Resources (or lack thereof)
Recently my graduate school sent out a survey about graduate's job placement. I was pretty honest. At the time I had applied to about 40 positions since January 1st, and had only gotten two or three interviews. I also knew of several people who graduated (with similar and different programs/degrees) who could not find permanent, full-time positions in their fields. I also knew of others, who went through similar programs and found jobs immediately after graduation. And so, as graduate school teaches us, I began to reflect. What in the world could possibly be different from my degree (from an institution not well known in the field) to a degree from a public institution (with a very strong program). We go through similar classes, with theory, diversity, and administration courses. We write similar papers, and have fantastic faculty members. But speaking with the person I know from the very strong program (we'll call it Bills University).
Bills University offers a program with a cohort and is very selective. It has many graduate assistantship opportunities on campus and sends students to local conferences. And after doing some research, I think it's the conferences that make a difference, although spending time as a GA is also important. But going to conferences gives you resources. You go to programs with working professionals, taught by experts and other professionals. You dine with all sorts of people, and make connections with them. You hear from speakers who have been in the field for years and who write massive textbooks all graduate students read. My program offered information on conferences, but nothing beyond that. There are several local conferences, such as ACUI and CSPA-NY, but I only ever attended CSPA-NY as an undergraduate. At conferences you also learn about professional resources, such as those available online or through associations, which could be helpful when looking for a professional opportunity.
My graduate assistantship taught me a lot but my experience working in higher ed while I was a graduate student ended up with me unemployed, with a half a Master's degree, and no one would touch my resume. I wound up at open interviews at a nation-wide restaurant and was hired as a hostess. (I put myself through school, which meant that if I didn't make enough money each semester, I wouldn't be able to continue going to school.) I didn't meet the right people in my field, I didn't make the right connections, and I didn't learn the right lessons by working in a restaurant. I lacked the resources and network to make changes, and nothing I did could change that fact.
Upon reflection, I wish I had known how important connections were before applying to and attending graduate school. I may have chosen another school to attend (I did have plans to apply to four), picked better GA opportunities, and spent money to go to conferences (regardless of how much money it would cost and the money I would have lost by not working). I think if I had gone to conferences and made the appropriate connections locally, I would be in a better position to look for a job. By working as a GA in an unknown institution I lost valuable time in meeting people, and working in a restaurant did not allow me to look for another GA position. Now that I've been doing a lot of research on my own, I've found a lot of things that would have been helpful the past ten months, such as blogs, twitter feeds, and professionals willing to help.