On a recent Thursday during #SAChat, the topic was transitioning between functional areas. Professionals participating in the chat had a good deal to say about this particular topic. After the chat, my mind was reeling with thoughts, ideas, and reflections on my transitions between functional areas and I wanted to share some of those thoughts as well as some advice here.
One topic that really stood out to me was the concept of generalists in our positions or specialists in our positions. In Student Affairs work, there is value to being both a generalist and a specialist. One thing to consider is this: with an average of over 200 applications for entry-level housing positions, why would someone hire a generalist when they can hire a specialist in the area they seek? In my opinion, being a generalist means having a wide variety of skills and experiences in a variety of fields. In contrast, being a specialist means having a deeper set of skills and experiences pertaining to one specific area. A balance between these two is ideal. Again, both are important to our field because rarely do we wear one hat. Based off of my experiences, here are recommendations I would make for those thinking about or intentionally looking to transition:
Get out from underneath your umbrella: Just because you work in Residence Life or Career Counseling does not mean that is the only office you should or could interact with on a regular basis. Get to know professionals in other departments, volunteer for opportunities to sit on career panels or graduate panels, volunteer to partner on a project or sit on a search committee. When working with international students, I mentioned to the Director of International Education that I was thinking about developing a peer mentorship program. It turned out that she had wanted to develop one for years and just had not had the time. We collaborated and developed a program that surprised both of us and the students it was designed to serve!
Transferable skills, the good, the bad, and the ugly: The good news is that everyone says they want a professional with transferable skills. The bad news is, not everyone means it. The ugly news is that transferable skills are virtually always trumped by tangible, real life, actual experience in a given area. Some of the best advice I got while interviewing came from one of the #WLSalt Sisters, Amber, she told me to make the interviewers see me in the position. Do the work for them, she said. Tell them how all of your experience is applicable to their position and how you would work in that position, what you would do, and how your skills and experiences fit their needs. I took Amber’s advice straight to heart and it contributed to getting my current position. If you can demonstrate leadership in the field that you want to transition into, this will make the transition more likely and smoother.
How can you help?: Look at the people who are in the field you want to transition into and find ways to work closely with or collaborate with them. Ask them how you can help with a project they are working on. Put yourself out there to be seen, heard, and have your work speak for itself in a positive and professional capacity. I wanted to learn more about International Education so I asked the IE ladies how I could help them and I ended up designing a series of online orientation/pre-departure videos, taking a giant task off of their to-do list, and gaining a whole new skill set. Warning – always keep in mind that your current position is your primary responsibility. I did all of the video work on my own time. Who and how can you help?
Think Off-Campus: Join listservs in the field you want to be in, read journal articles, stay current on the trends and topics related to that field, learn the language of that field, attend regional (usually much less expensive and within driving distance) conferences to gain some insight. Volunteer with the regional association (you blog, you tweet, great! Help us get the word out about our regional initiatives)! Read the literature (blogs, books, publications), write blog posts or submit writings for online publications or journals.
Make and maintain connections: Nurture and grow your professional and personal connections. This is an invaluable part of transitioning in any field. Participate in #SAChat and make connections across the country with a wealth of people from a variety of functional areas and experiences. Learn what they have to say, contribute what you have to say and intentionally connect. When you work with individuals on a committee, stay in touch, write thank you cards for the opportunities given, reach out for lunch or coffee just to touch base. This same point is true for conferences as well. Regularly touch base with your mentors or professional board of directors to let them know what is going on with you and your professional progression, get their advice, ask questions, and learn from them.
Bigger Picture: If you are looking to transition and make a career in a different functional area, then learn what is expected of the professionals in that field. What does their day to day work life look like? When you look at the job descriptions of people where you want to be now, in five years, in twenty years – is it still something you would be interested and dedicated to doing on a daily basis? How are the professional standards similar or different then your current area? What adjustments will you need to make to be successful? Look ahead- there are a wealth of resources to explore in this area, take some time to investigate the path you want to take now and in the future.
SA Pros, what advice can you offer to those transitioning between functional areas? If you are transitioning, ask yourself why? Invest in your future. Share your experience with us so we can learn.