Academic Library/Archives Job Interviews – Generalizations That I Hope Are Helpful

This post is written by Kate Crowe (contact information at the bottom!) and originally was posted on her blog here. Last year, she wrote about her professional journey for the SNAP blog (linked below). This post was inspired by the November 9th #snaprt on Twitter; chat flashback here

First, my sympathies that you are on the hunt for a job of any kind. Like any activity where you “put yourself out there” (dating, your rec softball league, etc.), you face some amount of upfront emotional labor and potential rejection. Unlike dating or a hypothetical softball league, this rejection is also directly tied to your ability to pay your bills (and maybe other people’s bills) and get a regular meal – so the stress is ramped way, way up. Virtual hugs to you – my guess is, you need them.

Second, who the heck am I to tell you what to do on an academic library/archives job interview? I’m the Curator of Special Collections and Archives at the University of Denver, and I wrote about my professional journey on a series of blog posts for SNAP last year. If you want to know more about me and what passes for street cred in the academic archives world, check ’em out.

What follows is based on my experiences on several library faculty search committees, as well as personal observation and experience at an academic archives / as a hiring manager for the past decade (2007-2017).

Prior to Submitting Your Application Materials

First, know that the first round of “cuts” for academic library positions (and likely other kinds) is often some form of a spreadsheet with “required” and “preferred” qualifications, and narrowing the field based on whether you meet all the required or not. Make sure you can demonstrate that you do, or you won’t make it past the first cut. In some cases, the “cut” isn’t even made by librarians or the search committee, it’s made by the institution’s HR department, so be very clear that you meet them.

Second, there’s a lot of coded language inherent to a lot of academic library/archives job descriptions that isn’t particularly transparent, especially depending on where/how you find the job. Some positions are faculty positions, some aren’t. What constitutes “faculty-ness,” especially in the library world, is a fraught and ever-changing thing that varies quite a bit institution to institution. Meredith Farkas has written about it quite a bit, here and here. So has Nicole Pagowsky, and there have been other articles written from a non-library, academic perspective – I could try to link to more, but my guess is this post will become outdated as to “current trends” sooner rather than later. Suffice it to say, it’s a consideration, and it’s a goalpost that keeps getting moved, but you need to be aware of that goalpost.

Third, do you meet the required qualifications? Apply. Do not pass go, do not pause – apply. Women especially – you do NOT need to meet every preferred qualification (though it helps if you meet some of them) to apply.

Resume or CV?

When applying to jobs, the main reason to keep an eye out for whether or not a position has faculty status (tenure track, non tenure track, or otherwise), is that it will affect how/what you submit. Faculty positions (and even some non-faculty academic library positions) require a curriculum vitae rather than a resume. Check to make sure you’re submitting the correct one – the job announcement should indicate which you should send. The main difference is that faculty positions explicitly call for and care about your commitment to research and service, in addition to your professional archives/library responsibilities. C.V.s include not only your professional experience, but also research (publications, presentations) and service to the profession (officer positions in professional associations, volunteer work, etc.)

A curriculum vitae is more comprehensive than a resume, and it will change (as will your resume) significantly as you progress in your career. If you’re early-career (i.e. just out of grad school), unless you have significant professional experience prior to/during grad school (more than 2 years), I like Purdue OWL’s advice to put “Education” first, and list all entries in reverse chronological order. As you get into “slightly past early career” (2-5 years), or if you have significant professional experience prior to/during high school, I’d put “Professional Experience” first, and still list it in in reverse chronological order. This is a style choice, and it won’t make or break it – I’ve seen this done both ways, with people in all stages of career, so take that with a grain of salt.

In the “Professional Experience” section, go through that sucker with a fine-toothed comb – if you can make a direct parallel or, ideally, use exactly the same language, to describe your professional experience as the position description calls for, do it. This is doubly the case if there is a possibility that you might not (or that it might look like you don’t) meet the “required” qualifications. For example, if a position description says that you would: “Supervise and train two employees with accessions and acquisitions responsibilities,” and you, say, were an assistant manager in a retail store where you were responsible for time cards, payroll, and training, you could structure the brief description under “Assistant Manager, Forever 21” to read “Supervised four part-time employees. Responsible for all employee annual reviews, managing payroll, and employee training.” It’s not a 1:1, but don’t discount any non-library experience you have, make it count. In the example above, by framing your non-library management experience this way, you can help draw that parallel for the search committee – it all adds up.

If the position is an early-career faculty position (0-2 years of experience), and you’re just out of grad school, it can be tricky to round out “Publications,” “Presentations,” and “Service.” No employer worth their salt will expect to see much in any of those categories for an entry-level position, but you should try to give them something – and the earlier you start thinking about this in grad school the better.

