By Meredith Farkas | July 9, 2005
Over the past few weeks, I’ve taken some time to reflect on my job search. I spent a long time looking for a job; longer than I’d expected, though a shorter time than many others I’ve met or read about. I’ve heard about new librarians having anywhere between 200 rejection letters to only having to apply for three jobs before finding the one. My stats fall somewhere in between. I made it over the first hurdle, to the phone interview, 14 times and was asked to come for an in-person interview 8 times (3 involved a flight, 2 I turned down, and 3 were local). Not bad, but not what I’d expected when I started applying for jobs. I remember starting to look for my first social work job a week before I graduated with my MLS and having a job offer a week after graduation. I went to three interviews and got two job offers. So I’d never really had to work hard to get a job. I’d never had to re-think my cover letter. I’d never had to give a presentation or go to an all-day interview. I was clueless.
All of this has been a major learning experience for me, and I doubt I’m the only one who hadn’t expected it to be so difficult. So I thought I’d write my own list of tips for job-seekers based on my experiences looking for (and finding) a job. A lot of this I learned on the fly and from my own mistakes. Hopefully these are mistakes other new librarians can avoid making:
1. If you have any web design skills at all, develop an online portfolio before starting to look for jobs. In it, you can highlight your accomplishments and show off your web design skills at the same time. You can only put so much of yourself into a resume and cover letter. This is your chance to give the search committee a better sense of your long-term career goals, your accomplishments, your skills, and your interests. There’s a great article about online portfolios at LISCareer.com. They also have a more general article about portfolios, both online and print.
2. Don’t apply for any job you wouldn’t actually want. While this seems like obvious advice, when you’re in an impossibly tight job market you might not want to miss applying for anything you’re qualified for. If you don’t want to be a cataloger, don’t apply for cataloger jobs. If you only want to work in public libraries, don’t apply for academic library jobs. I learned my lesson when I was preparing for an interview and was struggling to think of a response for when I got the inevitable “why did you apply for this job?” question. I realized right then that I’d only applied for the job because I met all of the qualifications, not because the job met any of my qualifications.
3. Do tailor your cover letter to the specific job. I know it can be tedious to write new cover letters for every job, but sending out form letters is as good as throwing them in the garbage. And if you follow the advice in #2, you won’t have as many jobs to apply for. Better to write three excellent cover letters for jobs you really want than to write 20 so-so ones. When there is a list of qualifications they are looking for, discuss how you meet those specific qualifications. Don’t go on and on about your ability to design great websites if it has little to do with the job requirements. When search committees are reading 100 or more cover letters for a single position, they will keep ones that speak specifically to their requirements. Most search committees can easily sniff out a form letter. Also, try and talk more about what you can do for them than why you want to work there. The more concrete you can be the better.
And I know this is probably superfluous advice, but definitely proofread your cover letters and ideally have someone else do it as well. I’ve heard horror stories about cover letters with copious spelling and gramatical errors and even ones that mentioned a different library! These mistakes could easily put you out of the running in a tight job market.
4. Do not pay to fly to interviews. If the library will not pick up at least part of the tab, which shows the level of their investment in you, don’t do it. If you are not told that you will definitely have the job, don’t pay to go to the interview. If they will not pay for you to come there, what else will they not pay for when you work there? I understand that some libraries cannot afford to pay for candidates to fly there, but we librarians can little afford to be flying across the country for job interviews that are not sure things. I paid to fly to one interview in the Chicagoland area, because I was already planning to move there and from what the woman interviewing me said, I thought I had it in the bag. Turns out, I didn’t, and I spent a very large amount of money to fly there, stay in a hotel, and rent a car. How many times could I have done that before I went broke? I had to turn down another library that sounded great and wanted me to come for a second interview because I wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice. If they don’t pay for people to interview, they can ask any number of people to come and they have no investment in any of them. The risk is all yours. If you feel you have to shell out money for an interview, make sure this is a job you really want and that you have a very good chance of getting it.
5. Listen to your gut. The people interviewing you are the people you are going to work with almost every day, so if you don’t feel comfortable with them, don’t ignore that feeling. At one interview I had, I felt uncomfortable the entire time. When I went to lunch with some members of the search committee and tried to make conversation, they answered in one-word answers and then got back to talking about things amongst themselves that had nothing to do with me. Contrast that with the fun, easy, natural flow of conversation I had at lunch and dinner with my soon-to-be colleagues at Norwich. If people don’t make you feel comfortable at the interview and don’t make an effort to get to know you during the parts of your interview day that are supposed to be social, it’s a pretty good sign that you won’t be comfortable there if you get the job. At this interview there were many other red flags (operating staff didn’t like the way they were treated by the tenure track librarians, when I asked about decision-making I was told that they operated on a strict hierarchy, etc.), but that one alone should have raised my antennae. And when I finally got my rejection letter 8 weeks later — and three weeks after I’d already gotten my job — the form letter had some other woman’s name on it (ie. Dear Ms. [not Farkas]). Realize that if you are not being treated like a potential colleague or that you are not being treated like you deserve, you should not take that job if you are offered it. I know this job market sucks, but it’s not worth it to take a really bad job you know will make you miserable. It’s too big a chunk of your life. Don’t settle.
