Last weekend I had the opportunity to participate in the ARLISNAP/VREPS virtual conference entitled “Visualizing the future: new perspectives in art librarianship”. I was a part of the advice roundtable focused on transitioning from student to professional and job searching–topics that I am VERY familiar with. Unfortunately, the conference was running on the long side and we were slated to go last; I didn’t get to share as much advice as I’d hoped because I was pretty wiped and we were cut short. I’ll try to share my advice here instead:
In November 2014 I landed and started my first full-time position as a librarian. Not only that, but at a school that I’d always hoped (but never expected) to work at: Savannah College of Art and Design. It is, quite literally, my dream job. As the reference and instruction librarian I work directly with students and faculty, providing library instruction on all of the wonderful, artsy subjects taught here at SCAD. I get to develop workshops outside of the class instruction, which are a bit more experimental and creative. And I work with truly amazing people.
My transition from student to FT professional took just over two years. In that amount of time I held four various, part-time library positions. I felt all of the frustration that many in our field feel when trying to land their first FT position while trying to piecemeal part-time positions to get experience and pay the bills. In 2014 I applied to a total of 23 jobs and had at least one interview with 8 of those institutions. I learned some valuable lessons while interviewing for those jobs that I didn’t get: 1) They weren’t for me. 2) I’m really awkward on Skype. 3) Keep trying because later you can consider what feels like beating your head against a wall “practice” for the one application/interview that leads to a job.
At some point I had THREE first-round interviews for the same job, without progressing to the second-round each time. I was convinced that it was the perfect job for me, but in all reality, it wasn’t. While I am grateful that I didn’t get this job and landed where I did instead, this was still an incredibly draining experience. However, I kept at it and became methodical in my applications. Once they were sent off and added to my spreadsheet (where I kept track of my applications) I didn’t worry about them. After the job that I thought was for me but wasn’t turned me down for a third time I created what I called my “dream job description”. It included everything in that job posting plus bits and pieces from several others. I got serious about acquiring the experience listed in that fictional, patchwork description I’d made and incorporated it into what I was doing in my part-time and volunteer positions. This helped. A lot.
This is my first bit of advice: Know what you want (in terms of job responsibilities) and identify the gaps in your experience that may make it difficult for you to achieve what you want. Then, one-by-one, find ways to get that exact experience. I’ve thought, several times, that I wish we’d looked at more job descriptions during library school, instead of talking about theory. I know that this advice brings us back to the age-old problem of “but I can’t get experience if nobody will give me a job”, which leads me to my second bit of advice:
Make your volunteer/internship/part-time paraprofessional position work for you: This means that any old volunteering (i.e. shelving books) will not do. It’s almost inevitable that most of us end up in volunteer, internship or paraprofessional positions before we land that first job, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be picky about those positions and what they do for you. Resume padding won’t cut it with how competitive the job market is, so I would encourage you to seek positions (while in school or just after if you need experience) that allow you to experiment with your professional skill set and challenge you. If you’re in a position currently that doesn’t challenge you, find ways to make it challenging. Ask yourself how this position is helping you grow/serving you? If you are working for very little/free you should be getting as much out of it as the organization you’re working for. Putting yourself in this kind of position takes self-motivation and maybe a little risk-taking, but it is also way more rewarding than just shelving books. It’s what kept me from burning out during the job hunt process.
My example that I’ll share is my volunteer experience at the Read/Write Library. When I started volunteering there in January 2013, I knew I wanted to REALLY be involved but I wasn’t sure how yet. My first meeting the director said that the library needed an outreach coordinator and I immediately volunteered, without any real idea what that entailed. It tuned out to entail whatever I wanted, essentially. My first project was the Read/Write BiblioTreka. I worked, collaboratively, on a number of really amazing projects while at the Read/Write and I was happy that some of them were less involved and some of them were more involved, allowing me to get pretty significant project/event management experience and work more on those “soft skills” you need to effectively work in teams. I could have just staffed the library from time to time and listed it on my resume, but my experience was far richer because I wanted to make an impact and I was so eager to use my creative and professional skills.
