HLS/ACRLog: First Generation College Students and the Job Search with an MLIS

Today we welcome a post by Chloe Waryan as part of our collaboration with Hack Library School . Chloe Waryan is a MLIS candidate at the University of Iowa. She entered into the library field by way of urban public libraries, as a patron, a volunteer, and eventually an employee. She now works as a technical editor for an academic journal. Chloe’s professional interests include access, preservation, and outreach.

I am not sure if any time is “the best time” to choose to go to graduate school for library and information science, but 2016 was definitely an interesting choice. Growing up, I knew very few professionals with college degrees, so I was not prepared for the relative poverty that most graduate students live in today. Like many of my classmates, paying for library school is constantly on my mind, as it is the biggest purchase I’ve ever made. There is an immense privilege attached to going to college, yet it comes with an extreme price tag. Despite our oversharing culture, high tuition has become the new normal and it is hardly ever discussed. It’s a confusing time. Is it hypocritical for academics to complain about high tuition? Can students be against degree inflation while still being supportive of the education we are receiving? The hardest part of starting library school last year wasn’t the coursework or the final exams. It was attempting to wrestle with the value and the values of my soon-to-be-obtained MLIS.

 

We’ve all heard the phrase: “the college degree is becoming the new high school diploma!” This means that despite the high tuition, the college students today are not the elite. Students from all economic classes are awarded the great opportunity to attend college, with help from scholarships and loans. According to the 2010 study from the Department of Education, an estimated 50% of all college students currently enrolled are first generation college students (including myself), who are statistically at a greater risk for dropping out due to many factors, one being imposter syndrome.

 

Have you ever hesitated to apply for a job because you think you’re not qualified? That is imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome has the potential to follow students not only through their bachelor’s programs, but their graduate programs and job search.  According to many postings on the ALAJoblist, one must have an MLIS to become an academic librarian. Often time, a second master’s degree or Ph.D. is preferred. Amidst the ever-changing environment of higher education, we are no longer advocating towards lifelong learning as “a key to longer, healthier, more satisfying and productive lives,” (Education and Continuous Learning, ALA) but rather, pushing “lifelong learning to stay employed,” (Kim, 2). If degree inflation continues in this rate, a Ph.D. will be required to hold a librarian position. If that becomes the case, who will we be excluding?

 

I admire librarians who have decades of library experience but no college degree. When I graduate, they will still be far more experienced than I. They are the toughest, smartest, kindest professionals, and I consider them pioneers in their field. My hero librarians have gained their expertise by working in a professional environment, taking classes as non-degree seeking students, critically thinking on their own, and of course, through reading books. They do not see gaining a library job as an endgame, but rather as an opportunity to potentially learn what they were not afforded to learn in college. If they applied for another job either laterally or higher up, they would not get the position because of their lack of formal education. Potential employers would be missing out on their creativity, productivity, and entrepreneurial spirit. I have also known librarians who have Ph.D.s who have seem to forgotten the core values of librarianship. We are working with two different sets of standards: one set is formal education and one set is experience. Hiring committees should be able to reflect in their postings that both sets have merit. If anyone can compromise between two different sets of standards, a librarian can.

 

By putting a college degree on a pedestal, we exclude others who have chosen not to get or who are barred from getting the education with which we are privileged. If degree inflation continues, I predict that the LIS field will include those who feel comfortable in an academic setting, thus excluding the first generation college students currently enrolled in America (which, as a reminder, is half of everyone currently enrolled in college). Why are we not hiring people who accurately represent the demographics of our school? I will add that this is not necessarily all our fault, as much of this comes from administration and union restraints, from the competitive job market and from our fear-driven economy. The anxiety and fear we face as library professionals in America right now is overwhelming. We can only try to be more welcoming to those who offer unique perspectives.

