Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Preliminary Thoughts from a Search Committee Member

Having spent the last few months on my very first academic librarian search committee at NCSU, I've found it has been an invaluable experience seeing the application and decision-making process from the inside. Some of my previous ideas were confirmed. Some things I hadn't thought about overmuch came up. All in all, it has been a great experience (and one that's not over yet!).

Some things I'd like to share with those on the job hunt, or considering it, from my perspective as a committee member. Of course, my opinions are mine alone, and don't represent those of my employer, my friends, colleagues, coworkers, staff, management, or anyone else on the planet. I hope someone finds these items helpful:

1.We do not believe you have attention to detail when you have spelling and grammatical errors.

Nope. This one's too easy, and there is ZERO excuse for it, especially when you can share your app letters with friends via Google Docs and ask for editing advice. It may be mean, but the committee works hard and appreciates the levity of your “pubic” library experience, but it tarnishes even the most qualified of candidates. Is that fair? Maybe not. But think about this: you'll be emailing students, faculty, library staff in other departments and administration. You'll likely be developing text for services, policies and procedures, library signage, and the intranet or public web page. This is basic and ridiculous but I cannot reinforce enough how much this counts. The way you present yourself counts, whether in meatspace or textually. And if my first impression of you is going to be based on text, that text had better have as few errors as possible for me to want to bring you in. This advice appears on the NEWLIB list every so often, in speeches and advice by veteran librarians, in articles, in blogposts, and echoes throughout the hallowed halls of SLIS schools and email lists everywhere. PLEASE LISTEN.

Along with this, be careful of template letters for application batching. Committees get applications stating the applicant wants to work at (completely different) University in (completely different) capacity, or addressed to my good friend who works at a university a few states over with a job in a similar capacity. To the committee, it makes us feel like you're just saying “I love you” to get in our pants without knowing our names. *sniff* At least try to make us feel like we're the only ones. You can bring up your other offers when we make an offer and you're at the negotiation stage.

2.Do. Not. Waste. Our. Time. We are Very Important People with Work To Do.

Too many unqualified folks apply for jobs where they do not meet the “required” qualifications. If you do not meet the required qualifications for a posted position, I highly recommend you not apply. Particularly with state institutions, if you do not meet the minimum required qualifications, we cannot legally hire you. If the search dies due to no applicants, most times the position has to be re-posted with new qualifications listed. By applying, you bloat the applicant pool, we have to spend our time scouring your materials to try to find why you thought you were qualified, and this frustrates us mightily. You do not want me to associate your name with “time-wasting.” And it just may be the case that a position could open up later that you are qualified for. Don't tarnish your name. If you have any question at all about whether or not lacking a particular requirement puts you out of the pool, I'd so much rather you contact us and ask for clarification than put the effort into an application I have to shred.

A lot of folks will give you advice to apply and take the shot even if you're slightly interested but not really qualified. By applying for a librarian position that clearly states that it requires an ALA-accredited MLS when you don't have that qualification, you are wasting the search committee's valuable time. The committee has to comb through your letter of application and resume, figuring that you just didn't make it clear enough how you met the requirements. When we find that you have no master's degree at all, we get grumpy, as we couldn't ask you in even if we wanted to because you did not meet the specified minimum requirements. If you are a cataloging librarian applying for an IT position, back it up with a knowledge base. If you are a reference and instruction librarian applying for a head of tech services position, you better have some serious skills and experience in your arsenal for me to take you seriously. We have departments to run and work to do with too few resources, and we get crabby when you waste our time. So, please to not do that.

3.Make it clear how you are qualified.

Use your cover letter and the organization of your resume/CV to your advantage by highlighting the required and preferred qualifications of the position you're applying for. Don't make me try to fill in the gaps with my imagination. I have bucketloads and bucketloads of candidates to slog through to figure out who will be the best fit for my institution, and then I go to the committee meeting to give my opinion on applicants and hear everyone else's. I am going to appreciate those who make it a point to tailor their materials to make themselves look like the best candidate when we get into committee and start discussing you all. I'll never forget that in my first position as a librarian, the head of my department let me know that there were nearly 200 applicants for my position. That's a lot of applications to slog through. Many committees simply make a matrix of the required and preferred qualifications and use checkmarks – if you leave it unclear as to whether or not you meet a required qualification, you could be bumped out of the running. (This also falls under that pesky “ability to communicate clearly” requirement a lot of folks toss into descriptions now. Consider yourself warned.)

