How do I land a job working at a university?
September 25, 2016 12:56 PM   Subscribe

I moved to a new area recently and found a Master's program I'd love to attend. How do I land a job at this university, so I can attend in the future, after having accrued some free course 'credits' in the system?

I'm hoping to attend grad school within two years or so, and the program I'd like to attend isn't far from my house....Snowflakes inside.
Hi Mefites;

I've taken a bit of a turn from the path I thought I'd follow after earning my undergraduate degree, and am now on my way (well, knock on wood) to becoming a Physician's Assistant. There is a great MA program for this not far from where I live, which is wonderful because I can get the much more reasonable in-state tuition if I am accepted there, and can stay in an area I find increasingly enjoyable. I'm taking some prerequisite courses at the local community college now, and hope to begin attending a program within about 2 years, while I ready my application and save up some money in the meantime.

My understanding is, if I work at a university for so long, I can begin to cash in on some free course benefits, which would make my degree that much less of a burden on me. Assuming I'm accepted into the program, this could be fortuitous. Problem- I'm not fully sure how I can become a competitive applicant for the university's hiring system. What do universities typically look for in applicants? How can I set my resume and cover letter apart?

Bit about me: I have a Bachelor's from an Ivy League, am in my late 20's, have spent time living internationally and I have plentiful experience working in several non-profits. I have a whole host of folks who would go to bat for me in terms of giving me a good recommendation, it's just a matter of...getting to that step.

Seeking advice...! Thank you
posted by erattacorrige to Work & Money (24 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
This will probably differ a lot depending on the type and size of university. What kind of job are you looking for? Have you looked through the uni's job site to see what kind of jobs are available?

Is the program something you can do part time? Some unis will only give you class benefits if you're a full time employee, which doesn't help if you can't attend class during the day.

See if the uni has their own temporary staffing pool. Starting as a temp is the easiest way to get hired full time if the dept likes you. But be aware that your time as a temp likely won't count towards accruing course credits.
posted by nakedmolerats at 1:05 PM on September 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

First of all, check that the university you want to attend actually does offer tuition benefits to employees. A lot don't anymore.

Then think about what kind of job you're qualified for. What do you do now? Universities hire all different sorts of people for all different sorts of jobs. If you don't have any particularly relevant experience, you should look at the clerical job listings. Sometimes these will require you to take a test and get into the applicant pool. You can also do what nakedmolerats mentioned above and take temp positions, which will give you an idea of what your options are.
posted by MsMolly at 1:17 PM on September 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

I have worked at 3 universities and each have different policies about tuition. 2 of the 3 places I have worked didn't provide any reimbursement for tuition for professional programs like a PA, MD, JD, etc. I currently work at a school that offers reimbursement for one class a semester (any kind), which is only available if you work 35 or more hours/week. It also has a PA program and it is a cohort program: you are not permitted to have another job while in the program and you have 50 hours/week of required in-class or in-clinic time. So, you cannot work and get the benefit and go to the PA program simultaneously.

So, before you get to step 3, work at University, I suggest:
1. Does the University offer a tuition reimbursement and how does it work?
2. How does the PA program function, and can it be done w/r/t the constraints posed by #1?
posted by holyrood at 1:23 PM on September 25, 2016 [8 favorites]

I am a little dubious about this plan. First of all, it's not universally true that universities give free tuition to employees. Mine has a very limited tuition benefit that wouldn't begin to cover the cost of PA school. Second of all, PA programs are pretty intense, and I question whether you would be able to work full-time or close to it while you were studying to be a PA. Finally, "universities" don't hire people or look for particular qualities in applicants. There are a lot of different jobs at universities, and they require really different skills and experience. A custodian is going to need different qualifications from a research assistant in Biology from a library worker from a residence hall coordinator. Pretty much any job category you can imagine exists at a university. What skills do you have? What do you want to do for a living right now?

One question I have is whether you've looked into the patient care hours that you need to be a competitive applicant for PA school. Most PA schools require a lot of hours to apply: I've seen 750 and 1000 hour minimums at several schools. Most successful applicants have more than that, and many have been working full-time in a healthcare setting for several years. If you don't have enough patient care hours, see if the university has a hospital and if you can get a job there that involves direct patient contact. It's likely to be a pretty difficult, demanding job, but that's good. PA schools are typically impressed by applicants who have done difficult, demanding, low-status jobs in healthcare. It shows that you understand what working in healthcare is really about and that you're not a prima donna.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 1:24 PM on September 25, 2016 [8 favorites]

Can you tell us more about your areas of experience or expertise? What kinds of work have you done with non-profits? What's your educational background?

