Wednesday, March 7, 2012

So you want to be an academic librarian?: Part II

Continuing my previous post on what it is really like becoming an academic librarian, today’s post will follow up on the job search process and take you up to the point of starting your first professional job.

As I reflected on my last post, I thought of more information that some of you may find valuable soon as you begin to explore the jobs that are currently out there.  I strongly suggest starting a preliminary job search now as you begin your time in SLIS.  Why?  Because it may help you narrow down a direction to take, and it will give you insight into how the market is faring.

I started library school at a very unfortunate time.  August 2008.  And while I see it as a blessing that I was living back with my parents and going to school, so having a steady income/job was not a necessity or even my prerogative at first, by the time I graduated a year later the job market had completely tanked.  In the fall of 2009 there were no jobs to even apply for, and the few jobs that appeared on the market often disappeared as hiring freezes went into effect at the start of 2010.  I had two phone interviews in early 2010 that both pulled the jobs after a hiring freeze around February.  I didn't have any more interviews and few jobs to even apply for until late summer.  So consider yourselves lucky in that the job market has improved, albeit slowly and not enough to account for the grossly high numbers of new librarians being pumped out of library schools nationwide, but at least today there are jobs being posted.

It will also help you become familiar with the types of positions, what is expected in them, and what qualifications are needed.  If you’re seeing an influx of jobs that are librarian/web developer, perhaps you should look into taking a programming class or web design class.  Again, you are in charge of how you can best market your skills and your experiences.  The right job is not just going to come to you.  This is an active job market, and if you’re not actively searching and actively improving you don’t stand a chance.  The status quo is over.

Librarian status:
One of the things that I immediately noticed when I started my job search was the vast array of classifications of librarians found in academia.  And I’m not saying that one is necessarily better than another.  However, there are some things you should understand and be aware of as you start looking.

Tenure-track faculty
Some large research libraries (Tier 1 schools are almost exclusively in this category – surprisingly, except Columbia!) classify their librarians as tenure-track faculty.  The major benefit of this is of course the safety net associated with tenure.  This is especially important if you are seeking a long-term position.

The caveat of tenure-track is that it almost universally requires a 2nd masters degree.  Thus, if you do not already have a 2nd masters either you are not qualified to apply for these jobs, or for some positions they will hire you at an Instructor level and you are required to obtain a subject masters within a certain number of years.

Basically the allure of tenure-track is having equal rank as instructional faculty, where you are designated as “professor” and have the rights and privileges that go with that.   The downfall is that, while not as intense as departmental faculty, there is an extent of “publish-or-perish”, in that there is a much stricter criteria and set of accomplishments that you must reach before you can gain tenure.

It is not uncommon in the upper echelon of schools to see job descriptions preferring candidates with PhDs in their respective field, on top of a MLIS.  This I found was especially prevalent in the hard sciences among the Ivy League institutions.

Non-tenure track faculty
The majority of research libraries will designate their librarians in this category.  They still have faculty-rank in terms of benefits (retirement, insurance, vacation), but they are not on tenure-track.  Some schools have their entire faculty on non-tenure track, whereas others have a combination.  If a job description does not list what the faculty is, most likely it will be non-tenure track faculty or some other similar connotation.

My position here is that of an “Officer of the Library”.  Basically Columbia has their professional-rank staff as “officers” – officers of administration, instruction (professors), research, and libraries.  And while my position does not involve tenure, it does include an analogous system of promotion.  I was hired as a Librarian I – i.e. junior rank faculty.  There is a system of promotion that goes from Librarian I to IV, where the final rank is very rare and involves significant involvement outside of the library world as well as within it.  During the hiring process they were looking to fill the position with either someone who would come in as a Librarian I or II, where a Librarian II would have had probably 1-3 years of professional experience.

Some academic institutions, especially those attempting to break collective bargaining on campus, hire librarians as professional staff.  And depending on the institution that can be anywhere from having equal benefits as faculty, to being a completely lower class of professional.  The major concern with this is when you do not have faculty status, it can be difficult to gain respect from the faculty with whom you are supposed to be supporting.  It’s a benefit of being a tenured librarian to be able to throw back to an arrogant professor that you too are a professor, equal to them, and thus deserve respect.

My opinion on these types of jobs are they can be used as a great stepping stone to gaining experience to land that better job in the future, but they are not necessarily the environment that will support you farther into your career.  Likely even if the basic benefits are the same, the more academic fringe benefits will be lacking…such as financial support to attend conferences and being active in the field of librarianship outside of your own institution.