 

To be clear, I do not think that the MLIS isn’t valuable. It is a huge accomplishment. Aside from luck, convenience and privilege, I work towards a master’s degree because I want a job that I enjoy, and I want to prepare myself for that job through a combination of schooling and work. However, I must admit that the thought of applying for a job as an academic library is incredibly intimidating. I have heard stories about the all-day interviews. I have been told to save a few thousand dollars to travel to interviews. I have also been told to brush up on my dining etiquette because the casual lunch “counts.” Even after overcoming the struggles of a first generation college student, I fear that I am unemployable. As academic librarians, you have a responsibility to your students and your applicants. It is your responsibility to show these new faces that they have unique perspectives needed in their respective fields, their institution is proud to be represented by them, continuing education is something to be admired and it is never a burden to ask for help. You also have a responsibility to yourself. Show that the journey doesn’t end with the completion of the degree. Welcome and learn from your coworkers. Despite the larger issues in America, patience and compassion towards everyone, no matter what socioeconomic background, can create a new era in which everyone will want to become librarians.

Thank you to ACRLog and Hack Library School for this opportunity.  

 

References:

 

Cardoza, Kavitha. “First-Generation College Students Are Not Succeeding in College, and

Money Isn’t the Problem.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 20 Jan. 2016, www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/01/20/first-generation-college-students-are-not-succeeding-in-college-and-money-isnt-the-problem/?utm_term=.d26f3ac65369.

 

“Education and Continuous Learning.” About ALA, American Library Association, 13 May 2013, www.ala.org/aboutala/missionhistory/keyactionareas/educationaction/educationcontinuing.

 

“Home.” First Generation Foundation, First Generation Foundation, 2013, www.firstgenerationfoundation.org/.

 

Kim, Bohyun. “Higher ‘Professional’ Ed, Lifelong Learning to Stay Employed, Quantified Self, and Libraries.” ACRLog, ACRL, 1 Apr. 2014, acrlog.org/2014/04/01/higher-professional-ed-lifelong-learning-to-stay-employed-quantified-self-and-libraries/.

HLS/ACRLog: Academic Librarianship: alt-ac and plan A, all in one

Today we welcome a post by Ian Harmon as part of our collaboration with Hack Library School . Ian Harmon is an MSLIS student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Graduate Assistant in the Scholarly Commons, the University Library’s digital scholarship center. Prior to entering library school, he earned a PhD in Philosophy at Illinois and taught philosophy at Rice University. Ian is interested in digital humanities and scholarly communication, specifically the ways in which technology impacts research and the dissemination of scholarship. He enjoys teaching, and hopes to work in an academic setting that will allow him to work directly with students and other researchers. Ian is also passionate about the role that libraries serve as central institutions of the public sphere and supporters of the common good.

 

The easy way to describe my pursuit of a career in academic librarianship would be as a Plan B. Nevertheless, I avoid describing it as such because the expression suggests that it’s my second choice, or that I’m settling for something less. This couldn’t be further from the truth. As I begin the second year of my LIS program, I’m more confident that I’m on the right path than I ever was while following my “Plan A.” And when I find myself thinking that I should have considered a career in libraries earlier on, I remind myself that, had I not taken my long path to librarianship, I might never have gotten on the path at all.

 

My Plan A was to be a philosophy professor. I became a philosophy major my sophomore year of college, after having taken a couple of electives in the field during my freshman year. As a 20 year old, I wasn’t concerned with things like making money, finding a job, or learning “practical skills.” Rather, I was interested in doing something I enjoyed, and I assumed that everything else would take care of itself. But even though I was a philosophy major for the majority of my college career, I never really thought about what I was going to do after graduation. By the time I was a senior, I supposed that I should probably go to graduate school (what else was I going to do with a philosophy degree?), and then become a professor.

 

I didn’t have a clue what I was doing as I applied to grad school, but I was fortunate enough to wind up at a strong MA program at the University of Wyoming. There, I really began to learn about philosophy the profession, as opposed to the field of study. While I wouldn’t admit it at the time, the more I learned about the philosophy profession, the less sure I felt that I was pursuing a path that would lead me to a career that I would enjoy. The warnings about the competitive nature of the field had been too abstract for me to take seriously as an undergrad. But things became more concrete during my Master’s, as I applied to PhD programs and received rejection after rejection.

