Friday, January 10, 2014

Anatomy of a Mid-Career Library Job Hunt

As noted in my previous post, I will join the library folks at CSU Channel Islands as an instruction & reference librarian in July. Since I've been asked about the job search by various folks through DMs, PMs, and IMs, I thought I'd throw some information out into the internet for those who are interested. Feel free to ask questions in the comments, and I'll answer as I can. (I wasn't quite brave enough to Open Access Job Hunt while it was in-process.)

Let me preface all of this information with two things: (1) I was incredibly, incredibly lucky and I know it. This may not be what the job hunt looks like for everyone, I am relating my own experience. YMMV, and widely. (2) See (1).

What & Where

Between 7/15/13 and 9/24/13, during evenings and weekends, I submitted 46 job applications. All but four of those were for academic reference and/or instruction positions (those four were for 9-month teaching faculty positions in Education and LIS departments, known long-shots since I'm still ABD). All of the library positions I applied to noted significant instruction responsibilities, which (as noted in a previous post) is my professional interest; because of my advanced degrees and research experience and interests, I applied to a number of social science and humanities librarian positions in addition to general R&I slots.

Because my husband and I are pretty flexible in terms of where we are willing to live, those 46 applications spanned 23 states. There are a bare handful of states we refuse to live in, but we have friends and family scattered widely across the country and only the two dogs to worry about disrupting, so that helps. It also helps that Jed is currently working as a contractor, doing his doctorate from a distance, and can work/study from anywhere. I'm convinced that geographic flexibility was really the major factor in having so much luck on the job hunt - while Kentucky would be an easy first choice for us in terms of where we want to live, job postings for a mid-career instruction librarian there were few and far between.

Cover Letter Habits

I'm a little weird about my cover letters; mine tend to run longer than average. After a brief intro paragraph, I let the search committee know how I meet the required and preferred qualifications. I bullet-point and bold the text from the ad, and then try to briefly describe how I meet each bullet. This is a habit I've developed after serving on search committees where we worked from a rubric. If you meet a requirement, you get a range of points, if not, no points. I don't want the committee to have to guess whether I meet a stated requirement. Again, having served on many committees, things become a blur quickly. The folks who make it easy on committee members, through the two extremes of throwing themselves out of the pool or making an excellent case for their candidacy, are usually much appreciated.

I used my introductory paragraph to briefly note why I wanted to move from access services back into reference and instruction work - a move I knew might raise some folks' eyebrows. Might as well answer their un-asked questions outright, and let them know that I still heavily dabbled on the instruction side. I use the prose in answering the requirements to let some personality shine through.* My cover letters ranged from 2 to 3 pages; no one seems to have had an issue with the length of them, though I know some folks cringe at letters going over 2 pages. The letter should get the job done, in my opinion, and I have enough experience at this point that a one-page letter is rarely appropriate. I try valiantly to keep it to 2 and to let my CV deal with the details. I'm happy to share cover letters (both successful and not), so feel free to comment or email to ask.


Out of 46 applications, I was eventually rejected outright for 7 positions, with automated letters. These were mostly sent by email, though I did receive two by post.

I was offered 12 phone interviews and 5 Skype interviews** (these spanned 14 states). Two libraries skipped the phone interview stage entirely and offered me on-campus interviews out of the gate, which I thought was both bizarre and incredibly flattering, knowing how resource-intensive it is to bring in candidates. I was dumped (in a most friendly manner) by one place after the phone interview. Due to the timing of my offer, I ended up cancelling on 9 phone interviews.

I was offered 10 on-campus interviews***, and attended four. One I had to cancel due to an unexpected hospital stay. (Talk about worst interview experience ever - calling a search chair at 7am to report that I would not be on a plane since I was in the hospital and in unpretty condition now tops my list. Major hat-tip to those libraryfolk for being kind and understanding.) Five I canceled because of the in-hand offer that wouldn't hold long enough for me to make the scheduled visits.****

I received two incredibly attractive offers. One I turned down due to a downturn in my own health that would have complicated a fast move. I was lucky enough to receive another offer with a later start date at CSU Channel Islands.