4.Make good judgments on who you decide to use as professional references.

Did you let these folks know ahead of time about that job you were applying for? Nothing like a phone call from out of the blue to let your current boss know you're on the job hunt. Did you speak to these folks and ask them if they'd be willing to give you a glowing recommendation that would make someone want to hire you? It's always horrible to make a reference call and get the “No, I would not ever hire that person again, or let them near my children or pets, and dear God don't subject your staff to this person” response. It takes all that “excellent judgment” you talk about in your cover letter and turns it to ash, really.

Inform people that you will be using them as references, its only polite. Actually, polite is asking them if you may use their name as a reference. Give them the chance to say no so that they dont give you a lukewarm yes. A lukewarm recommendation is nothing that thrills a committee, either. Doublechecking the professional reputations of your references isn't amiss, either, if you're not certain about them. The company you keep and the person you tie your professional reputation to is telling.

5.Don't be a PITA.

A committee is, by definition, made up of multiple people. In a search for an academic librarian, the folks usually come from across departments within the library, and occasionally across colleges. Arranging meetings that include folks with incredibly disparate schedules is a chore, but I'll tell you this: the committee wants to make a hire (if only so the folks can go back to doing non-committee work). They want the hire to be a good one, since they'll have to work beside this person for the foreseeable future (or until someone dies, in the case of tenure-track positions). You are not the only applicant. Emailing the HR representative or the head of the committee multiple times to check your status is inappropriate. Even if you are the most incredible thing they've ever seen, most academic libraries will require a list of at least two to three top candidates to be compiled before they set up interviews for everyone. Hang tight. If the search gets cancelled due to budget woes, we'll let you know. In the meantime, as my dad would say, “Cool your jets.” We're working on it.

In addition, “please,” “thank you,” and other politenesses are never amiss. The admin assistant or personnel librarian who arranged your travel deserves a hearty thank you for dealing with that. The folks who bring you water during your interview are doing so as a favor for your comfort. The people who show up to your open session or presentation are taking time out of their busy work schedule because they care about who is attempting to join their work team. We appreciate your time and flexibility – make it clear that you appreciate ours. (Ahem. If you are an ass, I will hear about it in candidate feedback forms. I'm just sayin'.)

6.Do not badmouth your place of work (even if it deserves it).

No matter how awful it is. Even if your supervisor is a demon and your director thinks that “intarwebs” is a kind of spider virus. Everyone has their horror story, and we'll love to hear it once you're here, but badmouthing your POW, coworkers, staff and supers makes you sound miserable and complainy. You want to put your best foot forward on the job hunt – make it sound more like you've given your POW all the awesome they could handle, and now you need some new space to increase your skills, practice new knowledge, anything...but not that your boss is slowly killing you through the nefarious use of paperwork.

7.Be enthusiastic.

I don't need for you to blow rainbows up my butt, but more than a two-sentence paragraph as your cover letter would be much appreciated. Demonstrate some enthusiasm in your application. Also, “I need a job” does not cut it. We all need jobs. Tell us why we need YOU. This probably seems commonsensical. It is incredible how many people miss this opportunity to demonstrate any sort of personality in the initial application. Take advantage of this chance to shine. Remember: we're only picking two or three to come see us in person. Make it clear that we should blow our plane ticket budget on you.

8.Make Me Take You Seriously.

Sending your application materials in comic sans is the best way for you to make me raise an eyebrow. It's great that your family lives here, but what skills do you bring to the posted position that should make my eyes gleam at the thought of getting you here? You can be creative, but be careful – there's a thin line between creative and redonkulous, and you want to be taken seriously as a professional. Comic sans is a no-no. Multiple exclamation points for no reason is a no-no. You can demonstrate your wicked karaoke-on-tequila after you're hired.

9.Be aware of your online presence.

