Library job hunt quirks: applying

Applying:

Many parts of the basic process are not that different from other jobs – you will want a well-polished resume (and if you’re going for academic positions, perhaps a CV, especially if you have publications, presentations, etc. to your name) and a great cover letter.

A variety of people willing to be references also helps – I picked who I listed for a particular application (when requested) based on the focus of the job, as one of my references was a longtime past manager, another was a teacher I’d done significant collaborative work with, one was a colleague with a strong technology background (and who could speak to mine in detail), one was someone I’d done a lot of diversity-related work with, and another was a past manager in a complex ongoing volunteer role.

But there are also some odd quirks.

Below are things I’ve been asked for (more than once!) by various jobs:

Transcripts of both my undergraduate and graduate coursework:
Generally, an unofficial one is fine for the application. I ordered mine, scanned them into my computer, and could attach them (or print them) when needed. You may need an official one, though (that means sealed by the institution) so you might want to order two copies, and keep one on hand rather than have to scramble to get one if you need it quickly.

Most schools have online ordering options now, but some require that you mail a money order still, and processing can take a week or two (unless you rush payment…)

Your transcript may have information (such as your social security number or date of birth) that a hiring institution is not allowed to see before your hire. If that’s the case, they’ll probably tell you to black out the relevant bits.

Letters of reference:
These are not unheard of in academic (and independent school) settings: basically, it’s a letter talking about your skills/experience to give some idea of your educational philosophy, approach, success in the classroom (stuff that can be hard to get from a cover letter or resume).

These were not terribly common requests (other than the independent school agency I worked with,  where I know the people who wrote those letters got occasional check-in calls), but I have seen a couple of other college and university jobs request them, and it’s unfair to the people you ask to have to scramble for them. If you think it might be relevant (ask people in that type of job!), get copies early.

Statement of educational philosophy (or something equivalent)
Basically, this is a chance to share how you feel about teaching, librarianship, technology, and related topics. Generally, shorter is better, within reason: a page or two is the length I’ve seen suggested. (250-400 words, depending on formatting.) I like mine best with a paragraph or two about why I really love libraries, technology, education, and the ways they mix, with a variety of examples and stories to illustrate.

Specific essays:
These were something I hadn’t seen in my previous round of job hunting (after I finished my Master’s in 2007) but did see quite frequently this time around. I suspect it has something to do with wanting to narrow down from 100+ applications to a more reasonable pool without doing lots of phone interviews.

That said, I think that essays can be sort of problematic. If they’re general, they don’t really help the employer narrow things down (other than on a really basic level similar to a cover letter). On the other hand, if they’re specific, they take a substantial amount of time to write. (Once I settled into it, I could do a really great cover letter in well under 45 minutes. Every essay I did took me at least 3 hours, and I am generally a fast and articulate writer. That’s because getting the tone and content right and concise took a while.)

My general take on essays is that I want there to be a sense of balance. I was very happy to do two for a job that requested them after the first round of applications were reviewed (to cut down from people who might be a potential fit to a reasonable number to phone interview). That job had also had a clear, thoughtful, and witty description, and included plenty of information about their hopes for the position. (And I plan to post one of those essays as a sample sometime soon.)

I balked at doing an essay for another job, though, because it was both a really weird topic (one of those questions where you know they’re looking for a specific answer, and want to see how you come up with it), and it was for a job where they’d been very vague (The description was something like 3 sentences, and it was unclear, for example, whether this was full time, part time, a MLIS required or not). I decided I had better things to do with my time than attempt to mindread, and went on to other applications.

Automated systems, and their antique cousin, the paper-based form:
Like many job hunters, I have developed a loathing for automated systems that is trumped only by my loathing for handwriting details about my job experience into insufficiently sized boxes on a town-required paper form. (That often asks some stuff that’s totally not relevant, and some information – like my social security number – that I’d prefer to wait on revealing until at least a phone interview has happened.)

