Thursday, March 1, 2012

So you want to be an academic librarian?

After talking to Dr. Kahn, and hearing about some of your discussion on my previous post about life as a new librarian, I thought I would add some more insight into academic libraries in particular.  I think that while most are you are at least vaguely familiar with the process of becoming a librarian in general (i.e. in a public library), many of the nuances of academia are often forgotten in library school and the reality of what that environment is like comes as a shock when you first step out into the job market and then again when you enter that first professional job.

I’m going to cover a few major points to take you from your time in library school, to the job search, to settling into your first job.

This is a tricky point, because the thing is, much of what you need to do to prepare for this career path has already been done (hopefully).  Let me spell this out as simply as possible.  Librarians are heavily dominated by three undergraduate degrees: English, Education, and History.  If you possess any of these degrees, you’re not unique…sorry to tell you that, but it’s true.  And you will inevitably have a very hard time finding a job in academia.  Why?  Because:
  1. Everyone else is going to have the same education as you,
  2. The number of subject librarians in these areas are small, therefore reiterating point (1) enormous numbers of people are qualified, and
  3. The competition for generalized academic librarians is outrageous.  
Think HUNDREDS of applicants, not dozens.  It’s not uncommon for even a subject specialist position to have 200-300 applicants.  A generalized [reference] librarian could have upwards of 500+ applicants.  This is where my “unique value contribution” from my previous post comes into play.

If you have a background in the hard sciences, social sciences, math, engineering, law, music, etc.…you have more power and have a better chance at getting a job as a subject specialist.

Either way, get as much experience as you can in libraries and try to tailor your past experiences to boost your credentials.  For example, as an undergrad I was a TA for several intro-level biology labs, so I had teaching experience (also helps that my parents are both retired elementary teachers so I grew up spending time helping in their classrooms).  I also worked in fast food, which is a crash course in customer service and multi-tasking!!  Not to mention my work in research.  I also am involved in using web 2.0 tools like blogs, and have experience coding HTML by hand and doing website design (if you have the opportunity to take the E-publishing course I strongly suggest it!!).

I will talk more about education (specifically the importance or necessity of having a 2nd or subject Masters degree) as it relates to things like tenure in my next post.

What is a CV and why is it different from a resume?
A resume is a short (1-2 page) description of your qualifications, such as your education, work experience, and skills.  A CV ("curriculum vitae") is a ridiculously lengthy document that literally spells out everything you have ever done in your academic career, including (but not limited to), education, relevant coursework from your graduate program, work experience, professional organization participation, published works (books, articles, anything and everything that you ever remotely authored or helped with), presentations and poster sessions, and more.  This is something that you definitely need to go and get advice in how to create.  Of course newly minted librarians will not have much in the academic world, but that is where you need to pump up your past experiences.

Another thing that is key to CVs is a summary statement.  NOT an objective.  Obviously your objective is to get a job – don’t dupe the institution by saying your objective is to get that exact job, they know you’re applying for many jobs.  What they really want to know is not that you want a job (duh), but rather why you are the best candidate for their job and why they should hire you and why they want to hire you.

The language used in a Summary Statement is unique.  For example, these are the first two paragraphs of the summary statement I used for my job search:
“Goal oriented and motivated library professional, with excellent researching skills. Demonstrated oral and written communication skills. Significant reference experience in both public and academic library settings. Extensive teaching experiences with a variety of ages and abilities. Practical experience designing instructional materials. Experience working with diverse socio-economic and ethnic groups. 
Experience performing bibliographic instruction for medical, dental, and nursing students and faculty. Significant experience in teaching undergraduate biology students. Interest and experience in emerging technologies, Web 2.0 tools, and social networking applications as they pertain to libraries.”
You can see it is not in complete sentences, but rather detailed and active in tense.  It's not a first person narrative.  It's a quick and dirty breakdown of your qualifications, your skills, and what you hope to do.  This is a great place to put those "keywords" from job descriptions so that the automated machines will pick out your application over someone else.  There are certain words and phrases that you want to use to highlight what skills and experience you have.  Words like "extensive", "excellent", "significant", "practical experience", "demonstrated", etc, all provide the reader an idea as to how competent you are in that skill set and in what context.