 

Looking back, it stands out that I never once considered exploring other careers. I felt too far invested in philosophy to make a change, and the thought of doing so seemed like it would be an admission of failure. So I pushed on, completed my thesis and was eventually accepted to the PhD program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (where I am now an MSLIS student). It felt like I had made it past an important milestone, but this would only serve to foster the development of some major imposter syndrome as I began my new program. My insecurities aside, I continued to do well, and started to think that maybe I was doing the right thing after all. Moreover, I started thinking I would be one of the fortunate few who would actually get a tenure-track job after graduation.

 

Despite my success within the PhD program, the job market proved to be the nightmare that had always been promised to me. But as fate would have it, I was able to put off considerations of an alternative to philosophy for a bit longer, as in April of my final year I was offered a one year position in the Philosophy Department at Rice University. No, it wasn’t a tenure track job, but surely, I thought, it would serve as a great springboard for more permanent opportunities.

 

I enjoyed my time at Rice, but I began to feel a sense of isolation that I hadn’t encountered as a graduate student. Outside of my teaching duties, most of my work hours were spent alone in my office, or surrounded by strangers at a coffee shop. These experiences helped me to discover that what I enjoyed the most about academia was interacting with other people, whether through teaching or conversing with colleagues or fellow grad students.

 

Meanwhile I wasn’t having any luck on the tenure-track job market, and early in the Spring semester of my year in Houston I decided it was time to make a change. I started exploring alternative careers, but initially, I just needed some way to pay the bills. Unfortunately, nothing really jumped out at me. Libraries finally entered the picture when my aunt, a public librarian, suggested that I consider pursuing an MSLIS. The idea of working at a library appealed to me, but I was hesitant to go back to school, having spent less than a year of my adult life as a non-student. But my aunt had planted the seed of an idea in my head that would continue to grow.

 

After finishing the year at Rice, I moved back to Champaign, Illinois, where I had a support network of friends (and a fiancee who is now my wife), and began looking for work. I spent the summer as a meat clerk at a grocery store, when my mom mentioned a position she’d seen at the University Library that she thought I should apply for. This would prove to be the break I needed, as I was fortunate enough to land the job and become the Office Manager of the Scholarly Commons, the U of I Library’s digital scholarship center. Needless to say, I loved the job. I loved the collegiality throughout the library and the collaborative nature of the work. I loved the fact that I was learning new things everyday, and most importantly, that the main purpose of my job was to help other people.

 

Long story short, I’m finally on the career path that’s right for me. I have to admit that, at times, it feels like I wasted a lot of time during my short lived philosophy career. But ultimately, I have no regrets. I won’t be a philosophy professor, and that’s okay because I don’t want to be a philosophy professor. Contrary to what someone once told me, if I was offered such a job, I wouldn’t take it, because that’s not my Plan A.

 

Academic librarianship is my Plan A. It’s not what I thought my Plan A was for a long time, and it’s a lengthier plan that I realized. But it’s mine, and I stand by it.

We’re All Ears: Learning By Listening

This post has been co-authored by Maura Smale and Jen Jarson.

The context

Jen: I started a new job at a new institution about two and a half weeks ago after 11 years at my previous institution. This new institution is rather different than my former one. That was a residential, small liberal arts college. This is a small commuter campus that’s part of a huge system. My new job has more administrative responsibilities, too. I learned new things every day in my previous position, of course, but there is something quite different about the blank slate of coming in to a new institution and a new position. So much to learn, so much to do, and so little context or history to help light the way.

Maura: I’ve been a library faculty member at my college for 9 years, three of those as director of the library. But like Jen, right now I find myself in a period of settling in to something changed. I was out on a research sabbatical for six months–most of this calendar year–beginning in early February and returning to the library just last week. I’m in the same job and institution, though the day to day rhythm of my work is vastly different than it was a few weeks ago. As I’ve been settling back in (and trying to remember where I left things in the folders and drawers in my office) I’ve been struck by the similarities to starting a new job. I still have my institutional and historical context, but there’s lots for me to learn (and relearn), too.

What are (the right) questions to ask when you’re trying to (re)learn about a job/institution?

