Getting a Foot in the Door

Chella Vaidyanathan is in her final semester in an LIS program and has some questions on her mind about opportunities for new professionals.

She writes “I already have two other Masters degrees in Modern Indian History and Modern European History, and I have completed two years of coursework in the Ph.D. program in History. As I was preparing for my comprehensive exams, I had an opportunity in the summer of 2004 to work as an archives intern in an academic library. This was a turning point for me because I realized that I enjoyed working in the library more than teaching. In 2005, I decided to change careers and pursue my MLS.” Now she is hearing that entry level positions are difficult to land, and wonders also whether she may be seen as “overqualified” for such jobs.

My take on this: if you’re willing to be flexible about location, aren’t too narrowly focused in your area of specialization, and if you have taken care to fold some practical, hands-on work into your LIS courses, you will be a strong candidate. Will librarians who have several years experience have an edge? Yes, but that isn’t the only thing we look at when reviewing candidates. One of them, at our library, is how passionate a teacher are you? – so if teaching is not your chosen career path, you probably would want to look elsewhere. (Reading the job announcement carefully is really important! You want to be sure it’s the right match for your interests and talents.)

Other factors that play a role are these:

  • Are your communication skills strong? The materials you submit are a writing sample. A poorly-written cover letter can push you right out of the pool.
  • Do you exhibit professional curiosity? It makes a difference, both in the submission you make for the job and in an interview. Having additional degrees is not a drawback, and in fact is a plus – unless somehow a candidate makes it clear that he or she views librarianship as practical but second-rate career choice.
  • Are you academically prepared? This isn’t just a matter of having a high GPA, but also the kinds of work you have done and how articulately you can talk about it.
  • Are you interested in and ready for this job? How well you turn your professional curiosity to the local situation demonstrates not only interest and preparation, but suggests your ability to analyze and respond to local community needs.
  • Finally, if you make the final cut the on-campus interview is crucial. We need librarians who can teach and who can be campus leaders (particularly because we have a somewhat unusual collegial management structure and only hire librarians who are interested in someday serving as department chair). It’s often during an on-campus interview that we learn how prepared, curious, and articulate candidates truly are.
  • All that said, landing that first job can be difficult. We’d be interested in hearing from recent graduates, old hands on search committees, and LIS faculty. What should our future librarians consider as they enter the job market? How can we, as a profession, provide entry points for new professionals?

    Author: Barbara Fister

    I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

    3 thoughts on “Getting a Foot in the Door”

    1. Often, it seems we advertise for entry-level positions but the candidates who end up on top of the pile are those who have some library experience. My advice: volunteer if you must, get some hands-on experience in a library environment. I work at a mid-sized academic library and we have hired new MLSs who previously had worked in a public library. If you are a library paraprofessional, get involved with your organization. Volunteer to work on committees, take a leadership role on those groups if you can. This type of initiative shows that you are willing to step out of your day-to-day job to understand more about the organization, what it does, how things work. Be aware of things happening in the organization beyond your little corner of the world. Also join your state, regional and/or national associations. Attend a conference or two if you can. Become active on their committees. All of these things will make your vita stand out.

    2. Ms. Fister and CharS,

      Thank you very much for the suggestions and advice. I chose this career due to my strong interest in academic librarianship. As far as teaching is concerned, I enjoy providing one-on-one as well as group instruction for both academic and non-academic users. At present, I have about 2&1/2 – 3 years of work experience gained as a result of graduate assistantships in various academic libraries. In my original message, I had intended to convey that I love teaching library-related workshops/classes more than teaching survey courses in history. I realize that I had not explained this point clearly. After reading your advice, I feel very encouraged now. Therefore, I have been applying to all the positions that match my interests and skills. I really appreciate your responses.

    3. In addition to what you stated, Barbara, LIS students and new grads really need to show an interest in and take some coursework in technology. Something beyond the required intro technology course many of us take. Web design, instructional technology–something that shows you can do something besides type a document in Word or Excel. I’m still astounded at some LIS students that I’ve met at the end of my program (almost a year ago) and recently who are taking too many interesting, but non-technological classes.

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