Low(er) barrier to entry options for research and service include:

  • Turn a class paper into a regional library/archives/museum conference poster or presentation submission
  • Present at one of your school’s graduate colloquia, or some other forum for scholarship at your university
  • Run for an officer position at your university’s student chapter of SAA
  • Intern for a section or working group of SAA. The 2017-2018 call deadline has expired, but keep an eye out for next year’s – or if you see something you’re really excited about, don’t hesitate to reach out, you never know!

SAA is also not your only venue for service to the profession – there are a number of regional archives associations, as well as cultural heritage, archives-adjacent nonprofits, community archives, and the like which often need help with governance, projects, etc.

Cover Letters

As Eira Tansey said in a #snaprt chat some time ago, “The resume or CV is who you are. The cover letter is what you can do for them.” The resume/CV should connect as directly as possible to what you have done so they can see what your foundation and existing experience is. The cover letter should very clearly lay out exactly how you meet all of the required and as many of the preferred qualifications as possible, based on your experience thus far, as well as why you and this job are such a perfect fit.

It’s a lot of work to tailor each cover letter to the job. However, if you don’t specifically address each aspect of THAT job description in THAT cover letter, as well as address any issues or gaps that might appear in your resume/CV, you’re far less likely to get an interview. The cover letter will tell the committee, again, not only how you meet the qualifications of the job, but why YOU, and not the other applicants, are the right person for that particular job. The cover letter is where you can more clearly bring out the connections between any previous positions’ duties and the posted job – again, especially if it’s not abundantly clear that you meet all of the required qualifications and, ideally, as many of the preferred ones as possible.

And again, do not discount your non-library experience. Supervision, leadership, administrative oversight, coordination, etc. – those are all highly transferable skills that are valuable to academic libraries and archives – and ones that are harder to get in an entry level position, which will make you a more competitive candidate if you play them up!

References

Make sure that the people you’ve listed as references KNOW you’ve listed them as references, and that they can and will honestly give you a positive one. If you aren’t sure, ask them directly. If you submit applications with anyone you list as a reference, make sure they know ahead of time, and that they have a copy of the job ad – and that you jog their memory about job titles, dates of employment, etc. – especially if it’s been awhile since you worked together.

The Interview Process

Ok, so you’ve put together an amazing application packet and you get to the next round. In most cases, this will include a phone or video conference/Skype (or whatever the university’s version of Skype is) interview. In general:

  • If at home, find a room with a closed door that your pets, kids, significant others/roommates won’t be able to get past (see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mh4f9AYRCZY). You want to get the job, not go viral – I assume, anyway!
  • Check lighting ahead of time – if you’re backlit, you might be silhouetted and hard to see, or you might blind folks with the sun.
  • Make sure you’re in business casual at minimum, even if you’re at home. No PJs.
  • Having been deafened by keyboards a couple of times, I can confidently say that your interviewers will probably appreciate if you handwrite notes or put the speakers on mute if you need to type to take notes.
  • Be prepared with a fully charged cell phone nearby just in case the video software or the internet malfunctions and you need to switch to a phone call.

Many of the guidelines/tips for in-person interviews hold for phone interviews, though they’re far, far shorter – most are between half an hour to an hour. In general, expect to be asked about:

  • Current trends in the field. For example, if the position is more public services-focused, be prepared to talk about reference, instruction, assessment, etc. – if it’s tech services-focused, be prepared to talk about metadata, collection management systems, digitization, etc.
  • Experience with important aspects of the job description. If there’s a mention of “manages a collection or employee budget of $X” or “oversees strategic planning for Y,” expect to be asked about skills and experiences related to those aspects of the job. You don’t need to have done them all – but be able to relate your skills and experience back to those criteria in some way.
  • Leadership and supervision: Even if you’re not supervising people directly, many jobs ask about leadership and/or supervision. Facilitation and coordination of teams and projects counts (or should), even if you didn’t directly supervise the people in that team. If you haven’t done that, be prepared/able to talk about modeling leadership in a team environment, etc.
  • Research: If it’s a faculty position, they’ll want to know your research interests/agenda. You do not have to have an elevator speech prepared, but you should be able to talk about what interests you, what you’d like to research and write about in more depth, and why. Do you love thinking about the political implications of how and why things are named the way they are? Do you geek out about command line? Maybe you’d like to write about writing simple scripts and hacks for metadata, aimed at non-tech folks. Ideally this relates in some way back to your job, but if you need to draw a connection to something that seems far afield, be prepared to do it.
  • Service: See above in the section about the CV for what that means, but prepared to go into more depth about what kinds of service to the profession you would like to focus on and why.
  • Why this job? Ex: “I like that this is a big research university with a lot of professional mobility and I’d have the opportunity to work with a variety of faculty across disciplines.” or “I am really passionate about teaching undergraduates and I love that this is included in the position.” Be prepared to give a real, evidence-based answer, tailored to that institution and that position.
  • Vision: They may ask you for your vision of how a position like this would fit into that particular institution. This can be a tricky one, so try and gather as much context as you can about that institution before you answer. Strategic plans, any meeting minutes or agendas, marketing materials – these are all helpful.
  • Inclusion and Diversity: At my institution, we have candidates submit a statement discussing their commitment to inclusion and diversity, and we typically address it at multiple points in time during the interview, both in the phone interview and the in-person. This Chronicle Vitae article “Don’t Dodge the Diversity Questions!” has some good advice.