Maura: Since I got back I’ve been arranging meetings with my colleagues to catch up on last semester and their work, and sometimes feel like the questions I’ve asked are quite similar to those I asked when I first became Chief Librarian. What have you been working on? How’re your projects, research, and other work going? Have you hit any roadblocks? Is there any support I can offer? I’m grateful to all of my colleagues, especially my colleague who served as interim director when I was out, for keeping everything running in the Spring. But because nothing is ever truly static there were a few unexpected situations and opportunities that came up while I was away. Learning about those really is like having a new job (though in the same organizational context), especially coming up to speed on new projects in the library for this academic year that hadn’t yet appeared on the horizon before I left on leave.

Jen: I, too, am trying to meet with as many of my new colleagues as I can. For me, that includes library and non-library folks at my local campus, as well as folks in the libraries at other campuses. To prepare for each meeting, I take stock of my running list of questions and choose those that seem most relevant to that person or group. As I look over this list now, I recognize that the questions are a mix of specific (such as, what assessments of student learning outcomes have been done recently?) and open-ended (for example, tell me about your work and responsibilities, how do you think students perceive the library?, what could the library be doing to better meet students’ needs?). Both types of questions provide me with useful information and open avenues for exploration. While the nature or phrasing of some lines of inquiry are likely more productive than others, just showing a sincere interest in others’ goals and challenges and seeking opportunities for alignment and collaboration feels like an important part of what makes this kind of outreach fruitful.

What should we listen for when in meetings, either individually or with committees or teams, both inside and outside the library?

Maura: Listening is important–I’m always working to improve my listening skills (and I think it’s a lifelong process, at least for me). In coming back after sabbatical I’m reminding myself to listen as much as I can: in one on one meetings, in committees, in casual conversations. I’ve been spending some time walking around the library and campus to listen, too, though since our semester hasn’t begun yet it’s still fairly quiet. Typically in conversations we focus on the topic at hand, and I’m reminding myself to listen with both ears open. I’m trying to pay extra attention, not just to the specific task being discussed but to projects and processes in the library as a whole.

Jen: Like Maura, I’m trying to listen on a number of levels. I’m listening for actionable improvements and opportunities, whether in the here-and-now or in the near or distant future. I’m also listening to uncover further questions I should be asking, those that I haven’t yet been able to fathom. I’m listening to understand priorities and goals and challenges and how the library plays a role in supporting or addressing them. I’m listening to figure out how the many moving parts of this large organization fit together and how to navigate and communicate best within and across it. I’m trying to listen for what the other person is really saying, rather than only what I expect or assume they’re telling me. I’m listening for the moments and places where our interests intersect and where we can best collaborate to advance student learning.

What questions do you think are most important to ask when you start a new position or return after time away? What do you wish a new/returning colleague would ask you? What do you find most important to listen for? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Confessions on Owning and Honing Your Weaknesses

The month of June marks the ramp up to fiscal close in my neck of the library wood.  In the otherwise quiet summer of academia there is this corner of buzzing frenzy. Staff work though last minute orders, pay invoices, troubleshoot problems, answer questions about the various statuses of the cash flow, and pull and prepare data to estimate a new year’s allocations.  In my role, I mostly coordinate various inter-dependencies of the workflows and people that must align for these numbers to be properly reconciled. Thankfully for all I’m not responsible for the number-crunching.

You see, I’ve never had the intuitive ease with numbers accountants, or it seems an acquisitions librarian, is expected to have.  I prefer to visualize and think around things rather than operate in the linear calculus that numbers require.  My analytical mind loves to think about cause and effect, and even the many complex inversions and formulas that produce usable data and its visualization. But producing those inversions on the spot, even in simple arithmetic, doesn’t come easy for me.  It explains why I was always terrible at timed math tests, but loved algebra and geometry.  I struggle with sewing patterns that instruct from the inside out, but love cooking, where I can follow strict instructions and play with them to my taste.

When I worked in serials, calculations took on linguistic obscurity when it came to publication frequencies and title changes.  “Is twice a month semi-monthly or bi-monthly?” Does continues mean what a title it used to be? Or what it will be going forward?”

And to this day, when gardening,  “Do annuals mean I plant them every year, or that they come back every year?!”

