[Ask an Archivist] Q: Can I take a new position while still in a project position?

Ask an Archivist Question:

As new archival professionals, some of the first positions available to us are project positions. These positions are often grant funded and have specified start and end dates. They provide needed years of experience in the field – most of the time processing archival collections – and introduce us to some “real world” scenarios that graduate school just can’t always prepare us for. In general, I see these positions as a helpful step into the archival profession. 

But, because they are project positions, they offer no long term prospects or security. There is no guarantee that a project position will turn into a permanent position at the same archival institution. How do we as new archivists, trying to build a professional career and reputation, deal with the situation of leaving a project position earlier than the stated deadline, if it means moving to a full time position instead? No job is guaranteed but in the ideal situation when a permanent position is available, do people think it is okay to leave the project archivist position? What do they think of the risks involved? Is it just the nature of project positions? Do the staff working with project archivists expect this sort of situation? Or are project archivists supposed to stick it out until the end, even if it means missing out on other (better? more personally beneficial?) opportunities?


Ask an Archivist Answers:

Yes, I’d love a candidate who can finish out the term because as much of a pain as it is to fill a 2 year term position, it’s nearly impossible to fill a partially-completed term position with only 6 months left on the funding clock. But if I’ve done my initial hiring job right, I’ve hired somebody who is very good indeed. And who at least halfway through the project will start to apply for positions elsewhere and will be fairly competitive. So I know that chances are my hire will not finish out my full term.  Project-management-wise, grant deliverables-wise, it’s frustrating and scary for me, but it is what it is and it would be insane of me to expect you to throw away a great career development opportunity just because I have a few more months to go. I’d rather hire a great candidate who leaves after ¾ of the time is up than a questionable or adequate candidate who will last the whole time. I’ll have gotten far more work and of a far higher quality out of them than I would have from the adequate hire. Any recruiter who expects you to miss out on a good career opportunity or to go unemployed for a while post-project solely in order to stick out the last few months of a project position? Is probably not the most supportive of supervisors and will have other supervisory shortcomings you’d be well-advised to avoid. It might be an excellent question to ask—obliquely—at an interview.

Keep talking to your term supervisor and keeping them up to date on your ongoing job search. Don’t blindside them. You want them as your partner in your search, not as an opponent. By the way, we do already know this about term hires. We know that term positions are a common route into the profession but hardly lead to a feeling of security. Remember, we were newbies once too and facing the same exact challenges. We didn’t spring fully formed into the profession with 12 years of experience, grey hair, ugly shoes, and papercut scarring on our knuckles. We know you’re going to have to search at some point. Tell me about your job search when you get going on it. Maybe I can even figure out how to give you broader opportunities within the position to allow you to resume-build. As my successful hire, I can also probably give you good and first-hand advice on what to do and what not to do as you write application documents and answer interview questions.

At any rate, I think it’s a balancing act on leaving part way into a term position. Some of it depends on the length of the term and the way the project is constructed. For a two year term, I wouldn’t expect you’d be doing any serious searching prior to the one-year point. Preferably you’d complete at least 18 months. For a one year term, the proportions go way up: at least 9 months minimum (and the project had better be really, really close to done), 11 months ideal, for a 5 year term, you’d better put in at least 3 years, but leaving at any point after that is okay with me, assuming the project has been completed to a point where work can be easily subdivided and prioritized.  Leaving prior to half-way through? That’s where it starts getting really sketchy for me. Not as your current boss, but if you had this on your record and were applying for a position with me, you might want to be prepared to face some very explicit questioning as to your interest in my position. And I might be asking your term hire supervisor some questions about your dedication to that job and their perception of the strength of your reasons for leaving it. But I do that level of questioning anyway, and that’s because I don’t equate ideal with permanent especially in early-career or entry-level jobs, “permanent=secure” falls under the classification of magical thinking for me, and I’m likely to question the professional judgment and maturity of any potential hire that offered “permanent” as their only reason for changing jobs.

As for early departure, if you have the perfect job application hanging out there at the same time another position offer comes through, think long and hard about accepting the offered job. Especially if you’d quit if the later one came through. Recruitments are crazy expensive and time-consuming, even for term positions. Don’t be the candidate remembered for having wasted that time and money especially in a situation where there’s a grant clock ticking. Because you never know if this person hiring now for this term position might have your ideal, permanent job on down the line whether at this institution or another one to which they’ve moved.

– Arlene Schmuland

My very first position was a project archivist, and I was simply fortunate enough that it turned into a permanent position. For anyone starting in the profession, project positions are an excellent way in which to obtain that important first job and make those connections to help you find the next one.  I think that anyone hiring for a temporary position will certainly understand that if an FT position comes along, then the archivist must leave.  That being said, I would not recommend starting a job hunt the minute you obtain a project position–contribute as much as you can to the success of the project, and while they may be sad to see you go, they will certainly understand.

– Tanya Zanish-Belcher

I think it is okay to leave a project position in the middle if you are moving on to a permanent position. The first institution might not be happy, but I think they would understand the value of a permanent job. Understand though, that if you are using them for a reference, they may be less likely to find ways to keep the grant job going longer (if they have that opportunity, and you don’t get the permanent position). It is a give and take situation on both sides, just like any employment.

– Gerrianne Schaad

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About Lisa H

Lisa is the archivist/librarian at the Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center at Augustana College. She stumbled into archival work by way of the museum world and is always seeking ways to break down the silos of these professions. Lisa has worked in museums, libraries, and archives in Illinois, New York, and Alaska. While not at work, Lisa spends her free time biking, working on art projects, and putting her useless knowledge to good use on bar trivia teams. You can find her on Twitter @lisahuntsha.

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