I know many people who have moved from the non-academic non-profit sector to working in universities - some took a background in fundraising or communications and went to the offices directly related to that (ie, advancement or external relations); others had more general administrative experience and have done things like work in the office that oversees human subject review for student/faculty research projects. From what I've seen, people in the former position (specific skills that related directly to a job function at the university) were able to get jobs through normal channels like applying online. The latter (generalists) got in through personal connections.
posted by lunasol at 1:28 PM on September 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Reading some helpful things here...

So, my background is in languages (not linguistics, but actual languages- Pashto, Urdu, Russian), international relations, and art history (again, took a detour in undergrad which accounts for the mishmash of major/minors). My work experience in the non-profit sector was in welfare assistance (all kinds across the board), SNAP benefits, nutrition in low-income populations... stuff like that. I have extensive data analysis experience, including using specialized systems and things like MS Access/Excel. I also taught internationally at an institution of higher education. At the moment I am taking all the pre-reqs for the MA degree.
I knew, already, that I need those 1,000 or so contact hours in advance of applying for the program- which is only 6 months working in the field-- doing, it seems, what could be a variety of activities as long as they tie into the field somehow.
The university's website has this to say about employee tuition benefits:
"Employee Tuition Assistance
The university offers a waiver of tuition (undergraduate and graduate level) to all eligible employees for academic credited courses offered at the university each semester. This program is for both degree and non-degree seeking students. Books, application fees, special course or departmental fees, and readmission fees are not covered. Refer to the appropriate policy for eligibility, enrollment information, and course restrictions.

The waiver policy does not apply to individual courses offered thru Outreach and Engagement or other self-supporting programs, except as provided by university policy. Waivers can be used for employees who are fully accepted into the Adult Degree Program. Waivers can also be used for employees who are fully accepted into a Certificate Program or a Degree Program if space is available and with approval from Outreach and Engagement.
The university will reimburse full-time permanent employees for tuition costs for courses taken at other educational institutions for courses which are not a part of a degree program. This policy is designed to aid classified staff and faculty who are expected to continue employment with the University for a period which will justify such educational assistance. The purpose of the program is to train employees with work-related education: in the use of new or modified equipment, in skills and knowledge required by changes in current positions, that maintains or improves skills required in the job, or to meet degree requirements in a program for which the employee is enrolled and the university does not offer an equivalent course.

Classified employees must have successfully completed their probationary period as a prerequisite for educational assistance."

I also understood, before, that these types of programs run cohort systems and that I would not be able to work during school, more or less- this is why I am planning, or trying to plan, all of this out way in advance.

One of my biggest issues in hiring, so far, has been that- no matter how many times I write and rewrite my resume and cover letter, I haven't gotten a single interview for jobs that I've applied for in the USA, which is where I'd like to be for the next several years. I've used my university's alumni privileges to have the school check over my resume and give me feedback on ways to improve it. I've had friends review it as well.

Yes, the temp agency suggestion is a good one- a good way to get my foot in the door, assuming that this plan is feasible at all. I'm mostly looking for ways to make myself a more attractive employee, and I'm frustrated because in spite of my best efforts, I don't understand how to make my job applications stand out.
posted by erattacorrige at 2:00 PM on September 25, 2016

I think you're getting way, way ahead of yourself here. If what you really want to do is go to PA school, you are most likely not going to be able to pick the school in advance -- PA school admissions is incredibly competitive right now; even if you could a job at this particular university that entitles you to free tuition, the likelihood of being accepted to that particular program (or any PA program in particular) is low. I say that not based on any knowledge of your credentials, but based on the fact that the massive mismatch between number of applicants and number of training spots is such that no one has their pick of PA programs right now (or for the foreseeable future).

Based on your update, it sounds like you are having trouble landing any job in the US -- why narrow your search to a specific university? Get a job, any job, start saving money in a 529 account and accruing your clinical hours. Ultimately the great thing about PA programs is that they are short and you will earn a real salary when it's over (cough unlike medical school). I fear that if you become really fixated on this scheme to get free tuition you're just going to spin your wheels either by failing to land the university job or, perhaps worse, failing to gain acceptance to the university PA program (and thus squandering whatever employee tuition benefits you might accrue).
posted by telegraph at 2:20 PM on September 25, 2016 [7 favorites]

Ok, noted on the criticisms of my plan...

