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Low Self-Esteem and the Academic Librarian. Maybe it is just me. It is probably just me.

Until I actually started writing my FYAL entry for January my plan was to write about academic interviews – how they are horrible (they kind of are!) but also what I like about them. However, I am really focusing on something else right now, still related to getting and keeping a faculty position: the curriculum vitae (vita or CV for short). It’s on my mind because I’m busy putting mine together. Honestly, it isn’t all that different from a traditional resume. Pretty much what you’d expect in academia – it is heavily focused on scholarly achievements rather than just work experience.

The most difficult part about writing mine is that it is giving me a bit of low self-esteem.

 

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In order to get a good feel for what is included in a vita I went snooping around on my colleague’s faculty webpages (note to self: I need to get my faculty profile on the website asap). And then I went back to the faculty directory of the University of Kentucky School of Library and Information Science to get a sense for what the CV of teaching faculty should look like. And I am humbled. My little vita is so…concise. So…well, lacking much beyond education and work experience. And if I’m honest, I actually feel pretty good about how my resume stacks up against other professional librarian’s resumes. I started working in libraries before attending grad school, did multiple internships while in grad school and then have been incredibly fortunate finding jobs that allow me to do what I love – which is to say, jobs working as a librarian. So my resume is pretty good, no employment gaps to explain or toxic workplaces to gloss over, plenty of experience to highlight since all of it applies to jobs in the library world which are the only jobs I’m interested in.

Turning my two-page and totally sufficient resume into a three-page and rather insufficient CV is giving me low self-esteem, though. Last September, just a couple of months after starting out at UNT, one of my colleagues scheduled a webinar on “Imposter Syndrome” that I attended. The full title was actually “Managing the Imposter Syndrome in Academia: How to Overcome Self-Doubt.” At the time, I was skeptical. ‘Why’, I thought to myself, ‘would there be enough self-doubt in academia to warrant a webinar?’ Academics are educated, respected, published…so why wouldn’t they be confident? ‘I am certainly feeling confident,’ I continued thinking to myself; ‘I’ve got this academia thing in that bag,’ I might have muttered.

Well, clearly that was before I knew how much I didn’t know. I have been gradually getting a better view of what is expected of academic librarians since then – the publishing, the outreach, the service, the presenting, the research, etc. Yes, it is challenging – but I am thrilled to be so challenged! I can do this! I still felt confident, not just of my ability to manage the workload and fulfill my job duties but to do so by working hard but not so hard that I forget how to enjoy my weekends.

Until now, until writing my first CV and comparing it to the CVs of other academic librarians made me suddenly realize that I am barely even out of the gate in this race. SO, while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I’m overwhelmingly intimidated I have to admit that I’ve wondered more than once in the past few days how I even got here in the first place. I mean…I’ve never been published in even one peer-reviewed journal…I attend conferences but never bothered to present at them…my vita is only two and half pages long for gods sake most of the CVs I’ve looked at are at least – at least ten pages long.

‘Oh, wow,’ I’ve thought to myself, ‘what if somebody notices that they hired a non-academic?’

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And suddenly it hit me – this is what people mean when they talk about Imposter Syndrome. This is a totally new feeling for me and I have to think it is a “syndrome” that is fairly common in academia, partly because I’ve never experienced this sense of being less-qualified-than-most before. But also because I never heard about the Imposter Syndrome in the public library, library vendor and school library communities that I worked in previously. So now my question is, how do I make this realization work for me instead of against me? I think just being aware of the phenomena is helpful – to know that this imposter syndrome thing is not uncommon, it is not “just me” and it isn’t even really about low self –esteem. Imposter syndrome can hold people back for years.

In my case it would probably tend to “hold me back” by making me work ten times as hard as I actually need to in order to succeed.

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Working too hard or working just to fulfill the perceived expectations of others results in missed opportunities, not to mention how it diminishes the enjoyment that you should be getting out of your work. So, success is, for me at least, about setting reasonable goals that meet or exceed expectations but are definitely attainable. No, I’m not going to publish 5 papers, present at 10 conferences and write a book chapter this year. But I can work toward doing what I need to do to attain those goals. I can write some reviews and present at 2 or 3 conferences. I can learn as much as possible about the research/publication process and look for opportunities.