6. Get a mentor. If not a mentor, then get the advice of someone who has been on a hiring committee. I had a wonderful mentor who helped me whip my resume and cover letters into shape. You need someone who won’t be afraid to tell you things suck, but will also help you to make them better. He certainly did all that. When I went to the horrible interview mentioned above, and told my mentor that if I got the job I would probably take it, he made me understand what a mistake that would be. He gave me so much good advice and was always on the lookout for job ads that looked appropriate for me. It was really heartening to have someone so experienced in the field in my corner. It really raised my spirits at a time when I was starting to wonder if I would ever have a good interview. And it wasn’t long after his help with my cover letter and resume that I suddenly got a flurry of interview offers from some amazing Universities for some amazing jobs. And soon afterwards I had a job. Thank you, Paul. Your help was invaluable.
If you are an experienced librarian, see if there is someone you could mentor or advise. You may not think you have much to offer a new librarian, but the insights and advice of an exprienced librarian are a tremendous boon to those of us who are new to the profession. If you know a new librarian who is looking for jobs, ask if they’d like help with their resume and cover letters. Just helping them revise a cover letter can make all the difference in the world.
7. Find a way to distinguish yourself from the pack. This advice is extremely important for new librarians who don’t have much exprience in the field. Hiring committees are taking a leap of faith when they hire someone without much of a professional track-record in librarianship. What would make them do that? For entry-level positions, there may be over 100 inexperienced librarians applying, and probably some exprienced ones to boot. When you don’t have experience working in your favor, it’s important to make yourself stand out in some way. Become heavily involved in professional organizations. This shows a committment to the profession. Become more tech-savvy than the average new librarian. The more programming languages you know, the more things you can do with websites, the more you will stand out. Start a blog. This is controversial advice because it can hurt as much as it can help. If you are writing negative rants or overly personal things, a blog will only serve to make you look bad. If you are writing positive/constructive things about topics related to librarianship that interest you, you can communicate a passion for the profession that the search committee may not be able to glean from your cover letter. In light of the one-sided and anonymous article Bloggers Need Not Apply that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week, I thought it important to highlight that blogging could be looked upon as a positive thing. I’d write more about the article, but Rochelle really said it all. Needless to say, you should always assume that search committees will read your blog — though many don’t — and be cognizant of the impressions people might make from your writings. You can communicate your knowledge of and your passion for the profession through your blog if you remain positive, constructive, and diplomatic.
8. Get comfortable with public speaking or learn to fake it. Unlike Dorothea (who wrote a great post on the subject), I do not feel comfortable getting up in front of a room full of people. This is something few people know, because, paradoxically, I can be quite the extrovert in regular social situations and at work. It’s gotten better as I’ve forced myself into uncomfortable situations over the years (I even joined the debate team in high school), but I still get the flushed face and sweaty palms every time. I am also not one of those people who can naturally speak extemporaneously in high-pressure situations. When I am nervous, I may lose my train of thought. If not adequately prepared, I may say more “ummms” than real words. For me, the antidote is insane amounts of preparation. I will practice, practice, and practice my presentation until I nearly have it memorized (fortunately, I do have a good memory). My husband is kind enough to listen to my presentations many times over. By the time I have to do it, I know it inside and out. Sure, it would be nice — and a lot less work — if I was comfortable enough to write a few notes and then get up in front of people, but that’s not who I am. And I’m sure I’m not the only one. If you’re like me, there is nothing wrong with having a script in front of you, so long as you know the material well enough that you don’t have to consult it much. I’m sure I’ll get more comfortable with speaking as I get more involved in the profession, but I’ve learned to stop beating myself up over my limitations and instead find effective work-arounds.
9. Expect disasters. On a similar note to the point above, it’s good to go into a presentation expecting things not to work… including yourself. It doesn’t hurt to come in with detailed notes on what you’re going to say or even a script if you really get nervous. It’s a good idea to come in with a handout with the salient points of your presentation in case powerpoint doesn’t work. It’s also smart to have your presentation in many alternative formats. I brought a CD to my presentation at Norwich and unfortunately, the CD-ROM drive wasn’t working. Luckily, I’d also uploaded a version of my presentation to the Web, so I had an easily accessible copy. Having it on a USB key or some other storage medium doesn’t hurt either. The systems librarian — and head of the search committee — was very impressed that I’d anticipated things not working and had a backup plan. Score! Also, it’s good to know the technology limitations of the room in which you’re going to be presenting. If you’re going to be showing a screencast with audio and video, it would be nice to know that the Flash plugin was installed and that there were speakers in the room before you get to the interview. Always be prepared and plan for disasters, so if they do happen, you’ll look like a rockstar with your backup plan.
10. Have lots of questions for the search committee. Think about these in advance so your mind won’t go blank when the time comes. One I always liked to ask, and which elicited the most interesting responses, is “what do you like about working here?” The responses to that question often gave me a good idea about how the staff really feels about the library, the patrons, and their colleagues. Other good ones include, “what are some common qualities that successful individuals at this institution possess?”, “how are decisions made at the library?”, “what are the more difficult challenges faced by someone in this position?”, and “what would you like to change about the library?” These, too, should be tailored to the specific position. Don’t just prepare questions so that when the time comes you’ll have some. Think about what you really want to know about this job and this library. What would make you want to work there? What would make you not want to work there? Pick questions that will help you to know what you need to know to make a good decision.
11. Always send thank-you notes. Send separate handwritten notes to each search committee member and try to personalize them in some way. It will make you stand out from the crowd and will remind them of you when they are making their hiring decision. If you are neck-and-neck with another candidate and they don’t send thank-you notes, this could be the thing that puts you ahead.
12. Don’t give up hope. I had moments where I thought about what I would do for a living if I couldn’t get a job in a library. But honestly, I was stumped, because this is the only thing I can imagine myself doing. If you have a passion for librarianship, don’t give up hope. Stay passionate, stay positive, and one day there will be a search committee that notices your passion and appreciates what you have to offer their organization.