An Aside: Actually Enjoying It

Aside from the stress of ERMEGERDINTARVIEW, I have to say that this job hunt was an incredible experience for a number of reasons.

First, the support I received from my colleagues and references who knew I was hunting was invaluable. I also have a secret cabal of fellow library ladies that I consider my mentors, and they were incredibly supportive.

Knowing that you made the top-three or-five list for a position is an incredible compliment. These places were all places I would have been happy to work, with good people and energetic students and faculty. Instead of spending time stressing out (because I was stressed over personal factors elsewhere in life), I decided to take an "I'm cool, you're cool, wouldn't it be cool if we were cool together?" approach. I had the luxury of being employed while looking for a position, which was part of it. The other part was that I've started at enough new library jobs at this point in my career that I want a semi-comfortable transition into new and exciting work, and a not-uptight workplace.

I had fun with the process (if not the airport travel), and asked questions I might have been too timid to ask as a n00brarian, such as "What are the library's weakest services and relationships as they relate to this position?" and "What is your honest assessment of the Library's relationship with its Provost/Academic Affairs Office/etc.?" Because I have more time under my belt, I have better answers for questions about both my successes and failures. (I've noticed the failure stories don't get really good until you're given some major responsibilities. Heh. Don't be afraid to fail big and learn from it - if nothing else, a search committee will remember that you were interesting.)

Another Aside: The Un-Secret Disability

I have what is considered an "acquired disability" with my rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis. The last time I interviewed, going on four years ago, I was not afflicted. This go-round, things were a bit different. My current library dean asked if I was planning to remove my previous blog post discussing my difficulties getting my health under control. I did not delete or hide the post. I felt that search committees should know what they were getting. I work damned hard. I am incredibly dedicated to my work and my faculty and students. I am interested and engaged. But occasionally I need some help. The committee may not be able to legally ask about it, but the information was out there for them to see, if they came across my blog. (This was against the express instructions of my mother, who wanted me to have the best chance possible at finding a new gig.) For all my in-person interviews, I used a cane, necessitated both by good sense (no sense in breaking a hip during a campus tour) and because traveling and being corralled through airports tends to be extra-hard on my joints, even on good days.

If I Could Award Prizes...

Prize for coolest interview set-up was easily won by a university that took its interdisciplinary and diversity mission seriously. Candidates for positions across the university are all brought in as a batch over two weekends, and the candidates interact with each other as well as with their home departments and faculty and staff from across the university. A little weird, but fun, and not at all cutthroat as one might expect. Another library candidate and I even struck up a friendly email exchange.

Prize for best attendance at a candidate presentation goes to a midwest university. Standing room only to hear a presentation about social science data? Incredible feeling as a candidate to see them care so much about who they hired.

Prizes to almost all the places I interviewed with for having faculty from outside the library represented on the search committees and throughout the interview days, for being warm and welcoming, and being forthcoming about both opportunities and challenges facing the library.


*Successful letters included such gems as, "While I wouldn’t boast that my Spanish is entirely fluent anymore, it is workable enough to get me around in Madrid and San Juan for a few weeks at a time, my Italian is passable enough for the folks in Rome to understand me, and both have helped me engage international students in Library programming on campus. (My French, on the other, hand, is terrible and generally draws sympathetic laughter from our Haitian students)", and "I have the passion for the subject, the experience working as a collaborator, liaison, and collection developer for subject faculty, and an unabashed love for the Oxford comma (which I’ve found is an excellent way to bond with English faculty)." I'm too far along in my career and in having had my real-self exposed to other libraryfolk to pretend that I don't come along with a bit of cheek. As a committee member, I always appreciated seeing a bit of personality coming through a cover letter. This can, of course, go horribly awry, but I don't want to work anywhere that the librarians would be offended and clutching their pearls if I referred to my "awesome library instruction voodoo."