Recognizing that I am a beginner is helpful. In some ways moving into an academic position is like starting over as a librarian, as one of my colleagues pointed recently. You might have 10 years or more of professional library experience but – here you are, on square one in the tenure process. And that’s okay; being a beginner has advantages. It is exciting and you have many paths open to you because you haven’t chosen a track yet. I have been reminding myself that I am fully capable of doing the things I need to do to achieve tenure (someday, some faraway day from now…), it’s just that I haven’t done them yet. I even looked at the dates on a few highly accomplished CVs to get a feel for a timeline and I noticed that many people started working in an academic library one or even more years before they starting adding significant scholarly achievements to their work history. Nobody comes into this with a 30 page CV, everybody starts exactly where I am – at the beginning.

Thoughts for 2014 MLIS Grads from a Newbie Librarian

At my college reunion last month, I watched an energetic crop of newly minted liberal arts graduates receive their diplomas from my east coast alma mater. The University of Washington operates on a quarter system and our students graduate in June, so now that I’m back at my post I get to watch the whole thing play out a second time for the seniors and graduate students of my acquaintance.

I know that when this cohort of graduates leaves the Information School at the University of Washington and information schools around the country, a handful will find a job that is a great fit, right out of school.  A few will never end up working as professional librarians. Most of those students, however, will take a middle path. They won’t find their dream job right away. They might make sacrifices in location, schedule, salary or job description. They will experience bewildering inconsistencies–like being turned down for a part time page position one week and offered a salaried job the next. They will be expected to take on additional unpaid work or expensive training in order to get a shot at the jobs they want.

It turns out, the post-graduate school job search and subsequent first few years of work are, like just about every aspect of adult life that I’ve experienced so far, about a hundred times more difficult than I imagined. As I’ve mentioned here before, I worked for a couple of years in an academic library job that I really enjoyed, but I had a crazy schedule and no professional status.  My current position is temporary and not tenure-track, so the learning curve is far from over for me.

I don't REALLY believe this sentiment...honest!
I don’t REALLY believe this sentiment…honest!

For example: at the moment, we are working on hiring next year’s crop of graduate student assistants in the Research Commons, and I have found that I can learn a lot from their poise and professionalism. The iSchool at UW admits great students, and it seems like every year the cohort gets savvier and more competitive, but I was still surprised by the level of scrutiny that we needed to apply to these students in order to choose between many qualified applicants. It freaked me out to realize that when I must pursue the next step in my career, that scrutiny will be turned in my direction.

There’s no doubt about it; the cost of a MLIS degree is high and the job market is uncertain. I don’t want to trivialize the very real challenges that new grads face, because it certainly seems that the stakes are higher for them than ever before. It’s very important to put some significant thought into how you are going to manage the financial aspects of your librarian endeavor, particularly if you might not be able to go directly into a well-paying job. These inevitabilities are frustrating, but even in my most cynical moments, I’ve never regretted my decision to get my MLIS. I love being able to tell people “I’m a librarian!” It’s a part of my identity now, and one that I’m unreasonably proud of. I have tons of loyalty and affection for the members of my MLIS cohort as well.  They are an awesome group of people, with whom I completed two years of challenging academic work. A little bit of magical thinking, or creative self-visualization, can help you get through the moments of doubt. When I’m feeling philosophical, or dire, I like to imagine that, even if there were no libraries left to run, I’d still be a librarian in the core of my being; that I’d be helping people find reliable sources of information in the post-apocalyptic wasteland, or telling half remembered novel plots around the campfire to a group of other zombie survivors. Heck yes!