What gets me in trouble in all of this is my strong preference to operate intuitively and efficiently. This means I am often impatient with the extra time it takes me to slowly think through cost comparisons and reports. I know that extra time is necessary for me, though, to make sure it is done right.  Understanding of my own strengths and weaknesses in this way allows me to recognize the need to rely on other tools, systems, and people.  Relying on the strengths of others is not an excuse to avoid your weaknesses. In fact, identifying and using your particular strengths can be a tool to overcome weaknesses, and it can mean talking about those vulnerabilities in more empowering ways.

This important skill is perhaps most practically applied in job interviews, where some variation of “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” is no doubt asked. The best interviewers do this using behavioral questioning or appreciative inquiry techniques, which often ask for examples that demonstrate direct personal experience with particular skill or trait.  My first ever job interview was as a senior in high school, and I had no previous work experience.  So I had to answer questions about what I find difficult when working with others using only my school experience.  Thinking of various show choirs and musicals, where I had to practice and perform with my ex-boyfriend (among other  characters), I answered:

“Sometimes I have a hard time separating my personal life from my work.”

*crickets chirping*

Surprise! I did not get the job.  Not knowing a lot about myself at 17, I failed to realize my strength as a performer was precisely the fact that I actually can and do work with others, even those with whom ‘it’s complicated’, probably better than the average person.   Even though inside it was a hormonally-charged tornado of difficult emotion, I could summon my inner Olivia Newton John and nail Grease’s  “You’re the One That I Want” number with a smile on my face. With each interview I got a little stronger at framing my skills.  When interviewing for a waitress position, in which I did have some experience, I shared my thoughts about an unreasonably disgruntled customer, but described how I worked foremost to best meet that customer’s need.

As I’ve learned more about how my own strengths help my weaknesses, I know I thrive in project management roles because there is a framework to breakdown milestones, tasks, and timelines.  I thrive on learning to use new tools because they help me be more efficient and accurate.  Perhaps most importantly, I rely the strengths of the people with whom I work.  What is painstaking for one person is often the effortless strength of another who is happy to be asked to contribute what they do best.  When dealing with numbers, as I must inevitably do in the day-to-day work of acquisitions and resource sharing, I strategize (a strength of mine) to build in the extra time to sit with, play with, and picture data (my analytic strength).  I am constantly using my learning strength not just to find new tools that can help me, but to know more about myself and others.  I also have an individual relational strength that allows me to know and connect with other people and the unique strengths they offer.

In my seventeenth year experiencing and third year overseeing the fiscal close, I’m putting my anxiety around the numbers in better perspective. I’ve come to see that working through vulnerabilities and getting help where you need it is not abnormal at all. It’s what a responsible adult person would do.

Please tell me your favorite job interview story!  What would you do over, if you could, from a position of strength?

 

 

“Just…why?”: Coming to terms with ambiguity, resilience, and acceptance

As a former electronic resources librarian, along with what I’ll call my own unique set of life experiences, I’ve found the practice of radical acceptance has served me well.  Acceptance as an ongoing practice is not optimism or permissiveness, but healthily recognizing how and when to let go, and knowing that acceptance is not the same as approval.  This practice comes in handy, especially in life’s lemon-giving moments. I’ve mentioned a few  from the technical side of library work in previous posts.  Certainly the current sociopolitical climate is not at a loss for examples of this either.

When these “Seriously?” moments occur in my job, I am reminded of another idea, comfort with ambiguity, which frequently appears as a desirable skill in job advertisements, along with its companion resilience.  Both have been on my mind since attending a recent ACRL presentation,  Resilience, Grit, and Other Lies: Academic Libraries and the Myth of Resiliency.  As ubiquitous as both ambiguity and resilience are in my field, this presentation reminded me how poorly defined, misunderstood, and problematic they are when idealized professionally.  So I was thinking about how to unpack this concept related to my own academic librarianship and how a personal practice of acceptance (without approval) might play a helpful role.

It seems in the everyday ambiguity, as well as ambivalent with the same root, often describe something squishier.  For example, ambivalent is often misused to describe someone who is passively undecided or not invested in a particular outcome, rather than actually feeling multiple different ways about a thing. Similarly, ambiguity is often synonymous with an amorphous state of confusion than specific set of circumstances that make a solution unclear.

