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.
Great suggestions, Meredith! I personally credit my rather simple job-hunt process on the fact that my library school had a co-op option. I had basically no library experience going in; I’ve been in some form of higher education since I was 19. But I did a four month co-op and threw my heart and soul into it, and from there I got all the connections that led to the job I took. That experience allowed me to figure out which parts of me were most interesting to libraries, and it gave me no end of mentors to help me work out where I should go and what sort of jobs I should look at. The job I’m doing now is not anything approximating the job I thought I was going to be looking for when I started library school, but it’s exactly what I should be doing and I’m thrilled to be doing it.
The best piece of advice I took was to choose to go to a library school with a co-op option.
[…] Information Wants To Be Free, a site I learned of from Marie, has an article up on practical tips for the librarian job search. […]
Really excellent post, Meredith! All great advice for the folks whose resumes are coming across ~my~ desk, now that I’m on the other side of the equation.
I found my first job easily, but I was looking to move to my second position during the last recession (’91-’93). The market was extremely tight; a lot of institutions had hiring freezes on. I applied for 120 positions and did 13 interviews all over the country during a two-year period before finally getting two offers at once. I wish I’d had the advice you’ve given before I started that process. It would have saved me both money and frustration.
However, while the experience was excruciating and at times profoundly depressing, it did something for me that I view as really important now that I am a hiring manager. I saw many different interviewing styles, and later I was able to put a lot of that knowledge into how I construct interviews, communicate with candidates during the process, etc., to start sending a message to desirable candidates from the outset that our library is going to be a GREAT place to work. Because I have so much interview experience, I am acutely aware that the search process is a two-way street. (We always learn the most from the hard times, blablabla, you know.)
A lot of these things you might notice as a candidate are minor, or not exactly related to the job. But they give you clues to what kind of place the institution would be to work in. Take the time I interviewed in August in the Southwest, in temperatures over 100 degrees, and was driven around during parts of the interview in employees’ cars with no air conditioning–including a one-hour drive from the airport. (I actually like hot weather a lot, but for petesake I was in a suit and pantyhose.) Big surprise–during the actual interview, the folks at that library didn’t seem real tuned in to what was good for their employees or whether they were doing a good job selling themselves to me as a prospective employer, nor did morale seem exactly high among the staff.
My general advice is this–assume that the institution will never treat you any better after you’re hired than they do during the search process. That would be like dating someone who acts like a jerk to you, but expecting s/he will somehow start treating you great once you’re married. Believe me, an institution that really values its employees will be smart enough to make you feel during the search process and interview like, “Yeah, I could really see spending 5 days a week here and enjoying it!” (And conversely, when I’m looking to fill a position, I assume I may never have a better impression of an employee than I do while they’re interviewing. If I get a cover letter with errors in it, why would I expect their work product once hired to be of any higher quality?)
And I can’t say enough good stuff about seeking out a mentor. Various mentor figures have been vital to me over the years in the job search process. (I am in my 5th position, so have done lots of hunting.) One of my great joys now is paying back some of the debt to them by helping new librarians, as you’ve suggested. Also, next month, I have a chapter called “Mentors: How to Find Them, How to Use Them,” coming out in a book called The Successful Academic Librarian. http://shop.store.yahoo.com/infotoday/sucaclib.html
p.s. Thanks for your coverage of ALA, and I’m looking forward to watching how the best practices wiki develops.
You’re welcome Meredith; it really was my pleasure, and you had things well in hand even w/o my minor suggestions. Keep up the great work!
This is great advice for somebody who is somewhere between life and librarianship. I’ve been working as a library clerk in a public library for a few months now (I like it, but I prefer the academic setting), my previous job was archiving and information architecture for a tech company, and I’ve had previous experience in an academic library. I plan on getting my masters starting next year but I’m still struggling to figure out how to find the perfect job integrating my tech skills into a traditional library setting or if what I really want to do is IA. I never really thought of it before but your advice on not applying for jobs you don’t want is right on. I did try to adopt that when I was looking several months ago but it also gets frustrating when you don’t get the jobs that you know you would be perfect for. You get to points in the job search where you start feeling desperate for any job you can find and you feel like you should be doing more. I’m glad I stuck to my guns though, I think my current position will teach me a lot and allow me the freedom to go to school soon.
