Job hunting retrospective

Welcome to the first of a series of posts about my recent job hunting experience: this one covers some general background and then the things I think particularly helped my search.

(I don’t think I have all the answers, but I do hope some of this is useful. Comments and constructive ideas are welcome.)

You can see the full index of posts over here. And you might want to read the disclaimer note there.

My background:

Most of my work experience is in an independent (aka private) school setting (10 years, 8.5 as a paraprofessional with increasing responsibilities, and 1.5 years as the teacher librarian). I’ve also spent a year doing technology design and support at a college, a year doing technical support in a human resources consulting firm, and various other shorter-term projects on the side.

I have particularly strong skills and interest in helping people use technology better, both on the practical side (“How do I do this thing?”) and on the more philosophical side (“How do we create a meaningful life that benefits from but isn’t ruled by our technology?”)

A few numbers:

I was job hunting for just over a year. During that time I sent out about 140 applications.

  • One hiring conference (which involved four short interviews, none of which ended up leading to on-site interviews.)
  • About 25 phone or Skype interviews.
  • About 5 places where circumstances changed for the place hiring, and I wasn’t interviewed in person (but was in the final few candidates).
  • 6 trips to interviews where I was one of the final candidates.
  • One offer (yay!) and a couple of “Not this time, but can we keep in touch?” that seemed quite sincere.

While some of those numbers are a little depressing, about 1 in 6 applications got me a phone interview – which when many of the places I was applying were getting 50 or 100+ applications, is quite decent.

(I talk about how many applications I did a week and related things in a later post in this series.)

Variety is interesting:
My applications were roughly 1/3 to independent schools, 1/3 to colleges or universities (including for-profit schools and community colleges), and 1/3 to public library positions, with a few outlying exceptions. The in-person interviews were (in chronological order) for a for-profit school, an independent school, a community college, an independent school, a public library, and a small public university campus.

Things I think helped my search:

Varied library experience:
There are many many many librarian candidates out there right now, and people who do not have direct substantial experience working in a library are at a huge disadvantage. That doesn’t necessarily need to be paid work, but it does need to be substantial – shelving or other limited volunteer tasks won’t give you breadth of experience.

The nice part about having been the head librarian in a very small library is that I’ve done a little of everything: I’ve now hired, trained, and managed staff, I’ve spent extensive time on the reference desk, I’ve done instruction and reader’s advisory, I’ve cataloged, I’ve handled budgets. If you don’t have experience doing those things in libraries, have you done them somewhere else? (I also have experience with training volunteers, budgets, government paperwork, and some other skills through volunteer work that also gave me customer service and problem solving experience with a diverse community.)

Working at a college-prep high school also gave me a lot of space: many of the relevant skills transfer both into public libraries and into academic libraries, as long as I talked clearly about how. (And showed some awareness of where they don’t, and what other things I had done that filled in those gaps.)

Social skills:
I had a lot of questions – both direct and less direct – that were clearly aimed at understanding my ability to deal with a wide variety of patron needs and concerns in a way that was professional, appropriate, and helpful. Having good stories to tell about a variety of experiences and situations really helped a number of my interviews.

Although many librarians identify as introverts, I think more and more library jobs are going to be requiring us to deal with people in many different ways. (And it’s a big thing we offer that can’t be duplicated by current technology.) Being able to talk about how you can do that well is only going to help you. Having things on your resume that make those skills clear is even better.

Diversity experience:
An increasing number of jobs out there are looking for people comfortable working with a diverse community in various dimensions (race and ethnicity, but also things like economic class, educational history, etc.)

My former job had been making some major steps in this direction during my last few years there, and I had been finding ways the library could help (attention in displays to including a variety of voices and experiences, supporting diversity center programs with related materials, making sure my own interactions encouraged and supported diverse uses and users of the library in as many ways as I could.)

Technology skills:
Obviously, technology is a huge part of our modern culture. Most of the ads I was seeing involved a substantial amount of technological literacy. I’ve been online for more than 15 years now, and I’m very good with the user side of the equation (both being a poweruser of various tools myself, and in helping other people learn to use them.) I’m extremely comfortable creating websites, graphics, accessible sites, etc. as well.

