This post is part of our “Transitions” Series, which highlights the experiences of recent graduates and early career archivists. If you are an early career archivist (0-5 years in the field) who would like to participate in this series, please contact us.
Guest authors: Brian Thomas, Morgan Jones-King, Mark Sprang, Jessica Hills
Compiled by : Morgan Jones-King
Within the last eight months, it seems as if there has been an influx of new blood at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History (SCDAH). For several of us new employees, this is our first archives job post-graduate school. Since we all came from different graduate programs, work experiences, and backgrounds, we decided to co-author a post about our transition from student to professional life in order to highlight the similarities and variances in our experiences. We answered questions about resources we used, challenges we’ve faced, organizations we relied on, and advice we would give.
Brian Thomas (BT) is the Electronic Records Archivist for the SCDAH who started his position in June of 2014. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with an MSIS in 2013.
Morgan Jones-King (MJK) is the Historic Properties Information Coordinator for the State Historic Preservation Office in the SCDAH. Morgan also started in June of 2014 and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with an MSLS in 2014.
Mark Sprang (MS) is the Electronic Processing Archivist. Mark started his position at the SCDAH in January of 2015. He graduated with an MSI from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 2014.
Jessica Hills (JH) is the Electronic Records Analyst for the Records Management Office of the SCDAH. She started her position in December 2014 after graduating from Auburn University with an MA in 2012.
What resources, if any, did you rely on to make your transition?
BT: There were no resources I specifically used during the transition to my current position. I tend to hoard books and class materials, so I have brought most of that to work as reference materials, which has been very useful. I highly recommend everyone keep those books for future use.
MJK: During my first month or two on the job, I sought out local professional organizations in which to become involved. Almost immediately, I discovered that the South Carolina Archival Association was planning their annual meeting and calling for submissions. Thankfully, my job description fit with the theme of the meeting and my supervisor encouraged me to send in a proposal. The process of submitting a proposal to a local group, discussing my position (a new creation) with others, and receiving encouragement from my office was an incredibly rewarding way to begin my new job. So, when making the transition to a new position, I’d say some of the top resources you can mine are your local archival associations. Even if you’re not presenting at a meeting, these organizations can provide an excellent network to help you feel settled in your new area and new career.
MS: My best resources during my transition period were my classmates and former supervisors. Don’t discount those relationships you make during school, they can be a gold mine of future support and employment opportunities. Also, save all of your course materials, whether paper or digital; you will definitely be using most of it again.
JH: I worked in a different field in between graduating and getting my current job. When I got my current position, I felt a little rusty with the archival procedures I learned in graduate school. I kept most of my books from graduate school so I went back over them to prepare. I also looked at plenty of online materials that dealt with the subject. In addition, I came from a pretty close-knit program so I talked with others about their experiences.
What surprised or challenged you in your first year as a new professional?
BT: Prior to going to school to become an archivist I was in insurance claims, which is fast-paced and stress-heavy. My biggest challenge with working in the archives has been the difference in pacing between the private and public sector. There are nuances involved in working in the public sector that does not always permit immediate gratification. As a person that tends toward a “take the bull by the horns” approach, this has been difficult.
MS: Like Brian, I also worked in the private sector before returning to school. I was in accounting, helping resolve federal and state tax issues for clients. Changing from that to the sometimes leisurely pace of public sector employment has been a bit of a challenge.
How did your graduate program prepare you for your first professional position? What do you wish you had learned?
BT: As an electronic records archivist I am always learning, it is the nature of the position to need to learn how new (or old) things work. Something I wish I had learned in graduate school was that Electronic Records Archivist in particular will always be in a cycle of learning new skills. Graduate school was the beginning, not the end.
MJK: UNC-Chapel Hill did an excellent job of preparing me for a diversity of experience. While all programs are a little different, what you should get out of library school in essence is the ability to be flexible with how you apply the skills you are taught. Additionally, I was very glad for all of the professional experience I had while in school and the heavy emphasis on electronic records. Some of the best advice I got from a professor was “don’t be afraid of digital.” It sounds silly, but I think a lot of my classmates and I would have been inclined to avoid e-records jobs if we could have, so that constant reminder and re-centering was always helpful.
MS: My graduate program did an excellent job of producing new professionals who are prepared to have one foot in the analog world and one in the digital (or solely digital). The heavy emphasis on substantive practical experience has also been much appreciated: I was able to work or volunteer in a half-dozen diverse organizations in two years. The University of Michigan program also has its own career office, which was instrumental in helping me improve my job searching skills. One thing I would say the program lacks is a course dedicated solely to metadata, XML, and archival descriptive practices to help make sense of the myriad descriptive standards out there. I do know that this concern has been echoed by faculty.
JH: My program required archival internships to graduate, which was very helpful. It all made so much more sense to me when I applied the procedures I learned in the classroom to the real world. This should go without saying, but do not expect the real world to be like graduate school. There is a different rhythm to working; there are different expectations and pressures, but on the bright side, no homework. 🙂
What advice would you give to recent graduates?
BT: My advice for recent graduates is to search hard for a job in the field and don’t limit yourself to a specific geographic region if you can avoid it. Be aware that the job market is saturated, so unless you are lucky you probably won’t land an archives job immediately after graduation. While you look, take a job in records management or some other related field. You will accrue applicable experience that will help in the search. Beware of getting too comfortable in a temporary job though.
MJK: I would give recent graduates this advice: don’t discount a position just because the word archivist isn’t in the job title. There are lots of positions that are archival even if they aren’t labeled as such. Be willing to read through a job description and think about how you can apply your experience to position. It sounds obvious, but I think that if I hadn’t been paying close enough attention, I might very well have skipped over applying for my job! Also, once you’re in a new position, do what you can to avoid imposter syndrome. In my case, I started posting to my blog regularly. Although I had started it in school, I didn’t always feel like I had too much to say as a student. As a new entrant to the field though, I feel that maintaining a blog is beneficial to my self-esteem. Writing blog posts on what I’m accomplishing or learning helps me to track my professional growth and enables me to solicit feedback from peers on my work. For example, after writing about my use of CollectiveAccess, one of the developers on the project read my blog and submitted a contact form with an offer of assistance. I can’t tell you how much that made my day!
MS: For recent graduates, I would advise dedication and patience. Graduate programs are producing more archivists than there are available positions, so it may take you a while to find a job. In the meantime, find some kind of paid work or volunteer opportunities to continue building your resume. Unless you have a compelling necessity, try not to limit yourself geographically during your job search. The wider you cast your net, the more opportunities you will have. In the meantime continue learning, whether it’s learning to build databases, create websites, or tips for reference interviews. The archivist is often a jack-of-all-trades, so the more things you can do, the better. There are a myriad of free webinars and courses out there to build up your skills until you are employed.
JH: Advice for the job search: be willing to think outside of the box. Graduate school teaches skills that apply not only to the archives/records management field but many others as well. Think about those skills and how you can apply them to whatever job you find. Also, think about skills you learned from other jobs and how you can apply those skills to your job search. Play to your strengths. For example, I have had a number of jobs in my life that involved dealing with the public, waiting tables, working front desks, etc., all of which helped me a lot. Whether it is interacting with colleagues or the public, dealing with people is a big part of the job, and is a skill you are more likely to develop outside of the classroom. Archives may seem like a solitary profession, but it is NOT.