As a job seeker in higher education, what exactly are you pursuing? It’s likely more than just a job on a college campus. You probably have preferences that involve a combination of sufficient pay, ideal lifestyle, a response to some professional calling, or to just be happy.
Many of us follow a prescribed career path and obtain the necessary credentials, skills, and experiences required to succeed in our choice of profession. A lot is asked of you. But do you really consider what the job will give you in return?
More money won’t make you happier once you’ve reached a certain salary threshold. In 2010, Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and economist Angus Deaton found that after people earned at least an annual income of $75,000, subsequent pay raises did not improve their emotional well-being. That number is likely higher now, but the point is, chasing a bigger paycheck will only get you so far in your career. You’ll eventually desire something else.
Prestige is a valuable currency in higher education. Being a professor or having a title like dean or vice president can externally validate one’s career and self-worth, as well as working at an institution with a sterling reputation. But a satisfying job in higher education is found by looking inward.
Researchers who study human motivation have found three key psychosocial elements, known as self-determination theory, that lead to sustainable fulfillment in all areas of life, not just careers. They are:
- Autonomy, which is having a sense of control over how you spend your time and energy.
- Mastery, or competence, which is perceiving through positive feedback that you are making progress toward desired outcomes.
- Belonging, or relatedness, which is experiencing connection to other people, places, and traditions.
These qualities are often expressed in higher education professionals compared to those who work in other industries. They are tied closely to the academic mission. Other jobs might be market-driven and rely more on extrinsic motivators.
So how do you apply this to your job search in higher education? Here are some things to consider as you seek opportunities that will provide you autonomy, mastery, and belonging:
For anyone who has switched from a corporate job to higher education, they’ll notice that while organizational structures are hierarchical in academe, people work relatively autonomously. Faculty work like independent contractors, outside the rigid 9-to-5 workday and without strict managerial oversight. Although administrative staff often observe how they work in “silos,” there’s not as many legal, regulatory, or market constraints compared to other industries.
As a job seeker, look for institutions and departments that invest in professional development and enable their employees to grow. Are the expectations reasonable, and will you be able to sustainably produce good work? Will you be able to apply your unique talents to benefit others, or will you be relegated to only following the rules, procedures, and “the way they do things around here”?
Higher education work is very specialized. Professors are experts in their disciplines. There are many functional areas for staff to master their craft. There is value in being a nimble and versatile generalist, but for the most part, higher education professionals aren’t pressured to take tiny steps in many directions in attempts to cover the ground. There are deliberate goals toward things like obtaining tenure, improving enrollment, raising funds, or meeting student learning outcomes.
Sharing your knowledge with students and helping them graduate can give you a sense of competence as well. But where institutions often struggle compared to other industries is effectively evaluating individual employees and giving them specific feedback. It’s often all about faculty getting published in the right journals, or the focus is on developing the students instead of the people supporting the students.
Make sure you know how your next employer will measure your success. Ask for regular feedback, data, or other systems to ensure that you are making progress toward your goals and becoming competent in your field.
You often hear retirees say they miss the people but not the work. Also, having a best friend at work means you’re more engaged and less likely to quit. And while you might be fond of your coworkers or students, the people you work with are still an external benefit like pay and prestige. Your sense of community and feeling like you belong at your workplace is what really matters.
Colleges and universities are great for fostering this sense of belonging. Members of a campus community depend on one another, especially the students relying on each other and their professors. We relate to one another and to the community when we share intellectual resources, collaborate to facilitate learning, and establish connections that go beyond professional or consumer transactions.
Job seekers shouldn’t be looking for places where people are all each other’s best friends and they sing kumbaya at department meetings. The goal is not to find your flock of like-minded people, but to find a place that values inclusivity and not homogeneity, cultural contribution instead of cultural fit, and psychological safety over groupthink.
You spend more than half of your waking hours in a day at work. Make sure you have control of what you do and how well you do it and know that it’s a place where you belong.