I know a big part of why I was hired for my current position was because my cover letter and resume were outstanding compared to other candidates (apparently cover letters were a rarity and some didn’t even submit a resume) and my tech skills really stood out. I hope to take your advice about starting an online portfolio when I done with grad school and ready to focus on starting my career.
Great advice, overall. On item #4, the type of institution that usually does not pay for travel and lodging is the community college. They tend to not pay for all faculty interviews (i.e. a biology instructor also would have to spend on his or her own dime) and there’s usually a first stage, and then a second one for the top two or three finalists. This is a tradition I never really understood as it limits good potential candidates.
I did interview at a few community colleges and made arrangements for low flights and staying at friends or family, etc. when they were out of town to where I was, and I did get a good tenure-track position. While it would be good for the community college to support travel or at least help out in finances at least a little bit, I think in most cases the institution probably cannot do that as they do not have the means and community colleges deal with categorical funds, etc. where to make a case and do it for the promising candidate may not be possible.
But, I would recommend that the institution schedule the first and second stage interviews in a way that you would not have to fly back, yet again. If that institution says they cannot do that or let you know when the second stage interviews would be, then I might question whether the institution is worth the trouble. However, community colleges characteristically do not pay for travel/lodging for interviews, except maybe an administrative position, and even then, not always.
Just a note on paying for job interviews. Many institutions just don’t have the funding. I work for a county government archives. We were unable to pay for any onsite interviews — it’s not in the budget. So, if they won’t pay for your interview expenses, it doesn’t mean they wouldn’t want to. FYI, we hired based on a phone interview alone.
Sarah, that shows that your organization is considerate of other librarians’ inability to pay to fly across the country. Most places will not hire candidates without an in-person interview, which I don’t blame them for, but I do blame them for their lack of understanding about people’s inability to pay. I’ve never had someone who’s asked me to interview in person even express any understanding/sympathy about asking candidates to do that. If someone had said “we just don’t have the funding. I’m sorry we have to ask you to do this” I’d feel a little better about the whole thing. It’s usually “we don’t pay for that.”
Great advice for the soon-to-be employed as well as the employed-but-looking! Your suggestion not to give up hope is very important. The job I landed fresh out of library school in 2003 seemed to come out of the blue. I applied, did not hear anything for months, then got a call one day to come in for an interview. I had just started another job interview process with a major university after six months of virtually no luck in the job hunt.
One minor point I’d like to toss into the ring. While I agree that having a strong technical background can differentiate one candidate from another, I would not suggest taking a lot of programming courses unless you are interested in programming. Similar to your suggestion about not applying for jobs that you don’t want, there is no real advantage to receiving highly specialized training in something you don’t want to do. In my opinion, working as a librarian or archivist is about doing what you enjoy and if programming is part of it, then great. Without a doubt we need librarians and archivists with strong technical skills and you might even make more money having those skills. However, there are other ways to distinguish yourself should “computer geek” not be your preferred path. My suggestion is to seek out volunteer experiences and internships close to subject areas that interest you whenever possible. That said, I am not pooh-poohing the basic suggestion. As a relatively new entrant into the archival profession, I would encourage every library or archives student to learn some basics including a working knowledge of HTML, some database skills, and it doesn’t hurt to have a surface knowledge of some of the more influential technology such as XML and Linux. In other words, know what it is even if you will never be a support or design tech. Most library schools offer a basic technology class that will do the trick. If not, request one be added.
All very good points. I’ve certainly been on both sides of the job search to know when to pursue a situation and when to go with your gut and walk away.
However, I can’t totally agree with just not applying for a job you don’t want (unless it’s so geographically or economically impossible). As a long time public librarian, I never thought I’d want a job in a corporate library. It just didn’t fit my criteria of what a job should be. Then I had a few interviews in corporate libraries and realized that I actually was a good fit. But I had to go see for myself, not just take what my initial uninformed feeling was.
Still congratulations on a quick job search!
I just came across your blog and it is very interesting. I will have to read more of it later.
I have been job searching for a year now and trying to find a web design related position. This post had great information.