On finding and applying for jobs:
The KSLIS listserv posts jobs.  There are also many other LIS programs that have websites and blogs that post jobs.  My favorite was the UT iSchool’s JobWeb.  There are also many library job listservs out there, but many academic jobs fail to be listed on these lists.  The Chronicle of Higher Education has an extensive job database of academic jobs with auto-alerts.  There are other websites and databases for jobs in academia, like the Higher Education Recruitment Consortium (HERC), and  And lastly professional organizations, both national and local often have job banks.  Job aggregates like Indeed and Monster are also invaluable resources for finding jobs.  I had 3 indeed job alerts send to me daily, along with 2 from the Chronicle.  The other sites I checked at least weekly.

Academic jobs are often online applications, and some require you to fill out an application, attach your cover letter and CV, and submit and an automatic reply will be sent to your email saying they received your application.  Often this may be the only communication from that school you will receive.

Other times you will just email your CV and cover letter to the hiring manager.  In this case make sure that you direct your cover letter to that person.  Find their address and write a professional business letter with the address head.  I also would copy the body of the letter (everything but the address heads) and paste it into the email body.  I would also sometimes put a sentence at the beginning saying that my CV and cover letter are attached that would not be in the hard copy.   In this case you will usually receive personal confirmation that they received your application.

There are some institutions that are still old school and require paper/snail mail applications.  In this case you will usually receive a response in the mail from them stating they have received your application.

No matter how you apply, make sure your turn your documents into PDF files.  Not only is it more professional but also it eliminates any concerns that the receiving person/program might be unable to open or read your files.  It also makes sure that all formatting stays true.  I have noticed on my CV that sometimes when it is opened in another program as a .doc file or printed out it all of sudden changes and screws up the very delicate page balance.

The waiting game:
Rather than tormenting yourself, just assume you will not hear back from an institution.  And if you do it may be 6-8 months later with a canned automatic response saying they have completed the job search.  That way, if you are contacted for an initial interview it’s a pleasant surprise.  This is also a good piece of advice because you will go crazy otherwise.

Academia is not known for being an efficient machine.  You are dealing with an environment where they likely are creating a committee to decide who will be on the committee that will decide on this job.  And academics are not HR specialists.  Often they do not understand the delicate nature of what they are attempting to do.  Sometimes they even write horrible job descriptions that in no way actually describe what they want for the position.  They are also famous for changing the job description (internally) after the have posted it (externally), so you might be applying for a job that you think you’re qualified for but little do you know they’ve since change what they actually want and added a, b, and c to eliminate the brunt of the candidates or just because someone realized that there was some other duty they wanted to delegate off!  Also, you must remember, they have more important things to be doing than this job search.  It may be your top priority but it is not theirs.

The phone interview:
If you have been selected for a phone interview, you have made it through the worst of the screening process.  Every single candidate selected for a phone interview is qualified for the job.  What the phone interview is attempting to do is gauge if you are the same person in person as you are on paper, and what your motivations and personality are like.  They are going to most likely ask you questions about your experience, perhaps a scenario question or two, or questions specific to the job description to see if you really are capable of handling what there is to do.

The worst part about phone interviews is that you may be on a conference call with the entire search committee in a room.  You will hear rustling of papers, coughing, whispering, and more-often-than-not, confusion on their end.  Again, these are not HR specialists.  This is not their daily activity.  They are probably just as nervous and uncomfortable as you are.  Also, you can’t gauge their reactions to what you are saying.  For all you know they could be rolling their eyes, checking their emails, or sleeping.  Being concise but also giving enough information to be informative is imperative.  I am known to be long-winded (as if you couldn’t tell already!), but I made a conscious effort during phone interviews to simply answer the question and be done.  I found the hardest part was finishing the answer without it being awkward.  I don’t think I ever really mastered that.  I also had so many phone interviews during my job search that I found myself answering questions that hadn’t even been asked yet by accident!!