Location, location, location:

I openly admit that this could have been what led me to having such a long drawn out job search.  18 months.  And with my qualifications, that seemed exceptionally long.  However, after an on-campus interview early on in the heart of the Midwest, I realized that I could never be happy in that environment.  I’m sorry, but a 4-hour round trip drive to the nearest shopping mall is NOT okay for me!  I needed to be in a bustling urban environment.  I also needed to have a support system in place – be it friends or family nearby, especially during the first transitional months.  And when push came to shove, I wanted to be in a location that I was going to be happy.  So with that criterion finally in place, I realized that I really should only be applying for jobs in the Northeast/Mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes regions…New York, Boston, Washington/Baltimore, Chicago, Philly, etc.

However, at the same time I came to accept early on that the chances of landing a job in Cleveland were slim-to-none.  If you’re a native NE Ohioan, I’m telling you, if you refuse to relocate, you will NOT get a job.  The market is just too bad and too over-saturated (with people also holding degrees from KSLIS - not a way to stand out needless to say!).  There are librarians with significant professional experience unemployed and fighting over the few hard to come by entry-level jobs.

Yes my decision did limit me in the jobs I could/would apply for.  And I suppose when I look back now I realize that I had the fiscal abilities to be picky…I had a job (and several more under the table), I was living at home paying minimal rent to my parents, and I was back on my parents insurance thanks to health care reform.  Not all of you do or will have such a luxury.  And if you do not this might be advice you will be better off ignoring.  But if you have the time to be picky, don’t settle for less than what you believe will make you happy.  I had learned from past experience that certain environments are not conducive for me to thrive.  And I make a point not to find myself in those environments again.

Some say you can handle anything for 2 years...though I think it's different if you are married with a family versus single.  And yes, it’s true that it’s significantly easier to get a job once you have a job.  But I’m young and to me wasting 2 of my best 20-something years lonely and unhappy was not what I signed up for.

I also had the qualifications to be picky.  I had two-dozen phone interviews and eight on-campus interviews.  I only applied for 40 jobs.  I knew that I was going to get a job, it was, as I realized later, all about that fit when it came to on-campus interviews.  Bottom line: if you are not even landing phone interviews, it’s time to stop being picky.

  But if you routinely get to the phone interview stage, you can probably afford to be a bit pickier.

This is an important thing I should have mentioned in my last post but I forgot.  The key to references is a) make sure they are going to say GOOD things about you!!!, and b) that they provide a well-rounded view of you as a person and a candidate.

The first point seems obvious, but I’ve heard stories and know of people who have asked a professor to write a letter of recommendation for them or act as a reference and either they do not write good recommendations, or they hesitate for one reason or another.  Most professors with some degree of ethics will turn down writing a recommendation for a student who they do not feel they can honestly support, however not all will.  Make sure that the people you are asking to be a reference actually know you/remember you and have a reason to say positive things about you.  The last thing you need is a reference that questions your skills or doesn’t know enough about you to speak highly of you.

The second point is less obvious, but equally important in my eyes.  I had 4 references that I used for my job search. One was a biology professor from college who I had for several classes, and was a TA for one of her labs.  She also was my pseudo-advisor, since my actual advisor had little time to actually advise his advisees.  Another was Miriam.  She was my one professor from KSLIS, and she was able to speak for me as a student in her classes, but also as someone who helped do some research for her on the side, and she got to know me as an individual.  My third was my boss from Massillon Public Library.  And my last reference was my mentor from my practicum at CWRU.  I attempted to cover as many bases of my professional personality as I could, showing my academic knowledge in two distinct fields and work ethic, but also my teaching skills, my research skills, and who I am as a person.  Finding references that see you in various roles is imperative to providing a search committee with a clear and well-rounded view of who you are.  If all of your references are professors from KSLIS, all they are going to be able to speak from is your academic knowledge in one area.

Sometimes references are contacted for letters of recommendation immediately after you apply.  Other times references are contacted for letters prior to initial or on-campus interviews.   

Sometimes they're not contacted at all.  But not matter when/if they are contacted you need to make sure they ADD something to your application and to your candidacy.  If they are only going to regurgitate your CV, that's not enough.  They need to be able to speak from personal experience.  This is why it's important to build networking contacts, get to know your professors, and do a practicum.  All of these things, all of these people, can and will make your reference list.  And if you are a more recent college graduate, having someone from your undergraduate program, can often broaden the spectrum of your talents.  For those who are coming up on college reunions, this probably isn't going to be beneficial.  But find prior employers who can speak for your work ethic and your attitude, etc.

