Keeping Yourself Sane While Job Hunting

As anyone who has spent time job hunting can tell you, the process has a nasty way of threatening to take over your life.  It’s easy to get wrapped up in searching for new leads, obsessively trying to make contact on LinkedIn and at networking events, feverishly churning out cover letters and resumes, and checking your phone and e-mail every ten minutes to see if you’ve gotten the all-important call back.

Important, of course, but it can also make your life miserable.  More importantly, the more you slip into panic mode, the more likely it is your work will suffer.  If you’re cranking out five cover letters and resumes a day, but they’re all mediocre, you’re not likely to make any progress in your search.

With that in mind, here are some tricks that helped me maintain my health and sanity while job hunting:

Organization

This is key.  First, whenever I found a job I was interested in applying to, I printed out the posting right away.  If there was absolutely no way to get to a printer, I would email myself with the heading “job posting” and print any such emails as soon as I got home.

Once the posting was printed out, I printed the due date at the top with a bright pink marker.  I then filed the post in a folder, organized in order by due date.  For jobs with no date listed, I assigned an arbitrary date of one week after I saw the posting.  Due dates were also entered into my day planner.

When it came time to work on an application, I took the top item out of the folder.  After perusing the institution’s website, I would staple any notes I had made to the position description.

Once an application was complete, the position description and notes went into a new folder (“completed applications), organized in alphabetical order by institution, easily accessible in case an interviewer came calling.

If I received an interview, phone or in person, I retrieved the posting and notes from the completed applications folder, along with a copy of the resume and cover letter from my computer, and put all of these things in their own folder, so they were all together and accessible when interview time came.

In addition to organizing your job search, make sure you’ve got the rest of your activities organized, as well.  This is especially important if you’re finishing up school.  Make sure your assignments are also entered in your planner.  If you don’t have a planner, start one for free using an online application like Google Calendar.  Schedule time to complete your reading, papers, presentations, group meetings, and anything else you need to fit into your life along with your job search.

Downtime

However hard it may be, you have to spend some time not focusing on school or your job search.  Both tend to demand attention and suck up a lot of your time, but not having some downtime to relax can be very detrimental.  There are any number of things you can do to spend some time away from work, school work, and your job search.  Read a good book.  Exercise.  Meditate.  Try a new restaurant with friends.  If you have a hobby such as knitting, scrapbooking, painting, etc., schedule some time for it.  Spend at least a few hours a week focusing on yourself and things you LIKE to do, rather than things you HAVE to do.

Someone to Talk To

Actually, I’d recommend two someones.  One should be a friend or colleague who has good grammar and writing skills and is willing to read and comment on cover letters and resumes.  Even when you write a new letter and resume for every application (which you should be doing), they all start to sound the same after a while, and when this happens, it becomes easier for the brain to miss corrections that need to be made, or to gloss over things as we proofread.  A fresh set of eyes is quite useful.  Pay the person with food or beer or an IOU, but find somebody who can give you honest feedback.

The second person should have nothing to do with your job search whatsoever.  This is the person who will listen to anything and be supportive – the person you go to when you need to bitch, or need a reassuring thought.  This might be a trusted friend, parent, or supportive partner.  It might be a professional counselor or therapist.  The point is that this is somebody who will listen when the going gets tough (which it almost certainly will).

Once you’ve figured out a basic method of organization for your search, you’re ready to begin searching in earnest.  Next week (or soon thereafter), we’ll cover my favorite sites to find job postings.

On Being a Librarian and “Loving Books”

Recently, another librarian’s blog post made the rounds.  She had a friend who was considering going to library school, and one of her reasons for doing so was that she loved books.  She also reported that many people had told her that’s a bad reason to go to library school, thus she was looking for additional feedback.  (And I’ve committed a cardinal sin of blogging here by not bookmarking the original post; now I can’t find it and can’t link to it.  If anyone remembers who wrote it and/or where to find it, shoot me a message in the comments and I’ll happily link it).

So, what is it about prospective library students who say they want to go to library school because they love books that makes us cringe so much?   After all, most of us love books too, right?  I haven’t actually ever met a librarian that hates books…

I think our reaction comes from a worry that these prospective students are approaching the profession with a framework that is incomplete or naive (and just to be clear, in no way do I mean that these prospective students are stupid – just that they haven’t fully thought through the situation yet).  It’s been a long time since being a librarian was just about books, if, indeed, it ever was just about books.  We know our profession is often misunderstood (how many times have you been asked, “Wow, you have to go to school for that?” or “Did you take a class in shushing people?”), and thus it shouldn’t come as a surprise that even some prospective librarians aren’t entirely sure what their future job entails.

The problem, as those of us on the inside know all too well, is that it’s hard to find a job in this field.  The number of qualified candidates far outstrips demand and the current economic situation has only made things worse.  We fear that the person who comes into librarianship just because they love books is never going to be able to clearly articulate other reasons why they became a librarian, and they’re going to rot on the job market because of it.

