by Kristen Jaques, former Head Editor, INALJ Maine
What I Learned During My Two and a Half Years on the Job Market
I know that many librarians out there got their first professional jobs much more efficiently than I did. It took me two and a half years to get hired as a librarian. I spent that long stretch of time applying for many entry level and even paraprofessional positions, looking to build my skill set, gain experience, and demonstrate my ability to succeed in a professional role. I experienced the frustration of being passed over for these opportunities, probably for the reasons anyone can get rejected: not enough (or too much) experience in a certain department or type of library, underdeveloped knowledge of a required skill, or perhaps the inability to clearly define the innovative ideas I intended to bring to the role. During this time, I know I did some important things wrong. I think I also did some important things right. I want to share what I learned in the hopes that your own search will be briefer and more pleasant, and that it will help you get the job that is perfect for you.
My biggest mistake was that I graduated from library school with a bad attitude. I’d been hearing my entire final semester about how competitive the rapidly narrowing library job market was, and how the jobs were being increasingly de-professionalized and reduced to part-time. I saw friends go to interview after interview and get overlooked because there was always someone more qualified. When they did eventually get hired for exciting opportunities, I still feared I wouldn’t be able to achieve similar results for myself. After graduate school, I would send in an excruciatingly well-planned application for a job I believed I was perfect for and not hear anything in response until the rejection form letter came in the mail. I would have a respectable, solid interview, but perhaps someone else was a more perfect fit and had a great interview. I was disappointed, insecure, and burned out. I began to let opportunities slip by. I would dissect a job posting and pick out the reasons why I’d be a “tough sell” for the job, and I would convince myself not to apply.
While it is a bad idea to complain and present yourself as a negative person within your professional network, I was extremely fortunate to have close friends who happened to be employed in my profession (thank you, library school!) and who were tolerant of my occasional need to vent — though really, even if you meet the most understanding friends in the world while in library school, it’s still better to tread lightly when you’re feeling cynical. My best librarian friend was a great resource, because she countered my negativity and insecurity with encouragement, a logical perspective, and library-specific practical advice. However, when it became obvious that I was beginning to slack off at everything but complaining, she pointed out that, even though my complaints were understandable, it didn’t seem like I was actually applying for as many jobs as I could be.
The New Year arrived in 2011, two years after I had obtained my master’s degree. I realized that I needed take a more honest and realistic look at the efforts I had previously made. I resolved to apply for a minimum of 100 new job postings by the end of the year, while working full-time at my non-library job. By the way, this was actually setting the bar quite low, because I’d reached a point where it was helpful to focus on an easily attainable goal. Assuming time is of the essence in your career trajectory, you should apply for many more jobs than this! I honed in on the positions that seemed like a logical next step based on my experience and coursework, and convinced myself that, even if the job consisted of duties I’d never done before, I could learn how to do them. Before I’d submitted ten applications, requests for interviews began arriving in my inbox, and I used them as an opportunity to visit new libraries, meet working librarians, and improve my interviewing skills. I kept moving forward and churned out more applications. After two interviews with a lovely small library in central Maine, I was offered my current position by the end of May.
While I’m very happy to be where I am, who’s to say I wouldn’t have been offered a position much earlier in my job hunt if I’d been positive all along and hadn’t made so many excuses? I also wish I had taken advantage of more professional development opportunities. Professional organization memberships, conferences, workshops, and continuing education courses can be difficult to afford as a non-student, and getting time off from work can be an issue, but there many new skills I could have learned online for free. I wish I had been more willing to think outside the box, and put my time into learning something new.
One of the best things I did for myself while hunting for library jobs was obtaining full-time employment. I performed data entry for nine months through a temp agency in Boston, and when I got laid off, I moved back home to Maine (thank you, parents!) and got hired at a call center in Portland. These were not high-paying jobs, and they were not my ideal, but to me, they seemed preferable to other less glamorous jobs I could have taken. Though they made it harder to schedule interviews and sapped some of my energy to write cover letters or personalize my resume, I was able to make money and be as independent as I could be within the circumstances. I gained new workplace skills that were transferable to any environment: knowledge of basic office workplace functions and how to navigate new computer software programs, how to provide excellent customer service and remain professional in complicated situations, and how to work productively within a team. I was able to convince potential library employers that I’d been spending my “library employment gap” gaining experiences that would make me a well-rounded librarian.
Volunteering was another opportunity I found very helpful during my search. Even though my duties as a volunteer at two different public libraries (one in the Boston area, one outside Portland) were less challenging than what I’d been accustomed to as a paid library assistant, being able to take a break from my job search to go participate at a library did a lot to boost my mood. Since my library assistant jobs had all taken place in academic libraries, I finally got to see a different type of library in action, and to observe public librarians at work. I got to witness what children, teens, and adults wanted from their local library. I was able to build my professional network and gain new references, and my experiences made a strong foundation for me when I later got hired to work in a public library.
My final word of advice, which I know is easier said than done, is to keep jumping through all of the hoops you need to jump through until you get where you want to be. Those of you who have been looking for work for awhile probably know which hoops I’m talking about. Make your resume a flawless, effective marketing tool. I know this can be very headache-inducing and my own resume is still far from perfect. (I never did figure out how to quantify my unique “accomplishments and contributions to the organization” in my work as a circulation aide, beyond simply listing my job duties, which is a “no-no.” If anyone has any brilliant ideas for how to do that, by all means let me know.) Network when and where you can. Become an impeccable interviewee. It will keep getting easier and soon you will have that library job.
republished from 2/28/13