In-Person

In-person faculty interviews are a marathon, not a sprint. They are often structured as a day +, starting with a “day before the full interview” dinner with one or more members of the search committee, and usually an administrator and other members of the library faculty. You will get breaks of 10-15 minutes, but even during lunch, which is a bit more unstructured, you are still being interviewed, so be prepared to be “on,” but you can relax a little bit. (A very little bit).

The formal interview will usually be a full day, and each institution varies their structure a bit, but they will likely consist of a presentation of some kind and then a series of smallish meetings:

  • Presentation: 30-45 minutes on some large prompt or question around “trends in the field,” followed by questions. This will usually be one of your few opportunities to talk to or meet staff outside of the archives or your immediate “up or down” reporting line, so be prepared for questions from outside your field – even outside of the library! This is both your opportunity to show your understanding of the field you’re interviewing for, as well as your presentation skills. Knit as many locally specific pieces of information as examples to underpin your points as possible. The administrators and the search committee will notice.
  • Meeting with Faculty: Be prepared to discuss “facultyness” in whatever form it takes at that university. This is your opportunity to both find out more about individual faculty members’ research interests, as well as impress them if you’ve bothered to find out more about them ahead of time. Be prepared, again, to discuss your research interests, and your service.
  • Meeting with Direct Reports or Folks in Your Dept/Unit: There will probably be a meeting with people who will either report to you (and probably your potential supervisor), or people in your unit who will need to work closely with you. This meeting will likely deal heavily with the nitty gritty of local issues specific to that institution, and will be where your colleagues will be trying to suss out what it would be like to work with or for you. Again, knowing local details, or, once you’ve learned local details, being able to clearly integrate them into your answers, can be key.
  • Meeting with the Faculty Promotions/Appointments Committee: Again, this is only if this is a faculty position. This is your opportunity, if you haven’t sussed it out already, to figure out what expectations, requirements, and systems are in place that govern how library faculty are evaluated and promoted in status. There should be clear, library-specific guidelines if the library faculty are their own series in the institution’s Appointments, Promotions, and Tenure document for faculty. You can certainly ask the search committee for these guidelines ahead of the in-person interview, that’s never a bad idea.
  • Meeting with Your Boss (and Probably Your Boss’s Boss): You’ll almost certainly meet one on one with both your direct supervisor and with the Dean – or in very large research universities, one or two steps down from that. For higher-level admin positions you may meet with an admin outside of the library, but that’s often only for Dean or Director-level positions. These folks are trying to suss out what it would be like to have you as a direct report, and so these meetings – and the whole of the interview process – can get into the very problematic area of “organizational fit.” I won’t spend too much time on this, as I don’t want this to become a book-length blog post (and it could very easily be its own blog post – heck, book), but the notion of “fit” is problematic a-f. See above link for more on that. In any case, these folks will likely ask you similar questions as above, but what they’re also doing is looking for red flags.
    • Never complain about previous employers, even subtly, even where you don’t explicitly name them. The library world is small.
    • Frame experiences, even negative ones, positively.
    • Watch for how they treat you. Do they seem to genuinely care about your perspective, your research interests, your career goals? If not, that’s a huge red flag.

    Related, It’s a truism, but they’re not just interviewing you, you’re interviewing them. I really like these questions from Ask a Manager if you need a prompt about what to ask during the “Do you have any questions for us” sections of the interview.

There is quite a bit that I could and probably should have expanded on, but I wanted to keep this to advice specifically pertinent to “actions to take” that could be broadly extrapolated to academic library/archives positions.

If you have questions, I’m @kcrowe on Twitter, or you can shoot me an e-mail at my @du.edu account!

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