Transitions Series: Sara Seltzer

This post is an installment in 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 author Sara Seltzer

Now that I’ve spent some time on the professional side of the proverbial student-professional fence, I can honestly say that life on the other side is both significantly more awesome and more challenging.  I’ve learned a few valuable lessons in my nearly 3 years of full-time work as a professional archivist, and I can tell you that while finally “making it” to the coveted League of Permanent Professionals is a huge weight off your shoulders, you don’t rest on your laurels for long.  I’ve chronicled the awesomeness and the challenges I’ve encountered from the beginning of my professional journey to now in the hopes that other effervescent new professionals will find something to relate to, either now or in the near future.

First Job Awesomeness

Landing that first professional job is a psychological coup – you’ve legitimized your choice of career and finally believe that grad school was worth it.  Yay!  This is a huge boon that should be savored for the big accomplishment that it is.  When I saw my name printed on real business cards for the first time and set up my e-mail signature with my professional title, I did a mental happy dance.  This was what I had been waiting for since day one of grad school (and before then), and this is something YOU should celebrate when it finally happens.

The part I loved most about this first professional job was that it let me acquire, in an astonishingly short amount of time, a range of skills and experience that I didn’t have before.  Every week brought me something new and allowed me to interact with all kinds of different people.  Your first job is, above all else, an amazing learning opportunity and time for growth.  Take advantage of everything it has to offer.

First Job Challenges

While every job has its challenges, I think the challenges of a first job are especially hard both because you are inexperienced and don’t know how to cope with and handle more difficult work situations, and because you may develop an overzealous sense of loyalty to the job that gave you your big break.  That was certainly the case for me.  When I first started, I couldn’t fathom the notion that this new, awesome job would not be my last, even though many people told me it was a “stepping stone” position.  This was especially true because, though the job was very entry-level, it was a permanent position.

Even when I began to get the very early stirrings of needing something more (only a few months into the position) I didn’t want to acknowledge that 1) I had every right to be looking at other opportunities and 2) That I actually deserved to have other opportunities.  I think it’s easy to fall prey to an unintentional feeling of desperation in a first job – the idea that your employer was the one doing you the favor by giving you the “privilege” of working for them and saving you from the dreaded fate of unemployment.

I battled with this mentality a lot in the beginning, until other extenuating circumstances at work made me realize that moving on was actually the best thing for me.  The unconscious dip in self-confidence that can stem from the (very justified) gratitude you have toward that first job needs to be kept in check.  If you do experience this type of first job angst, seek guidance from your professional network and other people you trust.  But most importantly, keep a lookout for signs that you may be falling under the desperation spell.  Remind yourself that you are in charge of your career and your life, and that you are the person most qualified to make those important decisions.

Awesomeness Two Jobs Later

Now in my third professional position in as many years, I can tell you that your sense of security and accomplishment will only grow the farther away from grad school you get.  Pretty soon you’ll stop feeling like a “new” professional who has to constantly be proving and improving herself with the hopes of edging out the competition for that latest job, and will just be.  When that moment does finally come, it’s awesome.  At long last, the holy grail of archival jobs – the permanent professional position, which, in my case, was the slightly above entry-level permanent professional position with a livable wage, a significant improvement from my first job.

The wonderful thing about a permanent job is that time is on your side.  While there will always be some deadlines, you can develop multi-year plans and goals for yourself because you have the latitude to do so.  You aren’t racing against the clock to finish a project before the paychecks stop coming, and you have the freedom to really learn your institution and your role within it inside and out.  You can start small but dream big, knowing that you’ll have the chance to explore as you go.  You feel that your institution has made a true investment in you, and that is very satisfying.

Challenges Two Jobs Later

My journey from first job to third job had an interesting and not uncommon middle – a temporary stop in a one-year contract position.  The challenges inherent in that are obvious (an end date looming large and all the emotional stresses that come with it), but oftentimes these true “stepping stone” positions are what catapult you right to that next level where you want to be.  All you want when you’re a temporary worker is a permanent position (I mean, is that really so much to ask?).  You think to yourself, once I have that permanent gig, I swear I’ll never worry about my career again.  But as with most things in life, the end-all-be-all goal isn’t really the end at all.

Shortly after I started my current position, I was shocked to find how quickly the angst set in.  After all the hard work over the previous two years, all the waiting to get to where I am now, it seemed cruel (not to mention ridiculous) that I would even remotely start to feel restless.  At no other time in my life have I ever had the thought “Now what?”  But I had that thought within a couple months of rejoining the League of Permanent Professionals.  I had the job I wanted at the institution I wanted to be at – what more could I ask for?

The Answer to “Now What?”

It didn’t take long for me to realize that the restlessness I felt was in fact a latent fear that I would get too comfortable and stop being ambitious.  Archivists are an inherently driven bunch (grad school isn’t for sissies) and many of us are prone to compulsive behavior as it is, whether it’s organizing a collection or your life.  I needed to find a way to reconcile my self-created problem with the facts – that I had just made a major life change (moving to a new position, new institution, and new city) and deserved to cut myself at least a little slack.

That’s when I made the decision to give myself the time that my new position afforded me.  Rather than plunging into new volunteer commitments in the profession, something I did a great deal of at my previous two jobs because I felt it was imperative to getting ahead, I made a promise, with the full support of my supervisor, to take a giant step back for the first year and simply focus on my day-to-day responsibilities and adjustment.  Choosing to remove the unnecessary pressure was the wisest career decision I’ve made to date.  It’s not only given me the chance to truly learn my position, but also the freedom to explore and contemplate my genuine professional interests.  Even though I’m 7 months into that first year, I’ve already made a laundry list of long-term projects and goals of a professional development sort that I want to eventually tackle when the time is right.  Making the choice to understand and work with the angst rather than ignore it or suffer in silence was a breakthrough for me, because now the ambition that I embrace is flowing naturally, without the superfluous worry rushing it along at an unmanageable pace.

I know not every job offers the same degree of leeway in terms of professional commitments, but even if you do need to keep up a rigorous level of involvement, try to put it in perspective and still pencil in some time for reflection on what you really enjoy and where you really want to go with your career.  Taking some time to give back to the next cohort of new professionals, whether it’s through blog posts like this one, mentoring a grad student, or some other outlet, can also help keep you centered and ready to face your current (and next) chapter as an archivist.

Final Takeaways

  • Don’t pass up other opportunities out of loyalty to your current employer or position (fight the Desperation Demon!)
  • The road to the League of Permanent Professionals may take a few years and include some temporary stops. Use those stops to strategically build your experience and marketability.
  • Feelings of restlessness and angst once you get to where you want to be are normal. Learn to identify and work with them.
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