A New Career

Please welcome our new First Year Academic Librarian Experience blogger Ian McCullough, Physical Sciences Librarian at the University of Akron.

Librarianship seems like a career that many come to later, after some career missteps or dead ends. My career path falls into this broad category as I’ve switched from a relatively promising career in lab management into my current role as physical sciences librarian for the University of Akron. In my last job I received frequent praise, backed up with financial compensation. Funding was as secure as it gets in biomedical research (i.e. not grant funded) and a big promotion was being discussed. My users treated me with respect and genuine warmth.

So why did I switch careers? Some mundane reasons contributed, like years of irritation at chemicals eating holes in my clothing. But at heart I wanted more intellectual freedom. I have faculty status here and will get to do research and
pursue my intellectual curiosity. I still get to train users, which was the best part of my previous career. But also, looking at the next thirty years or so, I just couldn’t see myself doing facilities management into my old age. I’d like to say it was a surprise that so many equipment and facilities issues have surfaced this first month. But I’ve worked in academia for nine years and realize infrastructure problems are a fact of life.

My library has leaks. We have a brick exterior with some old mortar that allows water in during driving rain and a few weeks ago Akron enjoyed a torrential downpour. Leaks appeared over the computers, above some journals, along my window, in the bathroom, and in the halls. From my coworkers, I found this was the worst round of leaks in recent memory. We set up buckets, later called the physical plant, and have some new tiles coming. But the bottom line is that fixing the exterior would be incredibly expensive and they (A mysterious cabal of upper administrators? You got me.) may or may not want to erect a new building. So in the near term, we will have leaks.

At my first staff meeting there was some discussion of the leaks, and my boss asked whether I would have come if I had known about the leaks beforehand. “Yes” I answered, because it didn’t change anything. I used to deal with maintenance issues in my last job — some things can be fixed, some cannot and it’s always about budget. Over the long term, leaks can be patched, mortar tuck-pointed, books replaced, and buckets dumped. But intellectual freedom is not something I could get with a work order.

Author: Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.

4 thoughts on “A New Career”

  1. For the record, some heartening progress has been made on our leaks since this was written.

  2. Nice post. I am a 2 Masters guy (Divinity and Ed…go figure) and have had many dead ends, both physically and intelelctually. I am working on the MLIS to have the trifecta, and hopefully land me an academic library job. I’m a high school librarian at the moment.

    I’m interested in any advice you have about what to look for, prospects, etc.

  3. Hi Bob,

    In my case, I had a long, strong suit in research science. The issue was library experience. I had to build a case with my written applications that I understood the field (not much of an issue) and that my current job and graduate practicum gave me the practical and theoretical skills to be an asset (much more of an issue). But I think this is a good way to approach the job search – you are building a case for why you are not just good, but the best choice for the position.
    One thing I would encourage you to do is apply to the best jobs you see in the field. The three institutions that offered a phone interview (all subsequently offered a visit) were well compensated, and had had a strong reputation either generally or for the field I would work with. Other colleges and universities that were a good fit geographically, but not as strong academically, didn’t respond. So my first advice would be aim high.
    Next, you may have to combat ageism. Experience is great, but you’ll want to keep up and be able to rapidly articulate how you keep up, with the field, especially if you are on the plus side of forty. Since your current user population is high school students, you should have an easy time explaining how you would assist undergraduates. Given your graduate school experience, you should also have no issues connecting with grad students.
    I’m a little embarrassed to type this, but make sure you read the job posting multiple times, research the institution, and then write your cover letter. My practicum adviser said it’s “shocking” how many job applicants send out straight boilerplate cover letters. I usually hit the same themes, but I spent a couple hours on every cover letter. Does the job posting ask for an energetic, enthusiastic applicant? Are you *actually* enthusiastic? If yes, does your cover letter express this? I was really excited about one job and when my wife read my cover letter she said it seemed flat, and she was right.
    As to what to look for, some jobs I didn’t apply for asked me to submit my official transcripts (this is a bush league to request before a phone interview) – I have degrees from four colleges, so this was effectively $75 application fee. I didn’t apply anywhere in the California public university system because they seem to have continual budget issues. I went to a school website in Nevada and their HR page had a red banner across the top saying any job could be terminated at any time – you cannot justify a cross-country move with those conditions. I avoided positions that looked like some administrative genius had combined two positions “subject librarian for (seven departments) and webmaster” for example. Finally, according to ACRL statistics (http://www.arl.org/bm~doc/tables2011-12.xls), only about 2.5% of university librarians make less than $42,000 a year. Value your experience and your education – otherwise you cannot expect anyone else to.
    Finally, keep an open mind. I didn’t know anything about Akron, or living in Northeast Ohio, before I saw the job posting (ALA Joblist fwiw) for my position. But when I researched the area, I warmed to the idea and it has been a wonderful move for my family and I. So don’t ignore a job posting which looks like a good professional fit because you are unfamiliar with the area, or the school.
    Hope this helps.

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