So I'm hearing "get a job, any job" without any real constructive advice on HOW to do that. What can I do to beef up my job applications, for real "grown up" jobs? I feel like I am somehow missing something critical in my applications, on my resume/CL, etc but I just do not know WHAT. I can certainly work in the service industry, as I am now, but I'd like to continue this relatively positive streak of working in environments where my education is actually utilized, and where I can maybe even gain those needed contact hours. But I don't have any direct experience working in the medical field; I do have a bunch of experience working in public health nonprofits (I was considering getting an MPH for a bit) and I am not sure how I can make myself an attractive candidate for real "adult" jobs. I am squirreling away all money I earn from my current service industry job for down the road...
posted by erattacorrige at 2:34 PM on September 25, 2016

What are you doing to get hired at the university in the first place? Have you put in applications via their electronic system?

I work at a university in a pink collar capacity (and get the same tuition benefit as other employees in loftier positions). That might be a route for you if you have an odd resume after returning from abroad - IME, employers are not always very enthused about job candidates coming back from, say, teaching overseas. You would want to put together a very standard resume, mirroring the language of the job posting - university HR systems usually do electronic sorting and if your resume doesn't have the appropriate key words, you won't get past that.

One thing to be aware of: you don't "build up credit" in the system for tuition reimbursement. There is usually a fixed amount of tuition benefit per semester - generally not more than two courses.

Too, university employment is one of the very few places where it's frequently hard to pull strings - university employment is overseen by the state, there's a certain amount of equal opportunity process and because university systems tend to be complex, there is some preference for people who plan to stick around for at least a few years. Your best bet might be to look around on the jobs boards for program assistantships or any kind of work where you'd assist faculty with databases - there, your degree and international experience wouldn't be a drawback, whereas with secretarial work, they're going to take experience over fancy degrees most of the time.
posted by Frowner at 2:37 PM on September 25, 2016 [8 favorites]

Have you been looking at research assistant jobs? I looked at the job board for my university (which is not your university, so this is just an example), and they have a couple that look like you'd be qualified. A few of them involve recruiting and screening research subjects, which I think might count as direct patient contact. A lot of them want people with quantitative skills.

To be completely honest, most of my successful applicants to PA school have worked as certified nursing assistants, which is probably not what you want to hear. To get those jobs, you need to do a short community college course. (It's 3 weeks here, but that may vary by state.) I have never heard of anyone having trouble getting hired as a CNA, but it's really hard work, the pay is terrible, and it's not a high-status occupation.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 2:57 PM on September 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

I work at a (private, US) University and am doing my Masters part-time there. My uni offers tuition remission up to 18 credit hours/year (I've been doing 15). That said, one thing to strongly consider: After a certain level ($5250/year), the IRS considers tuition remission a taxable benefit. So I can get about 1.75 courses a year "for free" and after that, I'm responsible for paying ~38% taxes on the rest out of pocket. The uni I work for spreads this out over the course of the year (via a form I fill out with HR every January), but it's a pretty good ding on your net pay. Just something to consider.
posted by Ufez Jones at 3:24 PM on September 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

I've worked for many years at universities, one private and one public. I still feel like there's a lot of things you're not understanding about how this typically works. You cannot get tuition remission if you are not working (almost always limited to working full time). You can't stop working to attend the PA program and still get tuition benefits. You can try and take a pre-req here and there prior to entering the program, but as soon as you stop working full time, your tuition benefits will cease. And many universities have very different benefits for graduate and professional degree credits vs. undergrad. Those professional programs are often cash cows for the institution and they are not keen on giving the milk away for free.

As far as getting a job at a university, there's nothing special about it. Universities are typically pretty heavy on the bureaucracy and following proper procedures. You will have to go to their job website, see what's available and follow whatever instructions you find there for applying. Temping can be a good way to get a foot in the door. Many large universities run their own temp agencies.

But again, your whole plan sounds like you aren't quite understanding how the benefits work.
posted by soren_lorensen at 3:36 PM on September 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

Yes, I think I've made it clear that I understand that I can't work full time and be a student in a cohort full time, @soren_lorensen, but thanks for the other basic information.

I am really just doing my best to think of ways to make this whole grad school thing work, including fielding ideas that may or may not be feasible...which is why I am "asking Metafilter"!

I will look into doing the CNA course...sounds pretty simple, and I'm not unused to doing really hard work (worked my way through college, had my own small business that I developed at age 20, while attending school full time, etc etc etc). So that's a great suggestion.