I'll never forget in one interview, when one of the librarians picked me up from the airport he said, “I thought your hair would be longer.” You live in the wide world of Google, and your life is on display in your blog, Twitter, Friendfeed, any posts you make to others' blogs or ezine articles with an identifiable username, presentations and papers, and comments (both helpful and snarky) on various email lists. More than once on this blog I've noted that folks feel free to be themselves, occasionally to their own detriment. Beware of developing a reputation as a troll – you don't know who's lurking on those lists, and one of those folks might be on your search committee and have the power to sink your application.

I've been told more than once that this sort of advice is advocating self-censorship and stifles people. Um, in your professional life, there are certain things to stifle. Your desire to be pantsless. The language you use when you curse Oakland for losing their umptybillionth game against what should be an inferior team. And your snarky responses to fellow professionals or up-and-coming professionals in your field. Make sure your presence works for you and not against you. And if you're going to be obnoxiously opinionated (as I admit I occasionally am), know that this may cost you opportunities in the long run in the case that you ruffle some feathers and offend someone by telling people to keep their crying out of the office *grin * It's the price you pay for being yourself. Admit that it's a possibility and accept it, or be more careful of how you present yourself in the faceless, unforgiving Web.

10.Why here?

I know you need a job, we covered that. That's why you're applying. Do we do something your current POW doesn't? Why do you want to work here in particular? Have you attended presentations or read arrticles by folks you hope will be your colleagues? Give me a reason to think not just that you're awesome, but that there's a reason you want to work at my library in particular. Because I tell you what – I am not interested in having to be on another search committee in a year to hire you rreplacement unless it's because you're so awesome that you moved up in my organization.

(**A note here to apologize to the folks who hired me at my FPOW (and particularly to Mike Bell, my favorite gruff librarian with a heart of gold) – I really had planned on staying at UTC for decades, I swear I did. Ask my mom. My apologies for making you reconvene to hire my replacement! Cheeburgers on me next we see each other.)

Everyone has a stake in the new hire as an incoming member of the library community. There is so much interdepartmental work in libraries – no one is an island. As for myself, I discovered that as a member of the committee, I wanted to be sure we narrowed our search to the very best candidates for a number of reasons. First, this was a position not in my department, but in an area my department does quite a bit of business with. I was pleased to represent my department on the committee. I felt that the committee members' reputations were attached to the decisions we made during the search, and I was happy to see that everyone took it as seriously as I did while still having fun. I want my library to have the very best that is out there.

The process also impressed upon me just how faceless applicants are if they don't put much effort into their application materials. Those files (well, pieces of paper, since I'm a treekiller and printed all of them) were all I had to go on. My initial reaction after seeing the first few applicants was incredulity that I ever landed a job as just one more piece of black ink on paper a bunch of overworked folks had to agree on.

A big thank-you to all the search committees that have ever dealt with my materials. I appreciate your time and effort even more now that I've been on the flip side of the coin. It's not easy.


Tom said...

Being a veteran now of two search committees, I heartily agree with everything you say. One of the toughest things, it seems, for candidates is to address why they want this particular position at this particular institution. The best things candidates can do is to really tailor their cover letter to address specifics of the job and place.

I likewise have little tolerance for mistakes in letters and resumes.

MsInfo said...

I am currently adrift in post-grad looking-for-a-job land. Re: #5. So, is the old advice of being proactive and contacting the employer about the status of the search not the case? Can one safely inquire about hiring progress without being tagged as a bad apple? I know one does not want to badger the committee, but one also would like to know where they potentially stand.

Thank you for sharing this info.

Colleen said...

MsInfo - It's a good question, and there's likely no one right answer. I would be sure to pay attention to the date the job was posted - it's likely no one will be contacted for the first few weeks as the committee waits to get a suitable load of applications in. If you applied 4-6 weeks ago, it can't hurt to toss a short, polite email to the HR rep or head of the committee to ask about the status of the search. What I would warn against is constant phone calling or email tagging and becoming an annoyance. (Seems commonsense, but you wouldn't believe how many people do this.) Acting indignant about the wait isn't going to be a point in your favor - take it as given that academic searches take forever. (You may be pleasantly surprised by the speed of things, but better to go in with realistic explanations.) As long as you're not hounding folks, you're fine. I do, however, recommend contact by email - it demonstrates respect for the HR person's time (as opposed to demanding a right-now answer over the phone) and is easier to control your response and your impression since you have the ability to revise text, whereas it's difficult to take back an awkward conversation.