Coming Back to Student Affairs

Coming Back to Student Affairs

How am I supposed to come back to student affairs after being away?

It’s true, that you might have a gap in your employment history since you’ve left student affairs. Perhaps you took off time to start a family, pursue a different career path, or just wanted some time away.

So how exactly do you re-enter the field of student affairs?

There are certain steps you should take when you know that you’ll be away from the field for some time. Those include remaining connected, engaged, and informed. If you’re ready to return then you’ll need to make sure that your materials are ready to help re-launch your career.

Working your way up to it

One of the hardest parts of coming back to the field is the transition back. Knowing that you’ve been away for some time can instill a quiet fear in you. A subtle wish that you never had left, and how much easier it would have been for you to just remain.

But that’s okay. Many people enter, leave, and then return to the professional working world. Student affairs professionals are no different. One of the most popular reasons people leave is when they become new parents.

A new parent returns

For many professionals, starting a family means taking a break from their career so that they can take care of their young ones. For some that means a complete separation from the student affairs world so that they can concentrate on their growing family. For others, it is just a temporary separation while they take care of the responsibilities of new parents.

For some student affairs professionals, the break can be brief, but significant. Student affairs work is cyclical and dependent on the academic schedule. But taking time away during critical moments of the year such as during new student orientation, commencement, or major programming periods can be critical. This break is fine so long as the individual knows that their changing relationship with the workforce will affect their workload.

So this article and the following steps are for student affairs professionals who will be on extended leave and who are not going to be away temporarily due to the Family Medical Leave Act.

Student affairs professionals who take extended time away from the field know that the gap in their employment affect their candidacy for positions upon their return. To set themselves up for success when they return they should take some proactive steps. That includes remaining current in the field, networking with other professionals, and keeping their skills in check.

Understanding hiring managers

Hiring managers are in positions where they can fill vacant positions in their units and institutions. They want to do so with talented and motivated student affairs professionals like yourself. Structuring your relationship, conversation, and demeanor with these hiring managers is critical to any job search (no matter where you are in your career).

That means that an unexpected gap in your employment record could be a red flag for hiring managers. This could negatively affect your candidacy if the position is competitive and there are many candidates for consideration.

Your employment gap shouldn’t be a negative characteristic if you have a stellar professional record. But that doesn’t mean that professional hiring managers lack a bias. They may have legitimate reservations about bringing someone in who has been out of the workforce for a significant amount of time.

That’s because from the hiring manager’s position, bringing on a new hire is an expensive endeavor. New hires need to be on-boarded, tasked, and evaluated in their first few weeks and months. That could mean additional administrative labor and oversight that could be best used for other projects and activities.

That means that one of the best ways to combat this is to bring clarity to your candidacy when you are returning to the student affairs field. In the end, it’s all about the value that you’ll add to the position, office, and institution. Value that you can bring by following these steps while you’re out of the workforce.

Ramping up you resume

If you know that you’re going to be out of the field for a while, then it’s best to stay active in it. There are multiple ways to do this, but the best way (and one that also earns you an income) is to do some freelance or contract work. You could do this in person at various institutions you have connections to (i.e. past employers) or your alma mater.

Work such as graphic design, event programming, or serving as a virtual assistant are all ways for you to remain close to others in the field as well as earning an income.

By doing this, your resume will never develop any gaps. Just changes of employment from full time to contract work. While this is not ideal for many professionals to do in the long run, it could serve as a great filler during your time away.

You can also take this time to enroll in an online course, continuing education, or professional development event to help keep your skills current. Doing so will ensure that you remain connected to emerging trends in the field as well as develop some new skills that those with full time positions might not have time to pursue.

Network and keep on pace

Making sure that you keep up with publications from The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, NASPA, and ACPA are all great for making sure that you remain connected to issues in the field.

Professional groups like NASPA and ACPA are great opportunities for you to connect and network. Remaining involved with knowledge communities and governing boards in both organizations are excellent ways to remain connected, network, and keep using your skills as a student affairs administrator.

In addition to using professional organizations to network, also consider reaching out to old co-workers, bosses, or mentors. These individuals are great since you have already developed connections with them. Even if you haven’t spoken in a while, it’s good to be able to re-connect and remain current and prepared for you re-entry back into the field. They can often provide you the most insightful professional advice and feedback.

Informational interviewing is another great way to not only network but to also continually develop your connections. Informational interviewing allows you to gain some valuable insight into those professionals who you don’t know very well. Informational interviews are also great venues for getting your name and background in front of a hiring manager before they post a position that would be a great fit for you.

Refresh those skills

Keeping up to date with new technologies is going to be a key area to focus on for student affairs professionals. You may not be able to access student information systems, but ways to engage students through social media will still be a significant skill set going forward. So make sure that you continue to use networking tools like LinkedIn in your time away from the field.

You may be able to use those event programming, social media management, or project management skills in volunteer positions while you are away. All of your experience doesn’t have to be in higher education for you to have a relatable and competitive skill set. It’s most important that you keep your skills fresh and application focused.

If you don’t have an outlet to volunteer, but still want to keep learning, then there are still other options for you out there. Using something like Skillshare, LinkedIn Learning, iTunes U, or OfficeTeam can provide some applicable training in areas where you need it most. Not only will you keep your skills fresh, but you might even learn some new ones in your time away!

Resume layouts for the returning professional

Returning to the field is going to be hard for anyone. But coming back from a period of time away is especially challenging. That’s why your resume and applications documents should be edited and re-focused to emphasize what you can do and what you’ve done in practice.

For instance it doesn’t mean anything to add “student engagement experience” to your resume if you don’t have a concrete example to back it up. Instead list something like “student engagement experience with 200+ incoming opportunity students in an overnight orientation program.” That description talks about your skills in student engagement as well as attaches it to a concrete example and number.

Some recommend you pursue a functional resume format instead of a chronological one. In this format you highlight your skills instead of your experience in chronological manner. However, this format has come under tighter scrutiny by hiring managers and human resources professionals when examining them.

Instead, one of the best resume formats to use no matter where you are in your search is the hybrid chronological and functional resume. This format showcases your actionable skills as well as your employment history. This is the resume format that I’ve used throughout my career to great success. I recommend it to all of my other mentees as well.

The way this type of resume is formatted is a profile summary, followed by a list of professional assets, and a competencies. I also advise student affairs job seekers to make sure that they include keywords from the job posting in their resume so that their application materials are prioritized in ATS (applicant tracking system) searches.

Another added benefit of this format is that it allows you to gain your hiring manager’s attention at the very beginning. This way they can determine what you have to bring to the position rather than gaps in your employment history.

Closing thoughts

Returning to student affairs after your time away can be scary. But you don’t have to apologize for anything. In your search and in your interviews, mention the gap in your history and what you’ve done during that time. It could be to take care of your family, travel, try another industry, or gain some perspective in life. But you should always focus on what you’ve been actively doing since you’ve taken time away.

Remember to emphasize your skills, work ethic, and experiences in your application materials rather than focus entirely on your time away. Most of all, sell yourself as an experienced professionals who’s ready to jump and begin contributing in a new work environment.

I hope that you found this article useful! If you need some additional help on your student affairs job search, then check out the eBook The Student Affairs Job Search: A Comprehensive Guide available here.

Happy searching,

Dave Eng, EdD

Provost, The Job Hakr



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