Very good article. Thank you. I believe many of your suggestions apply to non-librarian jobs as well. I have a question though: how do you send Thank You notes to people on the Search Committee? Could that be considered as trying to influence the members’ decision making in an unfair way?
I also want to know more about what to wear for a job interview. (I suspect not wearing a suit was the reason why I didn’t get one job. ) I don’t look nice in suit. So I usually choose a black shirt, sometimes with a silk scarf, and formal trousers. Do I have to wear suits? If so, what color?
Because I look less smart in a suit, I usually feel less confident when wearing it.
Meng, if I may jump in on the thank you notes – it’s just common courtesy! These people spent a lot of time hopefully trying to make you feel welcome in their organization, the least you could do is thank them for their time. And what better way to show that you too care about them and their organization than to take a few minutes of your valuable time to handwrite a thank-you. It has the added benefit of refreshing their memory about you, and hopefully confirming the choice they’ve made that yes, you *are* the right person for the job. Personalizing the note in a small way shows them that you were paying attention to at least something during the day. It’s only an *unfair* influence if you find out who all the other candidates are and somehow make sure their letters aren’t delivered 😉
IMHO you don’t need to wear a suit as long as you’re professionally presented, but others may have different opinions. I agree with you that as long as it’s not a t-shirt, it’s pretty important to feel good about what you’re wearing. Perhaps you could solve both issues with a really snazzy interview suit though – something that’s been alterered or tailored to fit you the way you like?
Ditto to what Paul wrote on the handwritten thank-you note! I think whether or not you wear a suit depends on the organization you’re interviewing with. I’ve worn a suit to all of the places I’ve interviewed, but I certainly could have worn a nice skirt and shirt or dress pants. I feel more confident when I wear my suit. I’m sure there are some organizations you could interview at where not wearing a suit might be looked upon as bad form, but I don’t think the majority of libraries are that way. Obviously, it’s better to wear a suit, so if you can find one you’re comfortable in, you’d be far better off.
Thank you Paul and Meredith!
Sending Thank You notes is really not in the culture where I came from. I am just picking it up after having been in the US for two years. I sent my first Thank You card, painted by myself, to my previous landlord and landlady last month. Here is what I will do for my next interview: mail each person I meet at the interview a hand painted card after the interview.
Most jobs I apply for are at museums or non-profits. It is almost impossible to find nice petite size suits in the small town I am in.
[…] There is a good post about job hunting entitled The Job Hunt: What I Learned on the Information Wants To Be Free blog. The author writes about what she learned from her job hunt. […]
How should I handle this??????????????
I have my third phone interview with the hiring manager tomorrow and if all continues to go well, the company wants me to fly to VA. I live and work f/t in a professional job in LA. I can’t jepordize my current job for a “maybe” in VA. After 3 interviews by phone, I would think that this company already has a pretty good idea if they want me or someone else. If the VA interview is just a formality, then that’s ok…but surely a large corp. would understand this? Would they really want someone working for them who does not take into account their current company–most companies look for loyalty with their employees, don’t they? Basically, my question is…after 3 phone interviews, if they want to be come to VA to interview, should I go on just a “maybe” and possibly jepordize my current position? I’ve been told by some hiring managers not to go on just a maybe after 3 interviews, but I would like some other input……….?????????
[…] Librarian Job Hunting Tips […]
After an exhaustive job search due to a career change I found the one thing that opened doors was knowing someone no matter how distant in the organization to mention as a referral. Its unfortunate but with the number of CV’s coming across desks it seems that when I have a referral my resume gets read and responded to not as a form letter but a response of interest.
My suggestion is that when one is applying for any position think about who in your network has a contact with the institution.
[…] free job search tips. I know it looks salesy, but this job hunts blog offer good advice and videos. 13. Information Wants To Be Free – A writer, librarian and tech geek gives her thoughts on her own personal job search, which […]
[…] I incorporated into my own “stop the insanity” plan: CNN: 11 Job Search Tips for 2011 Meredith Farkas: The Job Search: What I Learned (library […]
[…] Farkas, Meredith, “The Job Hunt: What I Learned.” […]
[…] tips for both job candidates and hiring institutions: see for example Kristen Jaques, Jacob Berg, Meredith Farkas, Kyle […]