I’ve heard from various sources that people with stronger specific technical skills than I have (experience running a network on their own, or varied programming/scripting experience) who also have library experience are in particularly good positions for hiring right now. And I certainly saw a variety of ads where those skills would have opened up more possibilities for me. 

Willingness to move:
This is perhaps the most common and yet most complicated advice I’ve seen for librarians who are job seeking.

The reality is, there are a number of places in the country that have high saturations of libarians seeking jobs, and not a lot of jobs for them to seek. In Minneapolis and St. Paul, there’ve been under twenty jobs posted in the last year that I was reasonably interested in (full time, with benefits, doing things I would be interested in doing). And all of them have gotten over a hundred applications. (Only one of my interviews was in the Twin Cities metro area, and it was for an instructional design job, not based in a library.)

Fortunately, in my case, I was also actively interested in moving back to New England, where there are a lot of libraries looking for people, just due to natural turnover (many small towns, many colleges, many independent schools), and not as many applicants (especially as you get outside the major New England cities, which I preferred anyway ).

For  a job seeker, that’s a better combination. (In general, anywhere near a library school tends to be more saturated, getting away from that tends to drop the number of applicants, though this is not a perfect ratio.)

Job hunting outside your current geographic area is complicated – I know I lost out interviews to local candidates in several places. Being able to arrange a few extended visits (travel for an interview, stay a few more days to do additional conversations in the area) helped a bit, as did my willingness to pay for my own travel a few times.

Of course, for many people, picking up and moving isn’t really an option for a wide variety of reasons. And in that case, you may need to be realistic about your chances, and about what you need to do in the meantime. (Take a non-library job that uses your skills while you wait – maybe for years – for a suitable position in your area to open up? Do extended volunteer work somewhere to get additional experience and networking? Figure out something else that will help you have good examples and ideas that will make your applications stand out?)

Doing things that made me feel competent and skilled:
An important piece I want to mention is the power of doing stuff that makes you feel like you’re really good at what you do. This does not necessarily need to be in your professional field.

In my case, I’ve been actively involved of the board of a 501(c)3 organization associated with my religious community for about five years. (It’s focused on interfaith and intrafaith education of the comparative-religions kind). We’ve run a free public event in the fall for a number of years, but in March 2011, launched our first weekend-long spring conference-type event, designed by and for our community.

I was the chair of the event (with some amazing and awesome board members, without whom nothing would have worked). We were delighted that it was was hugely successful by every measure for a first year event (we beat out my “I hope we get this many people” desires by 50%, we had a very healthy budget that left us great seed money for future events, all of our problems were solveable in under 15 minutes, we got lots of awesome comments, and a lot of people want to come back. And I even had time to participate and have fun.)

It was also really interesting – and exciting – to realise what changed for me in the job hunt after that event. Before that, I’d been feeling a bit uncertain about some specific skills – things I’d tried to find better solutions for in my previous job, but had not had as much success with as I’d wanted.

But running an event of moderate size and complexity, and having it go so well, helped me be a lot more joyful about my skills, and to be confident that specific things that had been a challenge for me in the previous job didn’t automatically apply in other settings. It also gave me some great stories about customer service issues, solving complicated problems, and negotiating people’s strong opinions to get things done.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I started getting more interviews, and more phone interviews after that. Confidence and joy in what you’re doing all show through in your applications, phone conversations, and emails. The more you can cultivate times when those things are true for you, the better your job search is going to be, because you’re also building skills that are attractive to employers.

That said, if you’re getting unemployment, some states (including Minnesota) limit how much time you can spend in volunteer tasks (because you’re supposed to be job hunting, not volunteering, with your time), so keep that in mind. I kept my volunteering to the same amount of time I’d done while working full time, which averaged 1-3 hours a week for much of the year, with a couple of weeks (right before events) where it might spike to 10-15 hours a week.

Having fun where I could.
Job hunting is not an innately enjoyable process: it involves a lot of putting yourself out there and getting rejected, which few people find fun.

What I did love about it, though, was the sense of possibility, being able to try on a job and think about what it’d be like to live in that place, doing that work, and what I’d care about if I were there. (This was especially fun when I was under consideration for a job at a school in Switzerland.)