From time to time, friends have asked me whether I think they should pursue an MLIS. That’s a really hard question to answer. It seems to me that the most successful information professionals are the ones that embody a series of paradoxes. It’s important, for example, to be very invested in your work and let your commitment show; but if you’re slavishly devoted, people will take advantage of that and you’ll end up burning out. You want to have compelling interests outside of your library work; but if a prospective employer senses that this is just a ‘day job’ and that you’d rather be doing something else, you probably won’t get hired. And, in my experience, the hardest part of forming my professional persona has been figuring out how much to diversify.  I greatly enjoy multiple (and sometimes competing) aspects of the library profession. I treated my graduate course schedule like an all-you-can-eat buffet, and when I graduated, I could see myself in several types of professional environments. A few years in the field have narrowed my focus somewhat, but I still feel conflicted between competing urges to specialize and diversify my librarian skillset. That conflict has tripped me up more often than not. So, I’m not sure how well I’m doing at embodying paradoxes. At this point, I’m just finally getting a handle on embodying myself, thanks very much!

So this is it…a work in progress. When you get it all figured out, let me know. I’ll see you around the campfire.

Professionalism–are we there yet?

Next week, I will travel to the other side of the county for my 10 year undergraduate college reunion. I’m excited and nervous about going back to my old college haunts. Part of the nervousness comes with the territory at any reunion: will I have met an acceptable number of life-milestones in order to not be shunned by my classmates? However, some angst is more specific to my situation. My undergraduate institution is an elite women’s college that employs a lot of rhetoric about preparing professional women to do important work in the world. Am I doing important work?  I would argue that yes, my work at the library plays a very important role in the life and health of the academic institution.  Ah, but am I a professional?  About that bit I am less sure.

It’s hard to believe that it has been 10 years since I was an undergraduate myself, and that I now serve and supervise undergrads as a professional academic librarian. Part of my management philosophy has always been to lead by example, and conversely, to work hard to follow the example of those whom I admire. But I also like to be genuine with others at work, and find areas of connection outside of the library. And I certainly don’t LOOK like the ‘professional’ that I imagined I might be at my age when I graduated from college ten years ago. (Real talk; I am currently wearing sneakers and wiping Toblerone crumbs from my desk.)

Jake the Dog looks on as a get some serious work done.
Jake the Dog looks on as I get some serious work done.

But as a new librarian, it can be difficult to ‘be professional’ because professionalism itself seems to be a moving target. Everyone I work with seems to hold themselves to different standards when it comes to how to dress for work, how much to share about one’s personal life, and how to conduct oneself on social media.

As usual, the internet can help. I’m a big fan of the Adulting Blog, which provides a host of humorous and useful aphorisms for those of us who are trying hard to behave like adults.  Numerous library blogs address these issues, and I particularly like the level of granularity that the I Need A Library Job Blog sometimes reaches…one recent post focused on the use of pronouns in thank you notes; specific but usefully so. And if, like me, you are part of or on the cusp of the millennial generation and have limited stores of self control when it comes to the internet, this list of tools at 99u can help you block offending sites and rediscover your focus.

Ultimately, I’m happy that I didn’t join a profession where I would be expected to wear a suit and heels, or never to talk about with coworkers about ‘that cute thing that my dog did yesterday.’  Likewise, it is probably to the good that library schools tend not to overemphasize workplace conduct…most of it is common-sense knowledge that is more effectively learned through communication backchannels from peers and advisors. But I believe that putting some thought into what kind of professional I want to be; actually articulating to myself my own professional standards and how I can do a better job of holding myself to them, is a good exercise for a new librarian.

On Being A Faculty

This clip from Spies Like Us is a great introduction to my topic for this post:

The line at the end – we’re not doctors – brings me back to my first post here in October where I touched on the idea of feeling a bit out of place with the wider faculty – something like a pretender. Still, being librarians in the wider academic community of campus is an important part of our roles.

Indeed, making use of these collegial connections is important to our success as members of the academic and library communities. My mentor and I attended a faculty lunch this past Friday where I knew several of the more senior faculty members there from across many colleges on campus. These connections not only give one an opportunity to be a representative for the library and share pertinent tools and services the library might provide to teaching faculty and students, but these connections can also foster cooperative research across the colleges. Beyond these immediate benefits, being more “plugged in” to the wider campus makes the librarians more visible in general, and keeps subject specialist librarians aware of current trends in research not only on the local campus, but within their wider respective disciplines.