Collaborate: They say to “fake it ’til you make it”. But I think that working with others on big projects is a better way to go about learning. This way, everyone gets to use their particular skill set and grow where they need to grow by taking notes from their peers. I’ve learned a great deal from collaborating with people at Read/Write as well as my book arts partner-in-crime, Michelle. We started our collaborative, complimentary relationship while we were Smithsonian interns and have worked on community outreach projects, co-coordinate a professional group, and have co-presented at conferences. We also live in different cities. It has never once felt like we were “faking it” when we’ve worked together because we are there to support one another when needed and can trust each others’ strengths.
Being involved in professional organizations in some capacity has made it easy to collaborate and learn from others in the field, but it can be difficult if you’re volunteering for a national organization as opposed to a local org. The local org allows you to get to know the people you’re working with a bit more and it’s likely you’ll get to meet with collaborators more often. My experience with serving on national committees has been a mixed bag, but I have limited experience with it. My preference is always to work with people that I know on a personal level, though. I also have a lot of friends who frequently (and successfully) collaborate on professional endeavors with their partners, which is as personal as you can get.
Develop a strong support network: This includes those that you collaborate with, library friends who can commiserate with you about the job market, and people willing to be references and sounding boards. Personally, the part that I hate most about applying to jobs is asking people to write letters on my behalf. Providing a phone reference isn’t so bad, but I always try to be considerate of others’ time when I list them as a reference. Always make sure that those you list as references really know and can speak to your professional accomplishments and interests. Give them plenty of notice if you are listing them, as well. I typically shared my cover letters and resumes with other job seekers to get feedback, and offered to do the same for them when the time came. The people who supported me throughout my job search are golden and I’m convinced I couldn’t have kept up my morale without them.
Friendly networking: Another one of the panelists mentioned that she is a fan of “friendly networking”; I would agree. Connecting with people at conferences and in the professional world can be intimidating for the newbies, but it is better to make one solid, genuine connection than hand out 100 of your business cards and call it a day. My current boss was someone that I had developed a rapport with over email and then met briefly at a conference last year. Not only had we corresponded regarding the professional organization that we’re both a part of, but we’d also connected over the fact that we both lived in Portland at some point/watched Portlandia. It’s kind of silly, but when it came time to interview with her I was much more confident knowing that we had already built that friendly rapport and that I liked her as a person and as colleague. Now, I’m incredibly fortunate to call her my boss.
Thoughts on websites: A website is a really nice way to showcase what you’ve done on your resume. It’s a good place to provide an example of those web and tech skills listed. Other panelists did not think that a website was as helpful, some pointed to linkedin as a better option. Whether you have a web presence via a personal website or social media like twitter and linkedin, make it count for something–keep it updated and fresh. I started my website as a student, to fulfill my capstone requirement, but after graduation it has evolved to what it is now. I like highlighting my projects that I talk about in my application materials with photos and stories. I also like showing that I make artwork and have other interests besides those on my resume. Some may tell you that job seekers don’t look at websites, but based on my website stats I would argue that I see a drastic increase of visitors when I’ve had applications and interviews.
Rejection sucks: But it’s part of the process. Unfortunately, if you’re a sensitive soul like me, it can really get to you. I encourage you not to let it get to you because:
The right fit: Every time someone mentioned the “right fit” while I was job hunting I wanted to scream. In my mind, ALL of the jobs I was applying for “fit” (Okay, maybe only most of them fit). It wasn’t until I was offered my current job AND another job at the same time that I realized that ALL of the other jobs I’d applied for weren’t right for me and the position at SCAD was the best fit, above the other job I’d been offered by a landslide. The position that I turned down was a job I could have easily done, but would have maxed out after a year. I saw little room for professional growth in my responsibilities and worried that it would only be another stepping stone in my process. I did not want to be on the job market (and moving) again in a year! It is true, that finding the right fit is key and takes time, but you’ll know when you do.
It’s been a crazy two years, but I am so grateful that I stuck it out and that I had such wonderful people to support me throughout the process (friends, family, collaborators, my lovely partner). Thank you Thank you Thank you.
Also, I’m still incredibly awkward on skype, so I’m happy that I was able to share my experience in writing after the virtual conference. :)