The Importance of Professional Fit

As you look to move your career in higher education IT forward and explore new opportunities, it is important to understand the kinds of work that excite you, the challenges you like to tackle, the work environment in which you thrive, and the institutional values that are important to you. Self evaluation, guidance from mentors, and investigating potential institutions all play an important role in making an informed decision about the next step you take in your career.

Self Evaluation

A self evaluation can be a very difficult process the first few times you do it, but if you are honest with yourself and keep at it, it will be a very powerful tool as you look at future opportunities. Often finding the right questions to ask is one of the hardest tasks. Here are some things for for to consider in your self evaluation:

  • What kind of work environment helps me thrive? Do you need to be somewhere alone and undisturbed so you can focus on a small group of tasks, or do you find inspiration in the chaos that can come from doing lots of different things?
  • How do I feel about working in groups? Working in groups is part of any job, but some require constant work with your peers while others require only periodic interactions.
  • At what kind of work do I excel? Do you enjoy worked on structured problems that have a knowable solution, or perhaps you like complex puzzles with no clear, single path to success?
  • With what level of complexity am I comfortable? Some projects can have hundreds of interrelated pieces being shepherded by many different people. Do you enjoy being surrounded by that much complexity, or do you need to work on more discrete, well defined work?
  • What kind of context helps me be successful? Do you want to be able to see the entire big picture and understand how your work fits in, or are you comfortable working on a piece of the puzzle with only information on the inputs you will get and the output that is required?
  • What kind of recognition is important to me? Do you like constant positive reinforcement of your work output? How publicly do you want your achievements recognized? Are monetary rewards important to you (note that this is different from being paid a fair wage for your work)?
  • How far am I willing to move? In many cases new jobs mean relocation. You need to consider the impact on your family a move may have and discuss it with them. Consider also the kind of weather that suits you, the part of the country (and world) in which you want to be, and how far you’ll be from your support structure. It’s easy to forget to ask these questions, but when I moved from New York to Hawaii, these were all serious considerations that I discussed in depth with my family.

Guidance from Mentors

Having a sounding board and someone with whom you can speak is an important key to being successful as you look at new opportunities. You may even have multiple mentors with different relationships to you. A peer mentor can really understand your current position and situation and help you see how things really are for you right now. A aspirant mentor (that is, someone in a position you aspire to) can help you see what skills and temperament you need to get to the position you want. You may also consider a search mentor, someone who can help you learn how to read job postings and show you some strategies for interviewing. If you don’t yet have someone you consider a mentor, find someone as soon as you can. You may be tempted to ask your boss to mentor you. While I was very fortunate that my first boss was also a great mentor, these kinds of relationships can be tricky, and I don’t generally recommend having your boss mentor you.

Investigating Potential Institutions

There are over four thousand institutions of higher education in the US, and understanding what subset of those will be a good fit for you is of vital importance. You may be a great IT person and a stellar institution, but if the way you work or what you value is differs from what the institution wants and needs, you won’t be successful. Given that, you should be investigating and interviewing institutions with the same diligence they are putting into screening you. Here are a few things to explore:

Understand the size, type, and affiliation of the institution.

If you want to be at a large institution, then just skip the schools with three or four thousand students. If you like working at private schools, don’t spend lots of time looking at stuff at public institutions. If religious affiliation (or lack there of) is important, choose accordingly.

Review the school’s financials

You can learn a great deal about an institution by looking through their public disclosures. All private, not-for-profit institutions are required to submit IRS form 990 annually, and all that information is publicly available. You’ll be able to see how much revenue the school took in, how much it spent, the size of its endowment, a breakdown of how they spend money, and even the salaries of the highest paid and most important folks on campus. The easiest way to get these is by going to http://www.guidestar.org. For public institutions, you may have to do some more digging, as each state has a different method of collecting and making available that information.

Understand where IT fits in the organizational chart

IT operations tend to report to the president, provost, or chief financial officer. An IT operation that reports to the president tends to have a broad range of responsibilities across the institution. One reporting to the provost is likely to focus more on the academic endeavour. Reporting to the CFO is often an indication of a more utility focused IT group that is going to be focused on keeping costs down for both IT and the rest of the institution.

Final Thoughts

A great deal of work goes into finding a new opportunity, and when you find a position and an institution where you are a great fit, it’s completely worth it. My final piece of advice is that when you have an opportunity to interview, be prepared to ask questions. When candidates are very similar, I remember the ones who asked probing and interesting questions. Asking the right questions will also help you avoid a bad fit. For a list of some really great questions, I encourage you to check out Alison Green’s post, “The 10 Best Interview Questions to Ask.” I use a variation of these anytime I interview and have found them very helpful.

editor’s note: A version of this post appeared previously as part of the #Resolve2015 series at http://lizgross.net/determine-best-professional-fit/

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