Wish me luck!
posted by erattacorrige at 4:20 PM on September 25, 2016

In case it's not clear, the most straightforward way that people do this (who aren't supported by their families) is by taking student loans. As I said above, PA programs are short and your earning potential is quite high immediately after graduation. If you are confident that you can finish the program, taking federal loans is probably wise, and loans will often cover your basic living expenses in addition to tuition and fees. I recommend reaching out to the office of financial aid at a program or two just to get a feel for what the options are.
posted by telegraph at 4:36 PM on September 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yeah, to get a job at a university, go to the university jobs website and apply for jobs that seem like they match your skills/experience. No secret to it, alas.

If you're looking for general ideas on how to pay for PA school then you might want to check out a thread from a few days ago - How did you (YES, YOU SPECIFICALLY) pay for grad school? (But most of the answers are some combination of work, tuition reimbursement, and loans.) There *are* a handful of PA programs that allow part-time study, if you're interested in pursuing that path.

Since you're still two years out from actually entering a program your best bet is probably to try to focus on maximizing your income and savings and minimizing your spending while you take your prereqs (including, potentially, working someplace that offers tuition benefits) and then use your savings to support yourself during the program.
posted by mskyle at 5:09 PM on September 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

I have a friend who got an MPH in the evening while working full-time at Boston University (middle-management office job). I don't think every single course was in the evening...I think she was able to attend a day class here and there and then make up the time by working late.

I know several RNs in the New York-Presbyterian system who got either heavily discounted or free tuition (I don't recall which) for master's programs at Columbia's nursing school.

The bad news, of course, is that I can't recall EVER getting an interview at a university except for my very first post-college job--I was a library cataloger in a somewhat hard-to-find language. University HR is legendarily slow. If you haven't looked for library jobs that use your languages, then maybe check that out. I've never gotten a call for any other university job.

Some "nontraditional," read old, medical students have a specific reason for "needing" to go to a certain school, usually because of family in the area. These people apparently book a 1:1 chat at the admissions office of their school of choice and get as much info out of the admissions staff as they can, with the caveat, of course, that there are no guarantees. You might do this, if you haven't already.
posted by 8603 at 5:16 PM on September 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

With your languages, international experience, and public-support work, you may be an attractive candidate for international student support services.

My university also has an employee tuition waiver program (which extends to dependents!) but there are no "credits" that can be banked for later. The tuition-waiver is taxed as a taxable benefit in the hands of the student.

For staff jobs at my campus, first priority goes to candidates already employed under the same bargaining unit, second to candidates employed elsewhere in the university, and third to outside people. The hiring committee only sees the applications from the next category if all applicants in the previous category are rejected. So it can be quite hard for a newcomer to get a foot in the door. But this might not be a thing at your university.
posted by heatherlogan at 6:37 PM on September 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

I don't know squat about most of your question, but I can say from my experience with applying at a university that the whole thing has gotten a lot harder. From what I've seen and experienced and heard from other people trying to hire, you have to have like 95% of the required qualifications ("preferred" qualifications are less strict) to even get an interview, and probably have to have 100% of them to get the job. These days nobody wants to train you, so they want to know that you've already done the job before and have access to all of the university's programs, which of course you can't get without a job. I really have no idea how your particular experience would translate into what a university wants, but in general you're going to REALLY need to match what the job requirements are. If I were you, I'd look at whatever jobs you are kind of close to in experience and then see what you're missing and then see if there's any possible way you can get experience in those areas in the future.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:15 PM on September 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

If there's a PA school at the university, I'm going to assume there's a university hospital as well. If there is any reasonable Pashto, Urdu, or Russian speaking population where you are, you could get a job as a medical translator fairly easily, either in person or over the phone. Doing in-person medical interpreting is actually really good clinical experience because you'll be working with patients who are seeing many different kinds of specialists and you'll be with them during the whole visit, so you'll get exposed to different kinds of medicine. You'd have to check and see if translators are directly employed by the hospital or if they contract out with a service like Language Line, and you'd also have to check and see if university hospital employees count as university employees (often they don't).
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 7:30 PM on September 25, 2016 [6 favorites]

I can only reply from experience hiring for research-related positions at Universities. (Both positions in actual research labs, and administrative positions related to research.) For what it's worth, my advice there would be:

- If you have any previous research experience at all, even if it's an undergrad work study position, put it on your resume. Use the word "research" to make sure you hit any keyword searches. Our very first round of weeding-out will be getting rid of anyone who has no experience with work related to research. I assume this advice may apply to other areas, substituting the relevant keyword.