While inexactness and its synonyms might reflect this murky spirit, isn’t ambiguity really only inexact because it can’t be just one thing?  The fact that it can still be exactly many things is what I find interesting and overlooked in the experience of ambiguity.  Recognizing the possibility of multiple interpretations as specific, distinct avenues for action is especially important for efficiency and service in e-resources management.

Here’s a very basic example working with and a technical problem solving of e-resource access, which I repeatedly encountered when working with publishers’ technical support:

Me: Hi, My name is [me] from [my institution]. We have a current subscription to [your journal] but we’re not able access content online.

Tech Support:  What’s your institution’s [subscriber number, IP address, and other details]?

Me: *gives details*

Tech Support:  OK, it should be working now.

And that was it.  No explanation, no assurance it would not happen again, no way to plan workflow to prevent this very regular disruption.  Good problem solvers who thrive on the details of the problems and the solutions will no doubt feel frustrated and confused by this.  But the situation is no more a mystery than it is comfortable.  There likely is an exact cause for this problem. It’s just the cause is likely multiplicitous, complex, and in most cases less important than the fact that the problem is now fixed. So we move on.  In responding to the given ambiguous situation, we must accept the priorities of the current moment rather than the past or future.  This mindfulness of the present moment is a key part of the practice of acceptance.

Change may the new normal, but comfortable with ambiguity?

I think these tendencies show up in e-resources librarianship in particular because positions of this type developed from those which focused on the exacting and predictable realm of attention to detail.  Certainly the evolution of libraries content and services necessitates characterizing those details as now really messy and inexact.  But position descriptions mistakenly place this ambiguity in the context of a personal quality when it is really a quality of the environment.  To use such a problematic word, and to prefer people who are comfortable in that state, doesn’t say anything about how people should actually respond in these situations.  Expecting comfort in ambiguity falsely sets people up to stay in that state longer than may be necessary.

And this is where the problem of resilience comes in.  As the ACRL presentation I mentioned notes, research shows resilience often normalizes oppression of marginalized groups.  Systemically, I wonder how resilience hinders innovation, preventing us from answering the question “what can we stop doing?”.


So since, as a colleague once reminded me, the privileged have to be uncomfortable to recognize oppression, it is useful to discard a preference for comfort in the face of ambiguity.  Resilience or grit may help us more than comfort, as long as it is focused in the direction of action.  It should not be the normal or preferred quality of an individual professionally.

The idea of resilience as oppression also reminded me of another “What fresh h*!! is this?” experience working as an elementary music teacher.  At one of the two inner-city schools I was assigned, the music room was the stage in the gym’s auditorium. A burlap-like stage curtain was the only barrier between my music classes and the screaming, sneaker-squeaking, ball-bouncing, whistle-blowing activity of PE.  I often preface my sharing of this experience with disbelief that this was a reality to describe – it seemed so obviously nonsensical and in need of a solution.  So, I once spent a week’s planning periods reworking the entire school schedule so that all teachers still got their planning period during elective classes, but in a way that PE and music didn’t overlap.  Working out those complexities was frustrating and certainly not comfortable.  At the same time, I was driven to resist normalizing the resilience expected of the situation.  I knew this was more than a personal preference of the [should-be librarian] music teacher than the institution was leading me to believe.  Before leaving this job, I don’t think I ever gave these alternatives to my principal, but succeeded in getting a new curtain for the stage. When I noted to the principal that the change didn’t block sound as I’d hoped, I’ll never forget her response.

“Why do you care, since you won’t be here any longer?”

On one hand her response demonstrated everything that’s wrong with institutional resiliency.  At the same time I can also see it as an honest statement of my own realm of control.  When work and life inevitably boil down to “Just…what? Why is this normal?”, a practice of acceptance means neither normalizing nor pursuing crazy to find resolution.

The circus has left town

Image CC BY 2.0 with attribution:  matthew_pennell “The circus has left town”

If there is a proactive path through ambiguity or resilience, then I believe the skill we’re really after is how to recognize, reassess, and negotiate our power to influence and control.  This requires a constant give and take of our experience of that control as anxiety or relief.  It means exactly both action and letting go and not necessarily having to choose between the two.  When requiring choice, it means knowing how not to wrestle very long in the choosing.