Reflect on Your “Why”: Using the Pandemic for Career Preparation

by Christine J. Pendleton

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As the world and the higher education industry are rapidly changing around us, there is, and will continue to be, a need for strong and effective leaders. Once the COVID-19 pandemic is all over — and even now, during it — key leadership positions on campuses need to be filled.

Some administrators have found themselves with a little more free time lately, which also offers time for reflection. Many times, leaders do not take the time to think carefully about their potential career trajectory, which can lead to frustration and time wasted. Here, I provide some tips on what candidates can do during the pandemic to prepare to go on the job market.

1. Reflect on your “why”
Why did you get into higher education? What is it about the industry that makes you stay? Everyone had a different path to higher education and being able to tell this story in a compelling manner is attractive to mission-driven institutions who are looking for mission-driven leaders. For those candidates who are looking to move into higher education from a different industry, being able to tell this story is doubly important. Take some time to do some reflection and develop your elevator speech about your why.

2. Map out your long-term goals
With the sudden changes in our daily lives brought on by the pandemic, I have heard that academic professionals have shifted their thoughts with regards to what they desire from their lives and from their careers. Where do you want to be five years from now? What about 10 years from now? What do you ultimately want for your career? This is particularly important as you apply for a new role. I recently had a conversation with an administrator who is not currently on the market and was trying to determine whether they should pursue student affairs roles or diversity officer roles. Why does the position you are applying for make sense as the next step in your career? Determine where you want your career to go and map out a plan. And of course, since there is never a straight path to leadership, your goals should also include room for flexibility and detours.

One additional consideration: your family or significant others. Candidates often hit the job market without fully thinking through what a job change — especially a move to another city — would mean to a spouse, partner, or children. Give serious thought now rather than later how your family situation might impact your career plans.

3. Refresh your CV
Your CV is your primary marketing piece. While it is good that your CV provides information on the scope of your responsibilities for each position you have held, search committees and hiring managers (and me, as a search consultant!) want to know if you are actually good at your job. I often see candidates submit CVs that include a laundry list of responsibilities. If your CV reads more like a job description versus highlighting the actual work you have done and what you have achieved, it is time to refresh it. In addition to a brief overview of your responsibilities (include things like who you reported to, budget and staff size, and a sentence or two about your role), each position listed on your CV should include a list of your accomplishments. How did your work impact the institution and move it forward? Use quantitative measurements (eg, “increased fundraising dollars by 20%”), then be prepared to share the qualitative impact in your cover letter. Do not be afraid to brag while also being honest about your role in the work. Also, don’t forget to proofread!

4. Cultivate your list of references
References serve as confirmation of the things you have listed on your CV and talked about in your interview. They also provide additional perspective on things that cannot be gleaned from an interview like your interpersonal skills and what it is like to work with you on a day-to-day basis. You should think very carefully as to who you would like to include on your reference list. In order to provide a 360-degree view of you, at a minimum, your reference list should include someone who has supervised you, someone who would be considered a peer who has worked with you, and someone who has directly reported to you. Also, these people should have worked with you in some capacity recently. I was recently conducting reference calls for a candidate applying for a vice president position. Many of the references that were listed had not worked with the candidate since the 1990s. If you have not worked with the person in the last 10 or so years, they should probably not be on your reference list.

5. Make sure your references know you
I am amazed at how many times I have gotten on the phone with someone for a reference call and the referee has not spoken to the candidate in years nor did they have any idea that the candidate was on the job market. During a recent dean search, one referee stated to me that they had never worked with the candidate before. Once you have cultivated your list of references, now is a great time to pick up the phone and connect with them. You will first want to ask them if they are willing to provide an honest reference for you. Once you have done that, you will want to update them on your recent projects and accomplishments and provide them with a copy of your most recent CV. You can also use this conversation as an opportunity to practice your elevator speech about your why.

If you have the space and capacity during this pandemic to prepare for a future job search, I hope you find these tips helpful. Being cooped up at home and having time on your hands may just provide the opportunity you need for your next career move.

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