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Tom’s Pivot from Higher Ed to L&D

I Made the Pivot. And I’m doing more than surviving – I’m Thriving.

Yes. You heard it here. You can make the pivot (or transition) out of higher education into a position in more of a corporate setting and not just survive, but thrive. 

Let’s be real. When we first go into a campus-based position in Higher Education, particularly those of us who worked in Student Affairs, we did it because we had a great experience in college, had an advisor or mentor encourage us to check out the field, and we made the decision along the way during our undergraduate career to pivot from what we were studying to higher education. We knew we would start off in an entry-level position, likely go to graduate school to get a Masters degree and maybe even a doctorate, and spend the rest of our lives working at a college or university. Some of us even likely dreamed of being promoted to a Dean of Students and/or a Vice President for Student Affairs.

Ok, that was my path and my expectation. It may or may not be yours, but we all have in common that we were pulled into higher education and leaving it seems both strange and complicated. Why? I know for me it was because it was what I knew. I had spent 20 years on a college campus (not counting my undergraduate experience), forming relationships across the country, and yes, building my resume with experiences that would further my career. I could quote student development theory from memory and plan one heck of homecoming celebration. 

However, after 20 years, I found myself wanting to do something different. I had reached a point in my career that to move up, I was likely going to have to do the things in Student Affairs that were not my interest or my expertise. I worked in Student Development and First Year Programs. I did not want to have to do student conduct, academic dishonesty, Title IX, or be a lead for student crisis situations. It was not who I was and I was at a crossroads. 

Today, after 5 ½ years outside of Higher Education, I get a message weekly from someone who is interested in how I did it and how they can do it. So, I wanted to compile a few pieces of advice as you think about making the transition, or as we say on our podcast, making the pivot.

Decide what you are interested in doing and the type of environment that is for you.

For me, this was easy. I love being an educator. I have always loved being an educator. I was interested in corporate learning & development roles or customer education roles. So, I found a role that included both of those. But, you might like sales. You might like project management. Or you may be skilled at marketing. Perhaps you have a passion for non-profit or NGO (non-governmental organizations) work. Think about what you want to do and then narrow your search using LinkedIn or Indeed.com. If you are interested in corporate learning & development/employee training, type in “learning & development” into the search feature on Indeed.com and review the positions. Even if you are not interested in the place of business, review the descriptions to get an idea of the language necessary for your resume. Speaking of your resume…

Update your resume (and cover letter)

Do not submit a standard higher education resume for a corporate type position. When I left higher education, my resume was 5 pages. It included every committee I was on and every presentation at a conference I had presented. My resume now is just shy of 2 pages. If you are applying for an entry-level role, 1 page is plenty. And rework the resume to include what you have accomplished, not what you were responsible for in your campus-based position. Your resume should be more results-oriented. Quantify your accomplishments. Think year over year growth in your programs and activities.

Additionally, update your cover letter, but don’t expect every job to require one. Use your cover letter to discuss your fit and how your skills are transferable from higher education to the role you are applying. That leads into my next piece of advice…

Yes. Your skills are transferable.

We do a little bit of everything in higher education. We plan events. We handle crisis situations. We coordinate maintenance. We supervise. We mentor. We orient. We employ strategy from one year to the next. We assess. We do it all. That is the nature of higher education. So, yes, your skills are transferable. The key is how you communicate those transferable skills. Language is important, both on your resume and in an interview. Even though most of the people you interview with went to college, they won’t understand what student development theory is or they work that goes into planning an enrollment model. So, it is up to you to adjust. Students become participants or learners. Goals become key performance indicators (KPIs). Orientation becomes onboarding. Speak the language. Because you have the skills!

Keep applying. Don’t get discouraged.

We teach our students to think of job applications and interviewing as practice if they are unsuccessful in obtaining the role. We need to take our own advice. You likely will not get the first job you apply for outside of the campus. And that is ok. That does not mean you are not qualified to do the role. It should give you the pause to rethink your resume, practice your interviewing skills, and keep looking. I did a quick search just now for learning & development on Indeed.com. There were 415,000 results. So, there is an opportunity out there for you. Treat applying for new jobs like a job. Commit to it and do the work to get noticed.

Network. Network. Network.

Networking in higher education was so easy. NASPA. ACPA. ACUI. ACUHO-I. NODA. AFA. There was a conference for everything. And you could network with seasoned professionals from across the country. It is harder in corporate. While there are conferences, they are usually focused on products or services. I don’t attend an annual conference of all the customer education and onboarding professionals out there because there isn’t just one. You have to build your network differently. Find people at companies or non-profits you are interested in working and connect with them on LinkedIn. Use hashtags to become familiar with people in the world of work in which you are interested. Join virtual groups of similar professionals. We will help you. But you have to do the work to find the right people.

Also, and I say this knowing it might irritate some people. The college campus is a business. It has a Human Resources department. A marketing department. A business services department. Finance department. IT department. If you want to make the jump, but want to do it a little more softly, explore opportunities in those areas of the university. Even if you just build the relationships and learn the terminology, it can help you get your foot in the door without closing it behind you.

Think like someone outside of higher education.

And finally, as you prepare to apply and interview, think about what they are looking for in a new person. And then speak to that. They likely want someone who has demonstrated previous success. They want someone who can speak about their skills as it relates to what they are looking for in a candidate. They want someone who can show results. But, ultimately, they want someone to fit. When I hire people, I want to hire people that I know are going to be successful. Partly selfishly because if I put time into training you and getting you ready, I don’t want to have to do that again if you’re not successful. 

You got this! Pivoting out of education can be stressful, but it can be so worthwhile. The leap of faith is worth nerves. If someone like me who had 20 years experience on a college campus and knew nothing but how that worked can survive and thrive, so can you.


And if you want to talk about it, let me know. Visit our website at www.pivotingoutofedu.com to see what we offer for consultation services. (Hint: the first conversation is free!)

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