**A note about phone interviews: I find them more, not less, grueling than in-person interviews, despite them being shorter in length. Having been on the search-committee-side of them, I know how easy is is for verbal tics, tone and energy level to influence committee member opinions, and how easily a thorough answer becomes perceived blathering. As the interviewee, I am always fully dressed in business casual, sitting at a desk or table in a room where I am the only occupant with a pen in my hand and a notepad with my own questions, items that I want to make sure to hit from my experience that match the position, and room for me to make notes about long questions coming from the committee. Skype interviews add the visual and technology aspects to interviewee stress. My advice to other interviewees: plan accordingly, ask friends to help you test your equipment and sound. And for the love of all that is holy, beg, plead or steal to get yourself a quiet solo space. I was on a (non-library) campus search committee where one candidate Skyped from his local Starbucks that he referred to as his office-away-from-office. It was loud, incredibly distracting, and created an immediate unflattering picture of the candidate's planning and common-sense skills.

***A few notes about on-campus interviews: Many (most, in my experience) academic libraries will bring in candidates the day before the interview, expecting the candidate to dine with the search committee that evening before the next day's all-out full-day interview. Some places will make all the travel arrangements, others will have the candidate make the arrangements and offer reimbursement. (Smaller places and community colleges may expect candidates to pay their way with no promise of reimbursement.) Make sure you are clear on the expectations - the person handling the arrangements will expect the question, and it is not at all rude to ask and clarify expectations to prevent expensive misunderstandings. Other things to consider when visiting: try to get it all into a carry-on; there's nothing sadder than a candidate whose luggage has been lost. (Truly, it happens. Ask Chadwick over at NCSU.) I recommend the Samsonite 18" - it fit easily beneath the seat in front of me even on the smallest propeller planes, was easy to maneuver even with a purse and cane, and it easily fit 2 sets of business clothes, a set of comfy travel clothes, 4 thick paperbacks, 1 set of shoes, and a 15" laptop with its cords. Make traveling as easy on yourself as possible. Bring comfortable shoes. I have never cared if a candidate wore ugly shoes (though I appreciate funky ones), but I have considered it poor planning if they were limping and/or barefooted with blisters at the end of the day. Finally, the daylong interview is intended to give both you and the institution as much information as possible within that daylong timeframe. You'll answer the same questions over and over - don't worry about it. People will joke about the interview being long and grueling - smile and keep your energy and humor up. The interview is as much a test of your stamina as it is a test of fit.

****About cancelling interviews: With attractive offers in-hand from places where I quickly felt a good fit, I debated attending some of those interviews just to see the other libraries in action (and because I had applied since I wanted to work there!). Decency got the better of me, and I called the search chairs as soon as I knew I wouldn't be able to wait on them to interview and make a decision. As the candidate, I stressed over whether the chairs would hate me for putting them out of a ton of effort (and in some cases, funds, when the plane tickets were already purchased). To a one, every single person I contacted to cancel (both phone and in-person interviews) was gracious. As the candidate, it gave me a panicky feeling -- I didn't want to come across as ungrateful, I had applied because I truly was interested in working with those folks, and I didn't want to burn any bridges. Now, as a search committee member and chair, I have had people cancel on interviews due to receiving other offers, and it is simply part of the process. Sometimes the timing isn't on the search committee's side. I never took it as a personal affront. I don't know why I was concerned that might be the case when the shoe was on the other foot, but I was relieved when they wished me well and thanked me for letting them know. Shout-out to libraryfolk, the polite professionals!


Anonymous said...

Congratulations on your new job. Thanks for writing such an informative and specific blog post.
Quick Question: How would you suggest breaking the news about your job search to a current employer, especially if you have no idea if/when you'll get an offer?

Colleen S. Harris-Keith said...

Thanks! I figured there are a lot of posts from the committee members' point of view, and the still-seeking, not many post-game autopsies.

Current employer qusetion - this is a tough one. I have a good relationship with my dean and coworkers; they've been aware I wanted to move back into instruction, so I let them know in the first few weeks.

Most places ask for your current supervisor's information in the application process, and I *always* assume that means they will contact that person, whether I list them as a reference or not. I figure giving that person a heads-up that I'm dabbling in the job pool avoids nasty surprises. Since no one knows if/when an offer will come, I like to give a friendly "I'm just looking" alert to my current super and any references. That way they don't feel ambushed if they get a call.