Things You Learn on Your First Interview

Summer 2015 I went on an interview for a position at a large, Midwestern university for work in the academic librarianship field. It started right before 8:00 a.m. and ended after 3:00 p.m. The 9:00 a.m. hour was reserved for the 20-minute talk I would give about the role of my potential position as it fit into the library’s broader mission. Needless to say, it was “rigorous.” Let me share some tips with you about what I learned in the process as not everything is immediately transparent.

1. Beware of the time zones.

Before being invited to interview on campus, I was involved in what I will call a “pre-selection,” preliminary, or “screening” interview. Typically these interviews are off-site and conducted by phone, through Skype, or via Zoom, an audio and visual platform. I was to be called at 4:00 p.m. In theory, this first round of questioning would earn me the opportunity to be called to the campus in question for the second round of interviews. Because I currently live in the Midwest and the university interviewing me was in the Midwest, I did not think twice about the two of us having different time zones. I realized just in the nick of time when I Googled and realized the interviewers were one hour ahead of me. Their 4:00 p.m. was my 3:00 p.m.! Not showing up for round one would have probably left a less than positive impression!

2. Have the monies.

You will likely need access to your own discretionary funds in order to get to and from the airport, to purchase food outside of the interview hours, and to pay for miscellaneous purchases, i.e. breakfast, coffee, tipping your taxi driver, etc. While these extra expenses are likely to be reimbursed, they must first “come out of pocket,” or, in other words, from your wallet. Therefore, do your best to plan ahead and hold on to your receipts. You may want to ask about the per diem allowance for food as well. That is, some institutions will set a rate of reimbursement. So, if you splurge for a $40 dinner in the airport en route home, know that maybe only half of it will be covered.

3. Job vs. employment

At the beginning of my on campus interview, my first meeting was with human resources. While I was mentally preparing for my 15-minute presentation that would follow, I was being told how many vacation days full-time employees are offered. I also had a meeting with representatives from Advancement, Tenure and Promotion who told me about the road to becoming a more permanent fixture at the university library. As a candidate straight out of LIS school, my thought was, “That’s nice, but let’s focus on getting hired.” Their thought may have been, “Let’s make the routes to growth as transparent as possible early on to set this candidate up for success.” These two meetings involved people talking more “at” me than “to” me, and, depending upon one’s stage in his or her career, the information they provided could be major selling points or non-negotiable deal breakers. In any case, you may ask yourself, “What is the purpose of this meeting here and now?” Try to determine the reasoning for these meetings beforehand which will help you to engage meaningfully.

4. Wear clothes that favor you. [TMI Warning Here]

It could be 15 degrees Farenheit outside and somehow I will still manage to have sweat stains. I can be cool, calm, and collected and still have sweat stains. So, it probably was not the best idea for me to wear a fuchsia-toned, rayon and spandex blouse during the interview. Because interviews are about putting your best foot forward, try to wear clothing that will help to present you in your best (and driest) light. (Since then I have invested in Certain Dri’s roll-on. It blocks your pores from sweating and may not be appropriate for everyone, so do your research.)

5. Answering vs. responding

While I was being asked questions after my presentation, I found myself answering questions but not responding to them. I did not realize that the people asking the questions were looking for developed replies, narrations, theoretical approaches to library and information science challenges and most of all conversations and dialogues. For example, if you are prompted with “Tell us about your history of acquiring materials for your library,” which do you see as the preferable reply?

Answer A

I’ve primarily used Gobi 3 to add to the Africana collection.


Response B

Our library is on a mission to engage a conversation about the place of graphic novels in the library. So, each subject librarian is collecting works that represent various regions of the world. I am working closely with the Africana librarian to identify what Francophone items are available and will be appropriate to showcase in our fall Chai Wai Series. So far, one title that interests us is from the Ivory Coast and addresses village life on the 1980s Ivory Coast. I see graphic novels as strong teaching tools that speak to several disciplines like language, gender and women’s studies and visual arts. Using this work’s metadata, anthologies on graphic novels and broad Google searches, we are having some success in developing a short list of preferred titles that must be ordered through foreign publishing houses and at times Gobi 3. What system is used here for new acquisitions?

This one, Response B, is the “right” response as it both elaborates and invites discussion.

6. Anything listed on your resume is up for grabs.

You will want to rehearse responses about major and minor points listed on your resume. The thesis you wrote on the rising popularity of natural hair products in undergrad? How you dealt with difficult clients in customer service at the local coffee shop? What motivated you to volunteer at the puppy shelter last summer? If it is on your resume, people are inclined to be curious about it and to ask questions. So, in addition to reviewing your resume intently, in your replies, make an effort to demonstrate how your resume’s content relates to library and information science. Moreover, if you find some of your work history irrelevant to the job for which you are applying, be strategic in eliminating items that will not pertain to your candidacy.

7. The question you want to be asked of you will not be asked; questions you do not want asked will be asked.

Question I wanted to be asked: What are your strengths and weaknesses?

Question I was asked: What do you think is the greatest challenge in Latin American Studies when it comes to e-publishing?

You will be asked questions that pertain to topics that are not listed in your job description and questions that pertain to items that are neither in your cover letter nor on your resume. At times, some of the people questioning you want to know what you know about their field of expertise and to what extent they can collaborate with you if you are invited to join the team. Be not dismayed. Your mission is to provide thoughtful and intelligent responses, not necessarily solutions to burgeoning debates. Do your best and feel free to offer as many questions as you those you receive.