The waiting game…again:
It just wouldn’t be an exciting job search if there weren’t another round of waiting!!  After your on-campus interview you will likely have been given a time-line as to when the search committee hopes to make a decision.  Whatever time they give you, double it.  If they say a week, it will be at least 2 weeks.  If they say two weeks, it will probably be more like 3-4 weeks.  This is just a fact of life in academia.  Once you’ve sent out your thank you notes, you’re done.  All you can do is sit back, bite your nails, and consume way too many pints of Ben & Jerry’s while you refuse to talk to anyone else on the phone for fear that they might call when you’re on the phone! (Or maybe that was just my job search….).  Either way, you’re probably a wreck by this point.  And I can’t tell you don’t be, because of course you will.

Depending on the school, there are various methods of carrying out their end of this final process.  Some schools contact references early on for letters of recommendation.  Most do not cold-call references early on.  However, if you are in the final 3 or 4 invited for on-campus interviews it’s possible that your references may be called.  Sometimes if there is disagreement in which candidate a committee wants to extend an offer to, if there are two viable contenders, the committee will contact both candidates references to try and put the odds in favor of one or the other candidate. I’ve found that most institutions, however, only call references when they have chosen their leading candidate.  So the references are just the final step to make sure you’re not a sociopath, etc.  Sometimes they will not let you know they are contacting references, so making sure that your references are keeping you informed can be helpful for your own sanity.  Other times they will contact you to inform you that you are the leading candidate and get permission to contact references.  The latter was how it went with my current job.  And while I sighed a huge sigh of relief, I wasn’t out of the clear yet.  I still didn’t have an informal, let alone a formal offer.

If you do not hear from a school for 6-8 weeks after your interview, it's likely that you are not being considered anymore.  It's your choice to contact them.  Perhaps there was a hold on the hiring.  It can possibly ease your mind.  I never was the one to put myself into a position to be shot down, so I typically erred on the side of not contacting.  Especially, because the likelihood of getting any constructive criticism/feedback on your interview is slim.  Most committees can't give you that information.  Or they choose not to.  This has just been my observation from people I know who have contacted institutions for feedback after they get the rejection letter.  In most cases, it wasn't you or anything you did.  It was just that the competition was so fierce, and the person they chose was more qualified, had more education, or something more political.  Like an internal candidate.

Things that can go bad:
It's not uncommon for institutions to throw out a search.  Sometimes none of the invited candidates were what they were looking for.  Other times there are budget issues that come into play when a decision goes to the upper administration.  I had two on-campus interviews that I know for sure they did not hire anyone.  In one case they informed me, and the job was reposted several months later - in this case the job description had been so poor that none of the candidates (myself included) likely realized what they actually wanted.  The second time around, someone was hired...interestingly enough it was a fellow KSLIS grad who got the job.  In the other case they did not inform me, and it took 8 months to get an automatic canned rejection letter from HR.  The job also was reposted.  I don't think anyone has been hired for this job, it just keeps getting posted and reposted.

Again, this is another reason why it's good to start perusing the job postings now.  You will notice things, red flags, warnings, that you may not be open to seeing when you're deep into the job search.  A major red flag would be an institution that seems to constantly be hiring for the same/similar positions.  Why?  Because it likely means there is high turnover.  High turnover is a sign of discontent.  Other times you will notice the same job always posted but never filled.  This can be a sign that that institution is just putting feelers out and has no intention of really hiring.

The offer:

In academia, there is typically an informal offer where the head of the committee, an administrator, or sometimes the dean will call you and tell you that they wish to extend an offer to you.  This may be where they first inform you of a salary.  If it is over the phone it’s still up for negotiation.  Do not feel pressured to respond right away unless you want to.  Asking for 24-48 hours to think about it is not unreasonable.  This is especially important if you have another interview in the wings or are waiting to hear back about another job.

Having an informal offer in your hand though, gives you significant bargaining power if there is another job that you would like more.  Calling the other institution, informing them that you have received an offer but that they are your top choice can expedite a search on that other institution’s end.  Some will respond, go ahead and take that offer.  This is usually a nice way of saying you’re out of the running already and are not being considered anymore.  I’ve heard stories of people being offered a job on the spot from the other institution, but don’t expect that.  What this does is several things.  It forces them, if you are still in contention, to make a decision.  And it also gives you an edge.  It’s like playing hard to get, there is something attractive about a candidate that they might lose.  All of the sudden they start thinking, well if that school wanted this person, perhaps we do too!  And I’ve even heard of playing with fire if you know that the two schools are rivals, that name-dropping can be effective.  One thing a department doesn't want is for their rival to get someone they could have had...sometimes even if you weren't their top candidate, there's something ultimately thrilling about stealing!  Though I don’t necessarily advocate this, especially as a newly minted librarian.  This is a common tactic in academic departments and with tenured faculty.  It’s not a game for someone new to be playing.

