Searching for Jobs in the Social Sector: Six Tips for Students

Searching for Jobs in the Social Sector: Six Tips for Students

Knowing where to start when looking for an entry-level job in the social sector can be tough. Keeping these six simple considerations in mind can help ease stress and aid in the job search process.

Ratna Gill and Megan McGlinchey joined the Living Cities staff in June 2016 as recent college graduates. In this mini-series, they reflect on their experience entering the workforce, with a focus on the aspects of Living Cities’ organizational culture that are crucial for attracting, hiring and retaining talent.

In the last blog post of this series, we discussed dynamics of the social sector that can make it challenging to find entry-level job opportunities. This post presents six suggestions to keep in mind while navigating your job search as a student interested in the social sector.

Six Tips for Searching for Entry-Level Jobs in the Social Sector

1. It’s not too late!

The notion that you need to have a full-time job the moment you set foot outside the bounds of your college campus is completely a construct. This pressure is in place partially because of the way the consulting and finance industries do their recruiting; many students interested in those fields have received decisions during the fall semester. But most nonprofit and philanthropic organizations don’t hire in “cycles” that way. Instead, headhunts happen whenever there is an opening that needs to be filled. This can be stressful as it’s less predictable and linear. But the huge benefit is that a position that you haven’t heard anything about today could pop up as soon as tomorrow!

My story: I started to apply for jobs in earnest during the spring semester of my senior year. I knew that positions I found in the fall probably wouldn’t be able to wait for me to start working until the following summer, so I held off until spring break to start looking. I was still undecided on where I would be working a week before graduation. I had my first call with Living Cities on May 3, and two interviews later, was offered a position with a start date of June 13. After a long wait, things fell quickly into place at the last minute, which is a common rhythm that many of my peers at nonprofits have also experienced.

2. Talk to everyone you know.

Someone who knows you personally is better equipped to make recommendations on organizations where she could see you working than any database could ever be! Start to ask your friends, colleagues, professors, and former supervisors the following: “I’m in the process of a job search and would appreciate if you could keep me in mind, in case you see any opportunities that seem like a good fit for me.” This is a light ask, in that it’s not a major burden to the receiver and you’re not asking for any explicit favors; you’ve merely asked her to think of you as she moves through her personal and professional life. But imagine the organic network that can emerge if 10 people keep you in mind in this way. If each person talks to a few people she knows about a job or two that you could be suitable for, that’s powerful!

Tell your contacts, “I’m in the process of a job search and would appreciate if you could keep me in mind.”

My story: I submitted applications to 118 job postings that I found on my college’s career database, but the two most exciting offers at the end of my search both arose through personal connections I had kept up with throughout college (a friend of a friend I had met at a conference in Korea, and the woman who had hired me for an internship the summer before). Because I knew both of these individuals personally, they were very open-minded and helpful in thinking of opportunities that would truly be suited to my passions and skills.

3. Never turn down an offer you haven’t received.

That is, don’t rule out industries or issue areas that you feel you could be even remotely interested in, even if you may not know much about them. One of the best ways to learn about an organization, or even an entire sector, is through an early-stage job interview. Moreover, sectors continue to emerge as the field of social change evolves. So you may end up working in a sector that didn’t even have a name 10 years ago! Don’t let the fact that you haven’t heard of a way of thinking dissuade you from exploring it further.

One of the best ways to learn about an organization is through an early-stage job interview.

My story: My friends kept asking me what I was actually interested in, but I knew that wherever I ended up would combine different parts of the social sector in a new and innovative way that I couldn’t yet articulate. So I cast a wide net and waited to see which organizations would get back to me, and to whose mission my skills could best contribute. In the end, I applied to 120 jobs across 10 different sectors including economic development, environmental protection, government, health, human rights, international business, journalism, law, microfinance, and research.

After getting an interview, I would do a far deeper research dive on the firm than I had done while applying. In the process of preparing for interviews, I got to learn about entirely new fields that I had known very little about before but was interested in exploring. And go figure – the position I ended up getting was with an organization that cuts across my interests and skills, and combines a number of the sectors I knew I was interested in! Had I narrowed my search at the outset, I may not have been as open to exploring organizational models I had not heard of before. And there couldn’t have been a better way to gain such a rich overview of how different industries interact with one another in the world.

4. Determine which factors are non-negotiable for you.

In jobs, as in relationships, knowing what you absolutely can’t compromise on is greatly helpful in narrowing your focus and making decisions easier. It can be challenging to find a position at the entry-level which fulfills every parameter for your perfect career – organizational mission, job description, position salary, office location, work hours, office culture, etc. – but ranking these criteria and determining which factors are most important for you as an individual can help to make the job search less dizzying and more focused.

My story: What I prioritized in the job hunt was finding an organization with a mission that aligned with my personal values where I could feel like I was making a difference, a position within that organization that would allow me to enjoy the work I was doing day-to-day, and a work culture that made me feel positive and motivated at the office. I had interned in the past at an organization with an inspiring mission, but where the office environment was toxic and stressful, and the realization that I was not happy in that position allowed me to narrow my priorities further. Realizing that corporate culture was a major motivator of my career decisions at this stage was hugely helpful in narrowing down the types of firms I should be looking at.

5. Remember that you’re looking for a job; not the job.

Thinking that you need to find the “perfect” job, especially early in your career, can greatly increase the stress of the job hunt process. Recall that the world of today does not require you to stay at one organization, or even in one industry, for your whole career, and it’s becoming easier and easier to pivot as you gain more experience and learn more about your professional passions. Looking for organizations that will best equip you to gain experience and skills that are broadly applicable across issue areas is a great starting point for an entry-level job hunt. We all need to start somewhere. So dive in and explore!

Looking for organizations that will best equip you to gain experience and skills that are broadly applicable across issue areas is a great starting point.

6. Don’t be afraid of apprenticeships.

There are many reasons to be keen to jump into a full-time job directly post-graduation, particularly given the financial constraints faced by students after college. That being said, internships and apprenticeships can be a wonderful opportunity to gain experience and demonstrate your value-add to an organization, while searching for other opportunities, or as a way to work up to a full-time position.

My story: Both Megan and I joined Living Cities as paid summer interns. Taking part in the summer internship program gave us a chance to show our team members how we could contribute to the work that the organization does while assessing whether Living Cities was a good fit for us in terms of culture and mission.

We welcome any questions, comments, or feedback you may have, and encourage you to follow our series on Hiring in the Social Sector. Stay tuned for the next post!


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