- Understand that (at least at my university), pay is not-so-great, benefits are really good. Consider carefully the pay range you're applying for and whether you'll really accept it. A lot of people also get weeded out at the phone-screen-from-HR stage on the basis of "that person is making three times this money in the corporate world, they won't take this job or will bail on it in six months." If you're worried you might be getting caught in this loop, maybe explicitly say something in your cover letter about a change in career path and why you're excited about this particular opportunity. Give me a reason to believe you're not just spamming every job listing and actually want *this* job even though it's off the path of what you'be done before / the pay you've gotten before.

- Two years is about the minimum commitment we hope to get from someone, so when you do get an interview, maybe don't give that "I want to go to school in two years" response. A more general "I want to go back to school down the road at some point" is fine, but again, give me a reason to believe we'll have you long enough to make it worth investing the resources in training you.

Other than that, though, the various university hiring processes I've been part of have all wanted very different things out of cover letters / resumes / candidates. There's not really one set of "do this for universities" advice beyond this sort of really broad stuff. Each department/job is going to want different things; tailor your applications accordingly as best as you can from the job description.
posted by Stacey at 5:52 AM on September 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

Have you considered applying for jobs at the community college that you are currently attending? They often provide tuition waivers for staff and that could help you get through your prerequisites and maybe even a CNA program. Jobs are much less competitive at that level and you have a lot of experience that you can leverage to get your foot in the door.
posted by galvanized unicorn at 6:16 AM on September 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Had another thought. I am in medical school, not PA school, but let's assume the schedules are the same. I have never met such a person in the flesh, but there are supposedly med students with a healthcare background who pick up a weekend shift here and there at their old job during the first two years of school. Unless one has a family and thus really needs the cash, this sounds to me like a terrible waste of energy. (Especially, it must be said, at a CNA's rate of pay.)

The various uniformed services offer PA scholarships or loan repayment just as they offer MD scholarships, but I do not know how they work.
posted by 8603 at 9:34 AM on September 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Currently working at a university and using my tuition waiver to start a Computer Science degree. My supervisors all gave their blessing (it's not directly related to my work, but programming knowledge could make a lot of things better), and it involves an extra 6 hours or so a week. Pretty sweet deal, to be honest, but it's because the degree is almost exclusively class time - I don't have practicums or patient time, or whatever, to deal with. In addition, my job itself involves me scheduling appointments independently, so I can easily schedule around my classes. Not everyone has that chance.

Did I go into it planning to do all this? Nope. I worked here over my summers in undergraduate, did my Masters in the same department, and by that point they all knew me when they were looking for someone to replace someone retiring. Just as in every job search, it's who you know. You seem to have a background that could be great for dealing with either funding support for low-income students or international students, but universities don't have THAT much turnover so you're still gambling on a chance that one of these opens up. Getting a 'normal job', and volunteering at one of these outreach places in the university could help, but you're hoping for some serendipity there as well.

And yes, university jobs pay okay but not amazing - especially a lot of those lower-echelon assistant HR positions. You might just be better served by paying for the degree, doing it in 2 years instead of 5 or 6, and jumping right into a higher-earning position. Pay off your loans aggressively and you'll probably be in your intended career faster anyway.
posted by aggyface at 5:27 AM on September 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

@aggyface- yeah, see...this is kind of what I was thinking might be feasible- or something like this, either for my pre-reqs (of which there are... well, quite a few, and depends on which MA program I'd be applying to)...or at least make some worthwhile contacts within the departments where I'd be a student for my MA degree, whether or not I even had a chance to utilize the 'tuition free' course offerings. I think that @8603 has some good suggestions re office visits with the advisors in the department where I'm applying. Also, @aggyface, you and some others have made some good points about just eating the debt and paying it off as fast as possible down the road; it's just, with some of these programs, there can be a huge discrepancy in sticker price and I'd like to be as mindful of that as possible. I just want to try to be as smart about this as possible, especially because I have a huge load of undergrad debt that I partially regret even incurring- I think there were probably a number of routes I could have taken to avoid such debt but at 18 YO I was naive and excited to be 'the one' in my family to achieve something like being accepted to the Ivies; didn't help that my parents were unsupportive and so forth. Anyhow, absorbing the thoughts and ideas here.
posted by erattacorrige at 9:30 AM on September 27, 2016

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