There is a temptation to get too wrapped up in it (which makes it hard to move on to other postings) so I kept control over it. But I also really enjoyed the experience of “what if?” Every time I took the time to explore it consciously, it made my cover letters better, my interviews more fluid, my approach more relaxed. Those are good things.

Remembering that it’s not (mostly) about me.

Not getting a particular job is not about my skills or abilities or sense of self-worth. It’s about a particular fit with a particular position at a particular moment in time with particular people. That’s complicated stuff.

There are all sorts of reasons they might go with another candidate. (And there are lots of really amazing wonderful people out there being librarians right now, and wanting jobs, many of whom offer specific things I don’t.)

The best thing I could do is pick myself up and move onto the next thing, trusting that somewhere down the road, there would be the right fit with the right people and the right position. Certainly, I’d take in feedback, and think about what I could do better. But I always remembered it wasn’t about me, so much as a lot of other things.

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8 comments to Job hunting retrospective

  • [...] Retrospective :: an overview of my background going into this hunt, and of things I think especially helped me in my search. [...]

  • Sarah

    Jen,

    Welcome back to New England!

    Thanks for writing such a thoughtful wrap-up. I’m currently at a very small college where we also have a very very broad range of responsibilities, and it’s definitely made me more confident that I could move in multiple directions, job-wise.

    I feel like a lego kit, frankly – I could put my skills together in several ways to accomplish what several types of institutions want to accomplish. There are certain types of institutions I enjoy more, of course, but since I have a pretty similar work history to yours, I can’t say I’ll always stay in my current type of institution.

    So I’m curious, do you think you’ll stay in public university librarianship now, or do you think you’d still apply to all those types of libraries the next time you job hunt? (I know it’s early to talk about this, so feel free to hedge! :)

  • Jen

    Hi, Sarah! Great question.

    In some ways, my thoughts about the answer are more about the future of libraries, than about my personal decision. I think that there’s going to continue to be some form of “helping people find information that matters to them” job out there – but I’m in my mid-30s, and it’s really hard to know what that’s going to look like in 20 years, or even 10.

    My own theory – and this should maybe become a post sometime soon – is that we’ve had a rapid rate of change over the last 5-10 years, but we’re pretty much hitting limits of what people can meaningfully learn/communicate/whatever in a given amount of time, and I don’t think the rate of change is going to keep increasing in the way it has.

    My own suspicion is that we’re going to see a period of “how do we do this more sustainably” (in terms of a range of things – cost, accessibility, usability and design) but really, who knows.

    The part I’m really passionate about is connecting people with information that makes their lives better – and I’m perfectly happy to keep at this job for a long time, as long as that continues to be true (and provided some basic things are true about salary and benefits and all of that practical stuff.)

    But I also know that communities change, and budgets definitely change. So I’m glad that my job actually includes “keep up to date with a wide range of technology tools” so that if I ever do need to go looking again, I’ll be in a really good position to do so.

    (And as I’ve done since college, I intend to keep supplementing that with time on my own and in community volunteer positions that helps me build or practice skills I’m not currently using as much at work…)

    As to type of library: I love helping a wide range of people, and I love working collaboratively with other librarians or educators on a regular basis (it’s why I mostly wasn’t looking at special libraries).

    But I’m open to that being in an academic setting (which is probably my first love: my father was a university professor, so it’s been part of my life for my entire life) or in a public library, or in some kind of new technology format that no one’s quite invented yet.

    (If – well, when, probably – someone gets fully immersive virtual spaces going, I am so there.)

  • Sarah

    I hope you didn’t think I asked and ran! It’s been a crazy week, of course.

    You’ve said some really interesting things, and familiar ones. When I was trying to focus myself right after college I used one of those career development books that encouraged you to come up with a sentence describing your “point” – aka your “part I’m really passionate about.” Mine is/was “I teach people how to figure things out for themselves.” So it seems we’re both flexible enough to go where we’re needed in the next couple of decades!

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Hi, I’m Jen

Librarian, infovore, and general geek, likely to write comments about books, link collections, and other thoughts related to how we find, use, and take joy in information.

I'm the Information Technology Librarian at the University of Maine at Farmington, the small liberal arts college model campus in the University of Maine system.

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