One thing I like to tell people about phone interviews is try as best you can to make a personal connection to each and every person on that call.  They will usually go around and introduce themselves.  After each introduction say a quick “hi ____” just so they know that you are acknowledging them as an individual.  It’s a great way make that personal touch in a very impersonal interaction.

And don’t forget to send thank you’s within 24-hours of the phone interview.  I typically send email thank you notes for phone interviews, sometimes even sending out a single one addressed to the head of the search committee with “& committee” and CC the other committee members.

As for how to address people…my rule of thumb always was if when you receive an email from them and they use your first name and their first name, feel comfortable addressing them by their first name.  If they stick to something more formal, you should follow suit.  The same goes for your thank you emails.

The on-campus interview: Is this a legal form of torture?
Ahh, academic interviews are not for the faint of heart.  If you get to this point, you are one of likely a very small pool of candidates (usually 3-4) they have invited to campus.

Be forewarned, they are long, grueling, and often feel like an attempt to break you down to the point where you will willingly divulge your deeper (nasty) side.  In most institutions the latter is not really the intent, but it never fails to feel this way as your exhaustion makes you say things that perhaps otherwise you would have kept you yourself.

I will give you some numbers to put this into perspective.  My shortest interview was 5 hours long.  My longest interview was 3 days long.  And I know you’re thinking, holy cow, what on earth could be asked in an interview of that length?!

Remember, academic interviews are not just with a single person (such as an HR representative or hiring manager).  The “search committee” is made up of usually between 5-10 staff members, often a mix of librarians from that institution/library, perhaps some paraprofessionals, and depending on the job, students and/or faculty from the school.  But there are also many other parts to an on-campus interview.

A piece of advice: Bring a water bottle with you.  Some institutions will offer you water, but don't expect it.  You will likely be talking for the next 5-8 hours.  Be prepared.  Also bring a box of Altoids or Tic Tacs, or some hard candy.  These are great to pop in your mouth on a quick restroom break and help you regain your voice and your composure.

Most on-campus interviews will include all of the following:
  1. Tour – depending on the institution it may just be a tour of the library.  Some places will give you a tour of the entire campus.  Regardless, wear comfortable shoes!  If you never wear high heels, don't decide to wear them to a job interview.  I had an interview where I swear I must have walked easily a mile around the sprawling midwestern college town campus.  My favorite trusty black pumps that I wore to every interview finally bit the dust while in NYC for my Columbia interview...if that didn't tell me that I was destined for this job I don't know what would!  Granted, since living in New York I have worn through both a pair of heels and a pair of riding boots...(subway grates are deadly!!).
  2. Panel interview with the search committee – they will go around in a circle and ask either canned questions from a list or questions they think of based on your CV/cover letter, which will be in front of every member.  This usually lasts about a hour, but I had one interview that consisted of TWO panel interviews, each a hour long.  Again, be concise, but answer the questions fully.  Use direct examples and anecdotes to illustrate your point.  Don't just say you have great customer service skills.  Tell them a story of how/why you have these skills.
  3. Presentation – a 15-30 minute presentation is inevitable in academic interviews.  The topic may be defined for you, or it may be something you can choose.  Some topics are very general and are meant to showcase your public speaking abilities.  Other topics are much more specific and ask you to teach them something.  Especially for positions that are instruction/teaching on top of reference, the latter is the norm.  Following the presentation is usually a Q&A session.  Sometimes this is just for your presentation.  At some institutions though, this Q&A is the time when many staff members who are not directly associated with the search are able to meet you and ask you questions.  I was asked during presentation Q&As everything from how I would react to specific situations to what was it like to study abroad in Australia for a year, on top of questions about my presentation.
  4. Lunch – you will likely be wined & dined (well maybe not the former) by at least several of the committee members, usually either at a campus restaurant or a local relatively upscale place.  Remember, they are trying to win you over just as much as you are trying to win them over!  And while the meal is meant to be a time to relax, DON’T!!  I’m not saying be on edge, but don’t get too comfortable.  And even if that meal is with someone who is not necessarily on the search committee, you can guarantee that they are being asked about what you said after.  This is a time that you can ask them questions and talk about yourself beyond your basic credentials. 
  5. Meeting with HR or some other administrative/higher-up person – this is where you may get some insight into benefits, salary, etc.
There may also be individual meetings with members of the search committee or staff, a social event (such as a coffee break meant for mingling), and more meals (dinner the night before and a drive/tour around town is common in the Midwest/college towns – less so in the Northeast megapolis, sometimes someone will meet you for breakfast before the interview as well).