Moreover, being a faculty – a whole faculty – creates a sense of community for all the involved parties – faculty, staff, students, and administration. This faculty community is responsible for the teaching and learning aspects of campus life, and so should come together not only to talk about the pedagogical aspects of that life, but also the scholarship aspects as well. Teaching faculty have many formal and informal opportunities to be a larger community, but librarians can be left out of this process if we don’t make sure we take part.

So my challenge to you, fellow academic librarians, is this: make an effort this week to be a bit more plugged in. Have lunch with someone on campus whose research you admire (an academic’s favorite conversation topic is their research). Reach out to someone in your discipline, or to another discipline entirely. Your effort will help the library be an even more integral part of campus and academic life. Perhaps a more immediate reward is being able to attend one of the most exciting events on campus: commencement. To my mind, commencement is a time of reflection and a time of beginnings. Being able to attend these as a member of the wider campus faculty is an honor, and a joy – to come together with one collective voice and express joy and pride in our graduates. It is with this collective faculty voice in mind that I want to close with this photo:

Commencement in the Greek Theater at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, 1933. Image from Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville
Commencement in the Greek Theater at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, 1933. Image credit: Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville.

Hurry up and Reflect! February’s Dynamic Duality

February, the shortest month of the year, has always seemed pretty rushed and hectic to me.  Holidays and observances like Superbowl Sunday (yay Seahawks!), Groundhog Day, Black History Month, Valentine’s Day and President’s Day jostle for our attention.  Students at my university are studying for midterms, and the Research Commons is starting to get busier and noisier at the quarter progresses.  We also have all of our largest public events of the quarter scheduled in in February; on the docket this month we have installments of our Scholars’ Studio and CoLAB programs, as well as a session in a popular speakers’ series.  A lot of people I know have February birthdays, including myself and my boss.  Oh…and I’m scheduled for jury duty next week, so there’s that.  Where’s a leap year when you need one?

Is it possible to find time for reflection in all of this chaos? At many institutions, February marks the mid-point in the academic year, so reflection is not only appropriate, but necessary. Since my position is not tenure-track, I don’t have codified avenues for evaluating and reviewing my performance so far this year.  But I can benefit from many of the tools that my tenure-eligible colleagues use.  Updating my CV, maintaining a file of thanks and kudos I have received, and beginning to plan conference proposals that illustrate my work so far, are important tasks that I need to make time and space for.

My earlier mention of Groundhog Day perhaps seems a bit silly and off-handed, but in fact, it provides an apt metaphor for my frame of mind the moment.  Our current rodent-based divination ceremony is often presumed to derive from other, more ancient festivals, like Imbolc, which celebrated the midway point between the winter solstice and spring equinox, and marked an occasion for reflection, scrying, and omen watching.  My aforementioned litany or February holidays can offer a series of fruitful starting points of small acts of contemplation; on the nature of community, on social justice, on bringing love and passion into our daily practices, on grounding oneself in the foundational values of our American institutions.

A typical February contradiction:  The view from my office is sunny and beautiful, but it's freakin' cold!
A typical February contradiction: The view from my office is sunny and beautiful, but it’s freakin’ cold!

On a more personal level, I feel grateful that I’ve settled in to my position now to the extent that my daily routines are becoming more natural and comfortable.  I know when the best times for me to arrive at and leave work are, and what times of day I am most productive.  I’ve figured out which yoga classes work best with my schedule.  Always at the back of my mind is the notion of bringing more contemplative practice into my daily work.

The time for learning the ropes of my position and department has more or less passed…it feels like the second half of my first year as a professional librarian will be a time for action.  The spectre of “imposter syndrome” is still strong… I don’t expect to ever fully rid myself of it, but I do now feel comfortable enough in my role to embrace the rare quiet moments at work as times for reflection and passivity, rather than panicking because I don’t have enough to do! I’m looking forward to the second half.