my mentors continually reminded me that, “It is not about ending up at a place that you are invested in, but it is about ending up at a place that you and and your workplace are invested in each other.” I might have just nodded along when she first told me this, but for some reason, this phrase has stuck with me, and I have become a strong believer in this statement. By late May 2017, I secured my publisher for the next chapter of my autobiography as a hall director at Montana State University Billings.

Looking back, one of the things I really developed in my first full-time professional job search was how to effectively research an institution. This has quickly become one of my favorite parts of the interview process, because I enjoy knowing quirky facts about the institution that are not the most commonly recited ones. There have been moments in interviews I have been a part of where employers were taken aback and thanked me for taking the time to learn about the institution on my own; I had always thought it was an expectation, but it showed the employer that I really valued the time I was spending with them.  Today, I also find myself revisiting some of the things I researched as I transition and learn the ins and outs of my new position.

Research is not just about fit, but it is about understanding some of the problems the department is facing and what you can do as a prospective employee to help them with the struggles they may be facing. Not only does this reassert that you have the skills and experiences to transition well to their open position, but it also affirms that you are passionate about that institution and have a willingness to learn and solve complex issues. But overall, research is truly an ongoing process in any position – you should always be learning something new regularly in your position.

You cannot rely on the interview alone to learn about the institution. The ultimate goal of employers is to recruit a skilled candidate to campus, so sometimes overarching issues the department is tackling may be a bit more hidden to avoid the off-chance of scaring a candidate away. This is where additional research comes in. If you can identify these issues somewhere in your research process, you can use this to your advantage by showing in the interview process how your strengths or experiences can contribute to different objectives or areas of improvement for the department. I would also advise keeping a record of where you identified some of these issues, so when you bring it up in an interview, you can articulate where you found it; sometimes employers are not even aware how much information about their department is out publicly, and it is good for them to know that you did your homework. I might have put a few employers on edge by not explaining where I found some information, so do not make the same mistakes me.

Many higher programs advocate using Carnegie classifications, a tool used to understand basic information about an institution such as whether an institution is public/private, two-year/four-year, etc. I am hesitant to use these classifcations as valuable research, as it does not give you a full story about an institution. If you know how to use these classications, use it as a starting point, not as the finish line.

Others may have their own techniques of documents to look at, but here are a few things I would consider looking at, most of which can be found on the institution’s website:

  1. Institutional/departmental strategic or master plans: What are the overall objectives of the institution or department? Is there anything mentioned in these that would relate to your position or something you can contribute to? Is student affairs or your prospective department even mentioned at all? This may help you understand the department’s relationship to the overall institution. Departmental plans are a little rarer to find in a public website, but once found, these are more specific objectives relative to the daily operations of the functional area that you should be able to contribute to in some way. Even before you can talk about these in your interview, you can highlight these in cover letters to show them you took an individual approach with it for the institutions you have been applying to.
  2. Divisional/departmental assessment: Assessment should lead to objective and strategic planning. Often, departments will have public data about different services they provide. This can range from occupancy reports, to quality of life surveys, annual reports, and beyond. Interpret the data and identify what the needs of the department may be. Sometimes they will have snippets of the data in marketing materials.
  3. Staff Bios: Where did they come from? Where are they going? Use the Wayback Machine tool online to check out archived pages to see who previous staff were and where they have gone. If many of them are now in positions not in higher education, perhaps burnout is a large issue on the campus. Many times, the bios will include staff members’ favorite things about the institution or their hobbies, which are great talking points in the interview process. When you become a finalist for a position, it might not be a bad idea to find current staff’s LinkedIn profiles to consider topics for small talk when speaking with individual staff one-on-one.
  4. Student newspaper coverage of your institution’s respective department: Knowing student perceptions of the department is important because it informs you what predispositions that students will have toward you. The student newspaper is a great way to measure this. Find their website and type in some key words that might pull up department-related items. Be cautious with older news, as departments likely have undergone organizational change since then. It may also be of similar worth to examine the institution’s sub-Reddit page if one exists.
  5. Local news coverage of your prospective institution: Just as it is important to know the student’s predisposition towards your institution, and possibly department, you want to know what the local community perceives of them. Are major highlights of the department and institution being highlighted? Or is it purely the negative? How would you handle some of the negative things being put out by the local media? Consider how you would market yourself to prospective students who have only heard what the local media has said about the institution.
    In one local newspaper for an institution I interviewed with, I found articles suggesting that due to a state-wide budget crisis, the institution may end up closing its doors. I asked this looming question in my first round interview. The employers sitting on the interview were impressed with my knowledge, but were also reassuring that the budget crisis had been resolved and there was little to no risk of the institution seeing such a drastic occurrence in the near future.
  6. The institution’s Wikipedia: We have been told that Wikipedia is not a great source of information; but it is certainly a good starting point. I typically use this to check out the history of the institution, notable alumni, and if there were any major controversies, movements, or events that occurred on their campus. And the bottom of the Wikipedia article is also loaded with references, which might give you some additional websites you can explore for additional research.
  7. The department’s social media: Is your prospective department with the times? What platforms are they on? Are they still marketing themselves as being on FourSquare and Pinterest? Are they meeting the students where they are? How are they communicating with students – is it simply promotional? Or is it engaging—how many followers are there, how are people interacting with the posts? What sort of tone are they using – is it motivational or informational? What could you do to improve their following and interactivity? What sort of things should be posted on their social media channels that are not? Have they popularized a hashtag – check and see if students are using it and if they are using it to reinforce the message the department is seeking or if the students are using it in a comical way.
  8. The Student and Residential Policies and Procedures: Policies and procedures can tell you a lot about campus culture. While it can tell you a lot about its political identity as an institution through liberal or conservative policies and procedures, it can tell us more than that. As much as we like to be proactive, we understand that many of us operate on a reactive basis. Examining which policies and procedures are more detailed and thorough may shine a light on what has historically been an issue on campus. Keep in mind that policies and procedures are influenced by institutional constituents such as parents and the local community and government, though, so not all policies and procedures 100% reflect the values of individuals within the department.
  9. Colleagues who have affiliations to the institution: As a new professional, your network in this area may not have grown to the point where you can maximize this as a resource for a job search. But if you do know someone who is serving or has served the institution you are interested in, they have lived the workplace culture first hand and can give you an unfiltered response in what it might look like if you were there. Perhaps you know someone who has studied there, which certainly still has some value on the perceptions and dispositions the student body might have to that department. Just know, student perception does not tell you the full story either, but it is good material to know. Also bear in mind, different people navigate systems of higher education differently, so the same frustrations and experiences they have faced, may not be the same ones you would face if you served there.
  10. The Interview: I mentioned you cannot rely on the interview alone to help with research, but an interview is the opportunity to get clarity on what you are missing. Are you finding holes of information? Anytime you are reviewing the website and these documents and find yourself asking a question, write it down and save it for the interview. I know I am bad at asking questions on the spot, so it is helpful for me to write them down and save them for when I have their ears. And when it comes to an on-campus interview, it is certainly helpful to have some of those handy when travelling from one part of the interview process to another. Do not forget to ask questions about them as individuals, too, as it is a great way to build empathy and make your process memorable to those involved in hiring.

Doing this research is a great way of showing you have the focus and initiative that employers seek in a candidate. Demonstrating research I had done in my cover letters alone, I accredit to one of the biggest reasons I had a first round interview rate of around 50% for each institution I had applied to. The more you can learn without having to go through a formal training or question and answer session, the better. We know higher education job descriptions are not all encompassing, so reviewing these ten facets of effective research can give you the upperhand you are looking for. Being the bookworm of a prospective institution cannot guarantee you a job offer, but effective research is yet another tool in the toolbox in making yourself a more appealing candidate.

Written by Tyler Bradley of Montana State University Billings. Tyler uses he/his and they/them pronouns. Tyler is a Residence Hall Director serving in a building with primarily non-traditional and international students and oversees operations for family housing.