Managing Your Career: One Archivist’s Journey, Pt. 2

Last Friday, we began a four-part mini-series in which Kate details her journey from library student to curator of a special collection. If you missed the first part, it can be found here.

Guest author: Kate Crowe
Curator of Special Collections and Archives at the University of Denver

First Time Job-Hunting/Interviewing (Part II)

I graduated from library school in May of 2007 with an MLIS from Emporia State University. As I mentioned in the previous post, I graduated with no “real” library experience, outside of my 100-hour practicum. Despite this, I got a job offer that I was interested in – a two-year project archivist position that did require an MLIS but did not have benefits and had no guarantee of employment after the project’s conclusion. I accepted it within 3 months of graduation.

I know for a fact that the halcyon, pre-recession days of summer 2007 had a lot to do with the job even existing – but, in addition to the economic forces, in play at the time I did several things during the job seeking/interviewing process that I believe worked well, and there were several things that I believe I either would’ve done differently in retrospect or would’ve been on the lookout for that I was not at the time.

What I did do that I would recommend:

Align everything (even the non-library experience you have) in your cover letter to correspond directly to the job requirements. Tell them how you, personally, can help their specific organization. As Eira Tansey said in the first November #snaprt chat on the subject, “The resume is who you are. The cover letter is what you can do for them.”

Despite breaking the cardinal rule: “Thou shalt not have a non-library job during library school,” I still got a job within 3 months of graduating. I did this (and beat out a very qualified internal candidate, no less) by focusing my cover letter on the skills that I had gained in my (non-library) job processing applications at KU’s Undergraduate Admissions that paralleled the job requirements in the project archivist position, and how they could directly impact my ability to succeed in this position.

Some examples from my first cover letter:

  • Records management: I wrote about how I had worked directly with University records disposition according to the retention schedule for Admissions and I understood university-wide records processes and workflows.
  • Familiarity with cataloging/data standards: I wrote about documentation I’d created for standards-based entry of admissions application data into the system for processing applicants, in addition to physically processing collections and creating finding aids for my practicum.
  • Supervision: I discussed how I had supervised student workers and trained both students and temporary employees on admissions application processing tasks. 

Look for a first job (and, ideally, future jobs) where my direct supervisor and those around me would make sure that I got the resources I needed and where there would be some amount of mentoring and/or support.

I asked a lot of questions – and, since it was more than 8 years ago that I was interviewed, I’m going to do my best to remember them – that would get at this to some degree. Some of “how you tell” if this is going to happen is in the interviewers’ behaviors and the questions they ask. For example, do they seem genuinely interested in getting to you know you and your background? Do they make explicit the resources that you’ll be allocated to make sure you’re able to be successful in your new position? If not, and if there are stated outcomes they expect you to be able to accomplish in a given time frame, ask. Ask politely, but ask.

The really tricky part about determining “a good fit” will be not only about your direct supervisor, but the workplace/institutional culture of the organization. If you’re new to the profession, it can be very difficult to suss out information about institutional culture – usually this kind of information comes from peers who’ve worked in the institution. Once you make it to the interview stage, ask your professors and, ideally, if you’ve made connections in professional organizations with other folks from other institutions, ask about any information they might have about the current administration – the Dean, Associate Deans, the organization as a whole, etc. This will not only help you determine fit, but will enable you to tailor your responses and your questions as specifically as possible to that institution, which is a big plus for potential employers.

Be willing to consider a contract (time-limited) position if it’s aligned with your professional goals and the organization appears to have room for advancement.

This is a crapshoot, and it’s a crappy crapshoot, relying on a number of other factors. I wish I could say that there were enough jobs out there for new graduates that everyone would get a professional, full time position right out of the gate. Sadly, there are not.

First, if you’re unwilling or unable to relocate for a position, your options shrink dramatically. Second, if you were unable to secure a position in a cultural heritage institution while in graduate school, you may not reach the “# of years required” threshold in the available permanent positions (this goes double if you do not or cannot relocate).