So, current and future LIS students, here are my thoughts on the subject.  There is no inherent shame in loving books.  We all do.  But that can’t, and shouldn’t, be your only reason for becoming a librarian, and it especially won’t fly when you find yourself at a job interview.  There needs to be more substance to your thought process than that.  So, if you’re still in the stage where you’re considering LIS programs, I would spend some time researching the profession before deciding if it’s really for you (and spending a ton of money on earning your degree).  Volunteer at a local library if you can.  Ask a local librarian or two if you can shadow them for a few days to get a better sense of the work they do.  If you’re already in library school and preparing to go on the job market soon, start thinking about how you’re going to answer the question “Why did you become a librarian?”  Because you almost certainly will be asked (I heard this question in all of my interviews at least once).

And before anyone asks me again, I became a librarian in a round-about sort of way.  I was pursuing doctoral-level education in another field, where I was also working as a teaching assistant.  I eventually came to the realization that I liked teaching more than I liked the daily grind of doing dissertation research.  And I liked helping other people (like my students) with their research more than I liked doing my own.  I loved helping them find that “a -ha” moment, where they learn something new, particularly when it was a skill, like a database search, that would help them through the rest of their school years, maybe even their lives.  I also love tinkering with technology – figuring out how things work and how people can use them in their lives and research.   And when I sat down to discuss all of this with my advisor, he said it sounded like I would be happier as a librarian.  He was right.  I still get to teach (without having to grade papers, which is just an added bonus), I get to feed my insatiable curiosity every day by assisting students and faculty with their research papers, which run the gamut from accounting to zoology, and, since I’m at a small school where I also serve as the educational technologist for the faculty, I get to tinker endlessly with new software and hardware everyday.  And yes, I love books, too.

A Year Before You Graduate…

I think the best piece job-search related advice I received during library school was to make sure I didn’t wait until the last minute to start compiling a resume and look at job ads.  In fact, Louise Robbins, Professor at UW-Madison, said at a workshop that you should start reading job ads and tweaking your resume as much as a year in advance of completing your library degree.

I found this to be important for several reasons.  First, by examining job ads a year before you go on the market, you can tell if the courses you’ve completed thus far are in line with what employers are looking for, and what you might still need to add to your grad school experience.  For example, I really didn’t want to take a cataloging class, but after seeing a number of ads for reference and/or instruction librarians that were blended positions requiring, at the least, some knowledge of cataloging principles, or in many more cases, reference and instruction jobs that also included cataloging duties, I realized that it wasn’t a class I could or should skip.   Job ads will also give you a sense of what level of technology skills various types of employers and libraries are looking for.

With a year left in school, you don’t need to be exhaustive and read every last job ad that comes out, but checking the Chronicle of Higher Education weekly for a month or surfing ALA JobLIST a few days a week is time well spent.  You can surf JobLIST for free, and you can probably find the Chronicle in your school’s library databases.  You can also probably find a hard copy in any number of offices around your campus.

The other thing you should start doing well in advance of graduating is compiling your resume and/or C.V. (Academic Librarian and Archivist-types: you’ll need both.  I’ll talk about the differences in a later post).   When I started library school, I had come straight from another graduate program, and I hadn’t updated my resume since I was looking for undergrad student work (think MS Word 98 layouts).  My C.V. was in slightly better shape, but it still needed some work.

Workshops and feedback are among the best ways to start tweaking your resume.  During my first semester at SLIS, I attended a resume workshop which was hosted by SLIS director Louise Robbins, Wisconsin Writing Center Director Brad Hughes, and a recent graduate of the program (whose name has unfortunately escaped me).   Louise handed out a great packet – recent graduates who had successfully gotten jobs – and she included the job listing, the cover letter, and the resume of the applicant, and she had one each for academic, public, school, and special libraries.  During her portion of the workshop, she talked through several of the points in each letter and resume, and what she did and didn’t like in each one.  If I remember correctly, the academic example belonged to Andy Burkhardt, and I liked the layout of Andy’s resume so much that I used it to inspire my own redesign.

If your library school is offering resume or C.V. workshops, by all means, attend them.  Workshops offered by your school’s career center are also valuable, if less discipline-specific.  Once you have a working resume or C.V., have it critiqued by a professional in the field who regularly reads resumes and actually hires people.  If your LIS program offers this opportunity as a workshop or consultation-based service, take advantage and sign up for an appointment.  If you aren’t able to have a face-to-face consultation with someone, consider the ALA New Members Round Table Resume Review Service. (You do need to be an NMRT member to use the service, dues are quite reasonable for students).

Getting a grip on job ads and the mountain of expectations they often contain, and starting to organize your resume in a way that highlights your ability to meet those expectations is not an overnight process, and getting a head start well in advance of graduation will save you from many a stressful headache as graduation draws near and the search goes into high gear.