Negotiating a salary.  This is probably the scariest part of the job offer.  It’s imperative to do your homework and determine what the “going rate” is in that location for a librarian at your level.  If the school is falling far below this average, especially if it falls below standards of acceptable living, this may be a red flag.  If it’s average, my advice is to air on the side of caution when you negotiate.  While it might be a pain for them to go backtrack if you ask for a salary over what they initially offer, if you overshoot too much it might end up that way.  Often they will tell you during the interview what the salary range is and state that it’s not negotiable.  If they say this, they usually mean it, and unless there is an extremely serious concern with what the offer is, take it.

Once you’ve established a salary and an informal offer has been determined, you will get a formal offer in the mail that you have to sign.  This is essentially signing your contract.  Until this paper is signed you’re not scotch free.  There have been instances where an informal offer has been agreed and then something happens.  If you have another job offer, don't decline it until you have a FORMAL OFFER!!  Also, don't not apply/interview for other jobs.

Salaries, benefits, and more:
Salaries are a funny thing.  Well, not really, they’re a necessity, but the funny thing is they have absolutely no correlation to the local cost of living.  At least not in academia.  I joke that there’s actually an inverse correlation, but that’s not really the case either.  The thing is, salaries and benefits are a way for an institution to be competitive in the job market...that’s why there’s often a disclaimer on a job posting that says something to the extent of “we offer competitive salary and benefits”, blah blah blah.  If you want the truth of what that often means, it usually means the want the best candidate they can get for the least amount of money.  Which can put you as a recent graduate in a good position.  As a low ranking faculty member, your salary will be significantly less than someone with 3-5 times more experience.  But in this job market there are highly qualified applicants willing (even eager) to take a job that pays them less than they should be asking.

And there are multiple deciding factors in how a university competes.  Some of the most obvious are institutional affiliations (ironic how we judge the academics of an institution based on the NCAA conference they are in....), prestige or reputation, funding (both in research grants and endowments), and location.  These things are not an all-or-none.  An institution is going to play up their strengths and play down their weaknesses so that they can get the best financial deal possible for them, not necessarily for you.  A well-funded research institution in the middle of nowhere may be willing to allocate more budget towards salaries in an attempts to attract the best candidates to perhaps an undesirable locale.  Compare that to a well-funded research institution in the Northeast megapolis...since attracting desirable candidates to urban locations is not a chore, they can afford to drop those salary ranges significantly, and still have a phenomenal pool of candidates to choose from.

Here’s some numbers to explain what I mean.  The average salary in New York City for an academic/research librarian is approximately $64,000 (this is not a starting salary, trust me).  The average salary in Cleveland for the same position is $41,000 (again, not a starting salary).

However, if we were to compare salaries to cost of living, $64,000 in NYC is actually equivalent to just under $30,000 in Cleveland!  So the average salary in Cleveland is significantly higher when you take into account cost of living.  $41,000 in Cleveland is actually equivalent to a little over $88,000 in New York.

Basically, people want to live in New York City.  People will take a significantly lower comparative salary to live in New York City.  In Cleveland, that’s not going to happen.  In Cleveland, and even more obvious in more rural/midwestern parts of the country, institutions have to up their salaries to entice people to want to come to work there.  What it also means is that job searching in desirable locations can mean you might end up in a job that you can’t afford to live.  I found it common in New York for some institutions to only hire local candidates (or even interview!), because they understood that what they were looking to pay is not feasible for someone who isn’t already settled...and as I put it, married to a spouse with a good-paying job!!  I interviewed for a job in NYC that was going to pay a good $15,000 less than my current salary, with no housing benefits...I literally would have been living in a cardboard box, or sleeping on the subway!!

But salary isn’t the only thing that you need to negotiate when you get a job offer.  Sometimes certain fringe benefits also require you to either negotiate, or at least stand up for yourself.  One of these things could be relocation.  The trend I noticed is that, like salary, the more undesirable the location, the more likely they are to pay for things like relocation.  I was very lucky with my job, in that I qualified because of my rank and my prior location, for faculty housing.  And while they did not pay relocation, the benefit of living in faculty housing (with sliding-scale subsidized rent), has been huge.  I was actually able to afford my own studio apartment in a safe neighborhood (close to/on campus) in Manhattan on my salary - something that would have been impossible at market value!!  However, the thing is, even though I was told I qualified for it, I was the one who had to jump through all the hoops to even find out if there was anything available.  Had I not been pushy enough to contact a half a dozen different people and be given the run-around for several weeks, I would not have had this luxury.  

I really hope that this series is giving you all some food for thought on academic librarianship.  My last post in this series is going to be a more in-depth look at what your first job in academia might look like and how to handle that transition.

As always, please email me ( with questions.  I am more than eager to answer any questions or concerns you have, and give you advice as you continue on your grad school journey.

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