Job Hakr

Blog from the Job Hakr: Student Affairs Job Search

Blog from the Job Hakr: Student Affairs Job Search


How to Answer “What do you do?” when you’re unemployed in Student Affairs

How to Answer “What do you do?” when you’re unemployed in Student Affairs

How to Answer “What do you do?” when you’re unemployed in Student Affairs

How to Answer “What do you do?” when you’re unemployed in Student Affairs

Sometimes when you’re in between jobs, currently looking, or about to graduate from your grad program it’s hard to answer the question “what do you do?”

Of course this is easier when you’re in the company of friends or other student affairs professionals. These are colleagues that you can relate and emote with. However answering this question for those outside of higher education can be a bit challenging.

When I was searching I would have trouble answering this question. Part of it was because explaining what student affairs is to someone outside of the field is difficult. It’s even harder to do so when you’re in between positions.

However, I‘ve been able to turn this question to my advantage when connecting with new people, at professional networking events, or just relating my professional life to my friends and family.

Keeping the conversation going

When I’ve been asked this question, I know that it’s because the person just wants to keep the conversation going. Asking “what do you do?” seems to be one of those benign inquires that seems to get the job done.

Challenges aside, there is a good way to answer this that keeps the momentum up as well as positions yourself to capitalize on the opportunity.

Below are some examples of how to answer the question “what do you do?” when you’re in between jobs or currently searching.

When you’re unemployed or just left a job

If you’ve just been let go are or currently searching then I’ve answered with “I’m transitioning right now” or “I’m in between opportunities.” This gives me the power to shape the follow up questions between what I was doing and what I want to do next. It also leaves the answer a little ambiguous. No one wants to say “I’m unemployed.”

When you’re currently job searching

If you’re about to finish your graduate program or are returning to the field after being away you can answer with “I’m searching right now and am looking to do X,Y,Z….” Now what you follow up with can be as detailed or as general as you like. If I am speaking with non-student affairs people I say something like “I’m searching right now and I’m looking to do more work directly with academic advising.” Or “I’m searching right now and I’m looking for opportunities at smaller colleges.” That is just enough information for someone not in the know to understand and relate to.

If I am answering this question for someone in the field I can go into more depth. So I respond with “I’m searching right now and I’m looking to transition into residential life.” Or “I’m searching right now and I’m looking for something in community standards & conduct.” These responses help frame you in your background and your skill set. This could even serve you well if the person you are talking to has any contacts in those functional areas.

The pivot and the follow up

Often just revealing that you are currently searching can be difficult. But this is the part where you use your position to your advantage. In all cases I follow up my response with:

“Have you ever transitioned jobs before?”

This is a great response because the answer is almost always yes. People have been let go, changed careers, went back to school, reentered the job market, took a leave of absence before etc… This is almost a non-question because the answer is likely “yes.”

Then I follow up with “what do you do now and how’d you get there?”

This is a great second follow up because the answer to the first question is likely a yes. The second one sets what I call the “book end.” Now my contact has a great roadmap in the conversation to follow: when they were in a state of transition to where they are now.

Knowing the answer to my second question helps set you up to learn more about their career in their answer.

Turning this to your advantage

One of the things that makes me wince at conferences are when I meet other student affairs professionals and they introduce themselves to me with: “Hey I’m Jonathan and I’m looking for resident director positions at your institution. Could you introduce me to your dean? Here is my card.”

I just learned your name a few seconds ago. I don’t think that I can jump from that directly into an introduction.

Asking for a favor, connection, or introduction can be a big request if you’ve just met someone for the first time. That’s because doing so uses that person’s “social capital.” You are asking them to vouch for you to someone in their network. But they don’t even know anything about you yet.

Take special note: this is not a good way to network at a conference.

How you can ask for a favor… eventually

You don’t’ want to ask for a favor immediately once you meet someone. That is just not a good way of developing your network. What I do is rely on a method that identifies me as a worthwhile contact who provides value to a new colleague. THEN I ask for a favor.

This is what I mean: when I meet someone for the first time we go through all of the usual small talk and chit chat. What’s your name? What do you do? Where do you work? Where do you live? etc….

Based on those responses I begin going through my internal network of contacts and resources and begin asking myself: “Do I know anyone that works at that university?” “Do I know anyone that works in that field?” “Do I know anyone that lives in that city?” “Did I read anything lately that talks about that functional area?”

Then I follow up with a clarifying question. “Hey do you know Adrienne? She just started at your college. We went to graduate school together.” Or “Inside Higher Ed just published an article about student retention. Do you ever talk about that with your co-workers?”

Based off of that response, I begin to tie some things together.  I want my new contact to keep talking and share more work about what they do. Eventually I reach a point where I ask the question that provides an opportunity to demonstrate value to my new contact:

“What would you say is the most challenging part of your work?”

Based off their response to this I think further. “Do I know anyone else who is facing the same challenge? Have I read anything in the Chronicle of Higher Education where that issue has been discussed before?”

If I can, I refer them to someone I know in my network that works in the same field that they do. Preferably someone else who has experienced the same challenge that they are experiencing.

Not only does this provide a connection to my new contact, but it also gives THEM a worthwhile new connection and contact through my own network.  Only after that point do I say something like…

“Well I hope that my colleague Alan can help shed some light on your challenge. I’ll connect you two via email if you give me your card.  He’s great, I’ve known him a long time. But now that I have you I’d like to know if there are any student affairs openings in your area that you might be aware of. I’d appreciate your help.”

Framing your follow up

You’ve provided value and gained some insight into the background of your new contact. This is the time for you to frame your follow up. You’re not looking to share exactly what you are looking for in particular (i.e. I want to become the Associate Director of Admissions) but more along the lines of the “soft” characteristics of what you are looking for in a role.
Those soft characteristics can be the type of institution you want to work for: “I want to work for a large urban private school.” Or based on what you want to do more of “I want more student interaction.” You can ask for things in functional areas like “I’m interested in new opportunities in Diversity & Inclusion or Veterans Affairs.” You can even ask about skills based positions like “I’m interested in making a transition into Educational Technology.”

These characteristics helps your contact review what you are looking for and who they know that might be able able to help you.

The reason that I say concentrate on “soft” characteristics is that it’s easier for someone to recall a person that works at “private urban university” than it is to think about someone who is looking for an Assistant Director of Housing Services.

No matter what, you want to frame your request in a way that helps your new contact answer the question that serves you.

Closing thoughts

Answering the question “what do you do” can be tough. But don’t let this one trip you up. It’s actually a great opportunity to gain a new contact and insight on new positions that might be available.

Choose a smart answer and it might just be the opening you’re looking for.

Happy networking,

Dave Eng, EdD
Provost, The Job Hakr


McCord, S. (2014, February 02). 3 Ways to Answer "What Do You Do?" When You're Unemployed. Retrieved May 8, 2019, from