Be Focused but Well-Rounded in Course Selection

Darcy brought up a great point in the comments yesterday about taking different kinds of classes, so I thought I would address that next.  While you’re still in library school, you want to have a plan, but also be well-rounded.  It sounds complicated, but it’s not, really.

Try to avoid selecting classes simply by taking what’s most convenient for your schedule.  Focus instead on building your resume.  I knew I wanted to be an academic librarian, so I tried to focus on classes that would be useful in that area. However, I took a broad view of what might be useful to an academic librarian.  For example, I took a class in readers advisory/adult reading interests, which was more geared towards public librarians, because I knew many academic libraries are adding leisure reading collections, and also because I knew it would be necessary to have basic skills in this area if I ended up with a public library position.

So, if you want to be a children’s librarian, focus on children and children’s literature classes, but take necessary preparations so that you can work in either a K-12 school or a public library.  If you’re interested in academic libraries, consider classes in things like adult leisure reading and government documents, which often comprise parts of the larger collection.  The point Darcy made in yesterday’s comments is also key – take a research methods or research-based course.  Even in a non-tenure track academic position, you may still be expected to publish occasionally, and even if you aren’t, understanding the way faculty and graduate students attack research questions will enable you to assist more thoroughly.  You might wish also to pursue publications anyway for a variety of reasons: career advancement, networking,  and sharing knowledge are just a few.  Learning professional-level research methodology in graduate school will go a long way in helping you achieve this goal.

Take at least one technology course.  Technology use is growing every day in libraries, and libraries are looking for employees who understand and can use emerging technologies.  Look for classes on XML, database management, or web design.

You’ll also need to be proficient with Microsoft Office applications and e-mail to a level where you can assist patrons with tasks such as writing a paper or resume, submitting a job application, and other such tasks.  Even in an academic setting where most of the students come from upper-middle class backgrounds and have used computers their whole lives, I spend a fair amount of each reference shift trouble-shooting computer problems and tutoring people on aspects of programs that they haven’t used before (such as how to add sound to a PowerPoint slide).  While you won’t get graduate credit for learning such skills, your school may offer discounted or free computer training for students, so take advantage of these programs while you’re in school!

Finally, I would recommend taking at least one class in each of the following areas: reference, instruction, and cataloging.  Very few librarians are in a situation where they work in only one of these areas and never encounter the others.  Even if you never do any cataloging in your position, having a basic understanding of what the cataloger does will help you with your own tasks immensely.

Library Work Experience

If you’re currently in library school, you’ve probably already discovered one of the profession’s dirty little secrets.  That promise that there would be plenty of jobs available soon?  That there are all of these aging librarians out there who are going to retire at any minute and leave plenty of jobs open for recent graduates?  Yeah, it’s all a myth.  The truth is there are far more librarians looking for work than there are jobs available.

At any given moment, there are roughly 200 positions listed on ALA’s JobLIST website.  There are 62 accredited library schools in the country, each graduating anywhere from 15-60 students per year.  You do the math.  Of course, half of the positions listed aren’t entry-level anyway, so that leaves even fewer positions for folks looking for a first job.  Certainly, JobLIST isn’t the only place you should be looking for listings, but you get the idea.

I don’t want to get too heavily into the debate of whether or not LIS programs are simply admitting too many students for now.  From their point of view, they have to admit students–students who pay tuition–in order to satisfy the demands of their parent institution.  Fewer paying students lessens the program’s worth in the eyes of bottom-line-focused administrators.  The problem is, fewer students would also mean a better job market for those that do make it through.  So don’t be too hard on your LIS program – they’re caught between a rock and hard place.

Instead, I’m going to focus on what you can do to improve your chances of landing a job by sharing some of the things that made me successful.

I’m going to start with the single most important item – library work experience.  By the time you graduate, you MUST have some library work experience on your resume.  The degree alone isn’t going to cut it – not with so many job seekers out there.  At minimum, you’ll have completed a practicum/field project/internship, etc. as part of your library degree, but you shouldn’t stop there.  Look for as many opportunities as possible to get involved in library work.

This may mean taking a low-paying/minimum-wage part-time position as a shelver or circulation worker to get your foot in the door.  If you already have a full-time job you can’t sacrifice while you are going to school, think about volunteering.  Plenty of libraries, both public and academic, rely on a steady stream of volunteers, particularly in these lean times, to keep things running smoothly.  If you’re wondering, I did both circ/shelving and volunteer work.  The point is, you need to set foot in a library and do some work there before you graduate.

Most of the applicants on the market will have at least some work experience in a library before they graduate.  If you don’t, you’ll be way behind from the start.

Keep in mind, particularly if you’re on a large university campus, that you likely won’t get a library job simply by firing resumes at the online student work website.  There are  too many students applying, and you’ll just get lost in the shuffle.  I tried this route during my first semester in library school and got nowhere.  During second semester, I walked up to the desk, asked who hired circulation workers, and asked to be introduced to that person.  Forty-five minutes later, after presenting my resume and having a brief interview, I had a job.  If you are persistent without being pushy, good things generally happen.