I am by no means recommending that you settle – but be realistic about what’s out there when you’re on the job market. Then, when you’re settled, advocate for early career archivists (especially if you’re in the position of being able to craft a job description and advocate for salary and benefits) so that they have better options.

Learn as much as you can about the institution before you apply, and especially before you go for an interview

You would be shocked (or perhaps you wouldn’t be) how many candidates for jobs don’t make an effort to get to know even basic information about an organization where they are interviewing.

At a very high level, if it’s a university, see if they have published their strategic plan, their most recent self-accreditation study, annual reports, see what information their Institutional Research office publishes online. This will give you an overview of the organization’s strengths and weaknesses and how it views itself. Same goes for the library – if they have any of their annual reports, meeting minutes, any administrative documentation available online, read it. Not only will this help you shape your application and interview (presentation, questions, etc.) to the institution’s needs, it will absolutely impress the search committee and those you meet with that you took the time and effort to do so.

At a lower level, the specifics of the job should be in the job ad (i.e. if they expect you to have familiarity with CONTENTdm, it’s a good bet that they’re either looking into purchasing it, are current using it, or are currently looking to migrate away from it). Whatever you can glean, use it. Continuing the above example, if they use a certain software package, and you’ve already used it in a work environment, great – and if not, learn more about it. Learn what metadata standards it uses, look for articles published about the use of that software in similar institutions so you can speak more competently about it. If you’ve used similar systems, look for parallels that you can draw between your own direct experience and what their needs are, both in the application process and during the interview.

Don’t make search committees think too hard

If you look like a square peg, and what they have is a round hole, they will go looking for a round peg. Having been on several search committees, the amount of applications universities receive for professional library jobs can be in the hundreds. Search committees are looking for the strongest candidates who are the best fit for their institution and its needs – not just skills, but the whole person. If you create your application materials so that they can go down the list of requirements in the job description and check them off like a checklist using your CV/resume and cover letter, you just made their job easy, and made it far more likely for you to make it to the interview process.

All of that said, the job application and interview process is a two-way street – you are interviewing potential employers as much as they are interviewing you. Related, there is quite a bit of evidence to show that implicit bias affects decision-making, in interviews and otherwise. (See Dr. John Dovidio’s research for more information on this or take Harvard’s “Implicit Bias Test” if you’re curious). With this in mind, if you are an applicant of color, are transgender/gender non-conforming, or are in some way “not like” those who are interviewing you (many of whom are likely white, cisgender, middle/upper middle class), you have an uphill battle. Many universities have begun to realize this and have been/are putting processes into place to make implicit biases explicit in order to rectify this issue. However, if you believe and can document that you’ve been discriminated against based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age or disability, you may want to consider contacting the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and filing a complaint.

What I didn’t do that I would recommend:

Be wary of jobs that appear to have a great deal of responsibility and not a lot of authority. Thankfully this was not the case with my first job, but having been in the profession a few years, I’ve seen more than a few of these pop up, especially with entry-level/new professional positions. There are no sure-fire ways to spot them, but some red flags may be:

  1. The word “facilitator” or “coordinator” in the job title
  2. Inklings in the job responsibilities that no one/very few people will directly report to you, but that you’ll be expected to enlist many folks in doing work on your/the unit’s behalf.

If you are interested in and apply for and get to the interview stage for a job that sounds like this, ask questions like: “I see that I have no direct reports, but that many others are expected to assist this position in the outcomes the organization would like to see – what support would I have from the administration in ensuring this assistance and cooperation?,” etc.

For more details on the job search process for new archives graduates, see:

Goldman, Rebecca and Lausch, Shannon M., “Job search experiences and career satisfaction among recent archives program graduates” (2012). Conference presentations. Paper 4, http://digitalcommons.lasalle.edu/libraryconf/4/.

So – I got my first professional position (albeit not a permanent one). Now what…

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