Wednesday, June 24, 2009

For job interviews, remember to prepare, prepare, and prepare

My three readers know that I usually don't like to discuss specifics about my places of employment. I will discuss things in general, but I keep specifics to a minimum, mostly for self-preservation purpose. Ok, it just avoids certain hassles. But this time I am posting as a public service announcement to any librarian (recent graduate or old hand) out there who may be applying for jobs and coming up for an interview (phone or campus). The main point I want to make is to be prepared. This old Boy Scout motto will serve you well when it comes to interviewing for a librarian position, or any other position for that matter.

As of this writing, we have an open position. We may have another one soon, but you did not hear that from me yet (you know, the whole you can't announce things outside of channels thing). We have done some phone interviews, and let us say that some of the candidates could have done a few things better. I can now say that I have been at both ends of the interviewing process. I was in the market not too long ago interviewing, and I have now been involved in phone and campus interviews. So, I have learned a thing or two, and I hope to share them with my three readers. Again, the main thing still boils down to preparation.

  • Candidates need to research the job. You need to read and understand the job description as provided in the advertisement. You need to address what is on the job description. If we ask you about what tools you may be using for acquisitions of library materials, we really do not want to hear about your use of Facebook (unless you belong to some group on FB that actually discusses acquisitions for instance, and I am stretching here). In other words, it is a specific question, don't turn it into some vague "I use 2.0 stuff" answer. It is an acquisitions position, we want to hear about your experience in that area. Not discussing it makes us wonder if you read the ad, or if you just applied because the job title said "librarian" in it.
  • A bit more on technology. If we put specific technology items in the job description, we expect candidates who are knowledgeable in X or Y technology or software. For example, if we ask about using and working with a link resolver and serials management tools, that is what we want to hear about. Not knowing what a link resolver is or what it does for that kind of position will pretty much guarantee you will not get farther than the phone interview.
  • You need to research the library. A library without a website is very rare. Most libraries, especially academic libraries, have a website. Look at it before you go into the interview. We don't expect you to know every nook and cranny of the website. We do expect that you took some time and effort to look over the website so you can talk about it intelligently. This would be especially applicable if we are hiring a webmaster, for instance. A question may be "what do you think we could improve on our site?" Or we could ask you for other ideas on the site. Therefore take the time to look at it.
  • You need to research the campus. Again, use the web for this and pull up the university's website. Take a look around. Often the sections about the campus and for prospective students or visitors give you some idea about the campus, location, etc. Don't go in with the mentality of working at a Research I campus if it is a small liberal arts school or a community college. Also, check to make sure if the job is tenure track or not. There are different expectations depending on whether the job is tenure line or not. You should know this going in. Ask someone there if you need to (though this is usually advertised on the job ad, which you should read closely).
  • If we ask you about supervisory experience, have some ready answers. And here is a friendly bit to my teacher brethren. If you taught in a classroom with 40 kids, you can sell that as supervisory experience. But you do have to make it relevant in terms of classroom management, conflict resolution, and other skills a manager would need. Supervisory experience in our profession is one of the hardest things to come across. Those positions rarely come open, and when they do they often hire an outsider who was already some kind of administrator instead of growing from within. It was part of the reason I left my previous position: to seek some supervisory experience, which I am getting now. But in the lack of it, there are ways to answer the question. You can speak also about how you have been in charge of specific projects or maybe how you lead a team. You have to start somewhere but have your answer ready.
  • You are likely to be asked a variant of the "where do you see yourself five years from now?" question. Personally, I dislike the question because, in a way, it can encourage people to lie. You are either thinking that you will use X job to get ahead to Y job down the road, which a hiring manager may not want to hear (no one really wants to hear you are planning on leaving in three years or so), or that you want to settle down to do a good job at what you do. That latter one could be my answer, but managers tend to think then you have no ambition. In the end though, conveying a sense of stability and a desire to learn and grow are the way to go. It has worked for me. But again, think of this ahead of time so you don't end up trying to wing it in the interview.
  • You are a librarian; act like one. The following is especially applicable if you are going to be an academic librarian. Read the library literature. Have a sense of what some of the trends in our profession are. By the way, it is more than just 2.0 talk. Then be able to talk about them intelligently. There are many tools to help you keep up. Use them. If you do not know the tools, or what to be reading, ask your peers. Heck, in a pinch, send me an e-mail, and I will be glad to help you. Just don't don't go to an interview where they may ask you something about the profession uninformed. And, for those coming out of library school, make sure you do read up too. If your classes or professors are not teaching you about this, take some initiative and act. It makes a poor impression on hiring committees when we ask you something basic about the profession, library technology, so on, and you appear not to know about it. It also makes a poor impression about your school for not teaching it to you. Actually, I am considering another post on "things library schools do not seem to be teaching" based on what we have recently seen while interviewing. Again, be prepared.
  • Do think for yourself. This is a bit personal. There are certain trends in our profession, and certain segments where if you do not toe the line, you get labeled as "not getting it." That works in the blogosphere (or at least they can get away with it), not so much in the workplaces. I can mention at least one place where I was asked about trends and 2.0 things, then asked to offer some specific critiques. In other words, they wanted to hear what I thought worked and what I thought did not work and why I thought that way. One of the best interviews I faced, and no, it was not asked at my current workplace. I mention it only to show that experiences can vary from place to place. It helped that I was prepared.
Let me see, a couple more things. When you are on the phone, try to have everything you need in front of you. Also if possible, find a quiet spot to do the interview. It will help you relax and stay calm as well as block outside distractions. When I would do a phone interview I learned to do the following:

  • Again, research everything. If you can have your personal computer in front of you, that is good. Keep it on, use tabs on the browser, and have open the campus page and the library page. If you have done any web work (created a website, a guide, etc.), have that open too (and you should have included that in your cover letter or resume as may be).
  • If you can't have the computer in front of you, make printouts of relevant stuff.
  • Have your vita or resume in front of you.
  • Have the cover letter you wrote in front of you. The hiring people will cite from it; you don't want to get caught having to answer to something you may or not remember that you wrote (or worse, mix up the one position with another one you are also applying for).
  • Have the job description in front of you. Make notes on it. One thing I do is to highlight all the relevant skills an employer wants, then relate them to my resume and cover letter. That way, when the interview gets rolling, you are ready to answer any questions they may throw at you. For example, if you are applying for a job as instruction librarian, you should be able to answer questions about teaching philosophy, skill with teaching technology, and experience working with students. These are things you can think about ahead of time. Again, preparation.
  • Stay calm. Do not panic. Taking a pause to think some answer over is ok. Asking for a question to be repeated is ok too. Phone interviews are awkward because you are not seeing people face to face. Speak clearly and listen closely.
  • Learn from the experience. Not all interviews will lead you to a job offer. Not all phone interviews get you to a campus visit and interview. Learn from the experience, reflect, then get ready for the next one. The interview process is a learning experience overall. You are trying to learn from them as they are from you. A rejection is not personal. It may be something as simple as you were not "a right fit" for the place (which can be a very subjective thing). Point is learn from any mistakes you make and get back on the hunt. Prepare better if necessary.
I hope these small and very humble thoughts will help someone out there. The market for jobs in our profession is extremely tight, no matter what the professional organization or library schools say to the contrary, and we can all use as much help as possible. To conclude, I have made some notes on job hunting and interview questions in my scratch pad Alchemical Thoughts. Feel free to jump over there and read some of it as well.

Good luck on your job searches.


The.Effing.Librarian said...

you can't get enough good job interview advice... I always tell people to be specific about skills and experience, like don't just say "Microsoft Office," say, "Word 2003," etc. Say, "change toner, submit repair orders and clear paper jams," not just "troubleshoot copiers." we use a point system and everything scores points... you can lose points, but only if you're dumb: "I'm certified in Microsoft Photoshop suite." (no, you're not.)

Angel, librarian and educator said...

Very true. If you use MS Publisher to make newsletters for instance, say so. And if possible, point to examples. Overall, I think some of it boils to "show, don't tell."

Best, and keep on blogging.

Phillip said...

Hi there. I'm pursuing my MLIS at San Jose State University, and just wanted to let you know that I have found your article to be extremely helpful. As a student it is often hard to come across that 'real world' experience. So, thanks for sharing your insights with us.


Angel, librarian and educator said...

Thank you for stopping by Phillip. Glad you found the article useful. Good luck with your program and your future job search.

Best, and keep on blogging.