I really do understand why many colleges and universities use automated systems – it’s the best way to manage a complex process with lots of requirements, and a desire to make sure things are done fairly. (I just gripe about the poor technology design, and the fact that I wish there was the equivalent of a Common App for job seekers that would auto-fill a variety of basic information about the job seeker so I didn’t have to enter it over and over and poke at the best formatting for that particular system.)

There is a solution to both of these, that doesn’t make it all the way better, but helps a lot: write up a summary document of all the stuff likely to be asked, in a format that’ll be easy to copy and paste from. That means supervisor and reference contact info, dates of each job, and a brief summary of major duties that hits the highlights (you might want both a very short version of 3-4 sentences, and a longer one of about 1000-1500 characters.)

Once you’ve done the complicated bits, you can now sit down, put on your favorite music/podcast/movie, and fill in the form with somewhat less annoyance because you’ve already laid out what you did three jobs ago in clear language and fewer than 1000 characters.

Schedule:

I aimed at sending out 5 applications each week, adjusting down if I had an interview or an application with unusual requirements (an essay, a presentation, etc.) I found that was a good balance between being able to do a very thorough application, but not feeling totally overwhelmed or burning out. (I’d sometimes do more applications to catch up as due dates approached).

This doesn’t seem like a lot of jobs – but realistically there were weeks when finding 5 in a fairly large geographic and library area-of-interest range just wasn’t happening, either. (I was ignoring anything part time, short term, or that required significant experience or skills I didn’t have. If I’d been looking completely nationally, there were more options, but for climate related reasons (Jens wilt in serious humidity and/or heat), I knew applying to most jobs in the southern US was probably not a good fit.

Likewise, library jobs can take a higher than average amount of time to prepare for. While a lot of skills in the field are transferable, few jobs are exactly alike, so you need to adjust the specific examples and topics in your cover letter and resume to fit the job you’re currently applying for. People in the field also really notice poor or careless research, poor attention to detail, or lack of awareness of community culture. And – as my actual responses suggest – hiring committees do respond to thoughtful, creative, interested (and interesting) letters that aren’t like everyone else’s.

I also found that doing more applications on a regular basis made it much easier for me to slip into frustration and discomfort, and that the quality of my work took a sharp nose dive any week I tried to do more than about 8. I made a deliberate decision that I’d rather do fewer applications, but do them better (and give myself time to sleep on them, come up with a creative new way to respond to a requirement, or polish a phrase).

And so I picked 5 as a good number to balance getting plenty out the door, without feeling overwhelmed. (It also turned out to be flexible: if I had a last minute interview come in, I could rearrange my calendar quickly without feeling like I had to panic to get things out.)

I also gave priority to applications where I’d learn something in the process of applying – even something as simple as a new way to explain why I love both libraries and technology. That helped keep me from getting bored, and it made sure that I was honestly interested and enthusiastic about each position I applied to.

I’d given myself until early August 2011 to keep looking for a job in the library field (in other words, one full academic-year hiring cycle), and after that was going to branch out into related fields (where I would also have done more working from a structured template and other things that would speed up my submission rate quite a bit.) If you’re desperate for work and income, obviously, adjust as needed but be aware you either need to be incredibly geographically flexible, or look at non-library jobs in a big way.

In between formal applications, I played around with a lot of other relevant skills, tried out new technologies, kept up with discussions in the field (my links of interest posts started as a way to both keep track of interesting stuff, and demonstrate to potential employers that I was up on conversations in the field. Besides, y’know, being fun and exciting.) WebJunction and other sites have free webinars that are a great way to do this, and there were usually a couple a month of interest.

I generally worked on applications or other direct tasks relating to finding a job 4 days a week (taking weekends off), and used the fifth day for a couple of errands and regular activities that were most easily done on a weekday. (In the rest of that day, I’d do other things that helped me grow in the profession – reading relevant books, websites, working on an online course, etc. but that weren’t directly related to ‘I will find a job now.’)

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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 Research Librarian at the Perkins School for the Blind

More about my job and a day in the life

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