Most institutions will cover air-fare/gas and hotel for candidates who come from out of town…usually there is a mileage cut-off to determine if you drive or fly.  This should be stated explicitly when they invite you for an on-campus interview.  I would be very wary personally if a school was not willing to pay for this.  Some institutions will also cover meals beyond the lunch provided (not all though), and most will cover transportation to-from the airport if you fly.  Again, find out what they cover and go from there.  And save EVERY receipt!!

Again, don't forget those thank you notes!  You will/should learn a time frame during the interview...if not ASK!  If they are planning on making a decision in the coming days, you must send an email immediately when you return home.  If it's going to be a couple weeks, I found it nice to send emails within 24-48 hours, and then also send a hand-written thank you note to the head of the committee.  This time it's important to send individual emails, to every person on the committee, and then if there was anyone else who was important in your interview - someone you had lunch with, or someone who picked you up from the airport, or just someone that you had a nice conversation with.  Bring up these personal details in the thank you notes.  It not only helps them recall these interactions, but it shows them that you appreciated what every they did or that you remembered what you talked about.  It shows them that you had a personal investment in that interview and in that individual interaction.

A few last things on the on-campus interview.

ASK QUESTIONS!!  Don’t ask dumb questions that a quick search can answer.  Do your homework.  Study their website and any other information you can learn about the library and the institution as a whole.  Read the campus and the library mission statement.  Find out what programs they offer.  And formulate 3-4 really GOOOOD questions.  I also had an arsenal of questions that were great for asking individuals and groups, such as “what do you like most about working here/living here?” and more.  Remember, you can learn so much just based on their responses.  I had a staff member respond to that first question with “vacation time”.  Now, I understood they were just happy that it was a school that gave ample vacation time to their faculty (heck, we all love that!!), but I read it as if that is the best part about working at this school is NOT working, what type of environment is this?!

And remember, if you have reached the point of being invited for an on-campus interview, you are in a very exclusive club.  Not only have you survived the initial weeding that 99% of candidates get knocked out from, but you made it through the phone interview and gave the committee a good enough impression of you that they wanted to bring you to campus.  At this point they know that you can do the job.  Every one of the candidates they brought to campus can DO THE JOB.  Now they want to find out not just who can do the job the BEST but who will be the best FIT.

The on-campus interview is all about fit.  Search committees are made up of human beings. And at least for entry-level positions they are made up of the direct co-workers for this position.  That means the bias and insecurities of that committee can come into play.  They are not going to hire the best candidate for the job if s/he is someone that they don’t like and can’t see themselves being friends with.  This is human nature.  So the key to on-campus interviews is to be likable.  Provide just enough personal information that they see you as a human being (not just a CV/candidate) and as someone whom they want to get to know and spend considerable time with.

A co-worker told me a few weeks ago or so about how much fun they had during my interview.  It was fun, more fun than I had ever had on an on-campus interview.  It was comfortable and personal and I felt like I really got to know everyone and them me.  There was actually a point during my presentation where the entire thing was derailed to discuss Harry Potter brought up by one of my now-colleagues!  At that point I knew I had found myself in a very special place...once of course I overcame my initial shock that we spent 5 minutes discussing Deathly Hallows during a presentation on using subject headings to search PubMed!

Now that I know I have completely overwhelmed you all, I will close this part of my discussion on academic libraries.  Later I will talk about more specifics, such as faculty status and tenure, teaching, and more on the daily life of academic librarianship.

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

Again, please shoot me an email ( and I'd be happy to answer any questions you may have!

1 comment:

  1. Lindsay,
    You have wonderful information here in your blog post. I couldn't have done a better job. And yours is current, where mine is so long ago to no longer matter.
    Thanks for all the insight into the job search and interview. And congrats on the job.