Jennifer Jarson is the Information Literacy and Assessment Librarian and Social Sciences Subject Specialist at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA. Her research interests include information literacy and student learning pedagogy and assessment, as well as issues regarding communication, collaboration, and leadership. Jen was asked to reflect on the work environments she has experience with and advise students on what’s important to look for.
I remember the amount of time I devoted to the job hunt for my first professional library position. I spent hours and hours scouring online job sites, exploring college and university websites, and writing cover letters. It was like a job in and of itself. I had worked in enough internships and student positions by then to know that I was fairly committed to a future of reference and instruction in higher education, but I was open to any type of institution and geographically unbounded so I cast my net wide. I was thrilled to land my first professional job as a one-year sabbatical replacement at a large, private research university. When my term was up and the woman for whom I had been subbing was due to return, I found my next step at a small, private liberal arts college. I’ve been here since then, now halfway through my tenth year.
During that first job hunt, I thought, researched, and asked about all kinds of things: the responsibilities and expectations of the positions; the types of institutions, their reputations, and the security of their financial futures; and the natures of my prospective supervisors and colleagues. I gave a lot of thought to what it might mean to work at a large institution or a small one, at a research university or a liberal arts college or a community college, at a publicly funded school or a privately funded one. These are all important considerations, of course. The vision and mission of an institution impact its purpose and daily work. The size of an institution influences professional relationships, disciplinary and organizational boundaries, and collaboration. The funding, reputation, and accreditation status of an institution impact not only its present, but its future. Understanding these things matters when choosing to apply for or accept a position. Understanding these things impacts you once you’re in the job, too: your daily work life and your effectiveness. The thing I didn’t think about in that first job search was the potential for professional growth in a position and an institution–that is, the opportunity to learn new things and to experiment, to evolve and to progress. I have been rather fortunate to find such supportive and active institutions, colleagues, and supervisors that have helped me grow and learn. Lucky, in fact, since it’s something I took for granted and didn’t pay enough attention to at the time.
Growth happens in lots of different ways and means different things to different people or at different career stages. Growth might mean hierarchical advancement, more responsibility, or more money to some. Growth might mean openness to experimentation and permission to fail for others.
Every job has potential for growth, of course. We’re asked to do things we haven’t done before. The world around us changes and we change with it. And, in many ways, of course, a job and a place are what you make it. If you want to push your boundaries, develop your knowledge and skills, or advance, you can work to make it happen. Let’s be honest, though: not all jobs or places or colleagues are created equal. Organizational culture matters. (Check out some thoughts on organizational culture here and here.) It influences the behavior and attitudes of those around you–and your own, too.
How do you know, then, that an organization is living and growing? How do you know that you can live and grow there, too? You might be able to hear the tones of a growth-oriented mindset in the answer to any interview question, really. When you ask What will make someone successful in this position? or What are the library’s strategic plan and goals?, you might listen for themes of building, developing, learning, or changing in the responses. You might look to annual reports for evidence of evolution. You might take note of the number of times you hear Yes, and, rather than No, but. You might probe more directly, too, with questions like the following:
- How has this position evolved in the last year? Last five years? How do you think this position will evolve in the next five years?
- How often does the person in this position have the opportunity to collaborate with others? To work on initiatives and projects with library staff in other departments or units? With people outside the library?
- How much autonomy will the person in this position have to start initiatives, set goals, etc.?
- Will the person in this job wear many hats? Will the person in this job need to specialize in a particular area?
- Are there opportunities for advancement at this library? What are the possibilities for gaining experience at higher levels in the organization?
- What kind of support–both financial and philosophical–is there for participating in conferences, workshops, and other professional development opportunities? How is funding for professional development determined and allocated?
- Do library staff regularly attend professional development events? Do they present at such events?
- How are new staff mentored at this library?
- How do people learn new skills and try new ideas at this library?
What helps you gauge how an organization values growth? How can an organization best support your professional growth? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments…