As 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.