8. “It’s a small world after all.”

If you are applying for a specialized position, the likelihood that the person interviewing you knows your colleagues is high. The man interviewing me was on a first name basis with the head of my area studies division, my regional studies librarian, and my practicum supervisor, too. Because of the nature of the LIS field, which is full of conferences and committees, “niche” fields can be more intimate than one might expect.

9. You will never be left alone.

At the beginning of the day, right after my 20-minute presentation and question and answer session, I was introduced to my “escort” for the day. I was told that she would be leading and guiding me to the various rooms and spaces in the library where I would be questioned and have conversations. When I was moving, she was moving. When I was on break, she was on break. This method kept me from getting lost and kept me on schedule, however, I am not sure to what degree it gave me solitude for reflection.

10. At times you will need to direct the discussion, at others you will not.

You will meet quite the variety of people. Some will share the conversation, some will dominate the conversation, and yet others will expect you to do most of the talking. It is difficult to know off-hand who is who, but having some prepared talking points and informed, open-ended questions is a good idea.

11. It is everyone’s job to put on their best face so you will not hear about any negatives, weaknesses, or gaps in the institution’s efforts to fulfill its mission.

“Are there any particular challenges I should know about regarding working in the library?” I asked a group of library employees that were joining me for a meal. My question was followed by an uncomfortable silence. There may have even been some squirming. Then the human resources representative said, with polished optimism, “At our university, we like to think of challenges as opportunities!” If there are leaks in the rare books reading room in the fall, an elevator that is never quite properly fixed, or a wilting relationship with X department, you will not hear about it until you are fully signed on. No one wants to air the dirty laundry or “spill the beans,” and no one will.

12. You will repeat yourself many times in the same day.

I was asked about four times different iterations of “What attracted you to this job?” during the day of my interview. By the time I was asked the last time, it was by the dean of the library and vice provost. She stated that my response was eloquent and it likely was as I had had so many rehearsals. Do not be surprised when you find that you are repeating yourself; though the information you supply may be “old” to you, it is likely “new” to your audience.

13. The interviewers want you to succeed during these amazingly expensive interviews.

The interviewers have spent months working with committees to craft an effective job description, to advertise and promote the vacancy/call for applicants, and to recruit strong candidates. Given the work they have put in combined with the library’s need to have a certain role filled, it is in their interest that you do well. Moreover, between the flight, lodging, and meals during my extended interview, the university spent about $1,000, not to mention the many hours employees took away from their work and projects to spend time questioning and listening to me. Therefore, a successful interview is a win for everyone involved.

14. Be flexible because plans will always need to be adjusted.

My departure after the day of interviewing in this Midwestern town was scheduled for Thursday night, but a storm kept my plane from arriving to my departure city. What do you do when you are stranded, after hours, somewhere you have never been? Thankfully I had saved both the office and cell phone numbers for some of the university’s contacts and was able to seek their assistance when I was in need. Curiously, I was not able to leave the following day either, as all departing flights were booked. In the end, my short interview trip that was to last a day and a half went for twice as long. So, be prepared for the unexpected, bringing enough clothes to accommodate delays and keeping contacts close at hand.

15. Thank yous.

While some of the people I encountered “bore witness” to my interview, others were especially helpful and went above and beyond the call of duty in making my stay an easy one. I sent a general thank you for the interview and special, individual notes to the people who went out of their way to make my stay comfortable. Remember from day one that the people you are interacting with could become your potential colleagues and fostering relationships that demonstrate appreciation for the work they do starts early.




Katrina Spencer is a library and information science student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She likes writing for the Glocal Notes blog, studying foreign languages, and making book recommendations to friends. She also wishes you much luck in your job search. See to find out more.




Cover photo from Flickr Commons. Licensed under CC 2.0

10 replies

  1. This is all great advice, thank you! I had a colleague who would end interviews by asking interviewees if there was any question they wished they had been asked but hadn’t. This would give them an opportunity you missed in #7 to highlight something great about themselves. I loved this and I always ask this question now.


  2. These are great tips. In my experience, it often is possible to get some of the “negatives, weaknesses, or gaps.” My approach is never to ask the question directly, but rather ask a number of open ended questions that can produce positive or constructive/negative responses, and to be always triangulating the answers I receive. For example, as a candidate I might ask “How do you hope that filling this current opening will help you with your work?” or “I understand this position has been open for two years, why you have taken so much time to fill it?” Grievances sometimes come out with a little subtlety during the presentation q&a, which you can follow up casually with the questioner or your minder (“Did you notice the question that Jill asked during my presentation? Is there anything more to that issue I should know about?). I find it’s fun to be the anthropologist visiting a new potential work environment!


  3. ALL your experience is up for discussion! When I was writing my first LIS resume, I left my 3 yrs working at [major national coffee chain] off, because I thought it was a McJob and not relevant–and also, it’d been 5 years since I worked there. A faculty member told me to put it back on b/c it created an employment gap.

    What did I find myself talking about after the presentation in my first interview? The challenges of explaining different coffee varietals and describing espresso drinks to a new audience (this was 20 yrs ago), and how we used our hands to illustrate the difference between a cone \/ or flat-bottomed \__/ filter.

    What *got* me the job? My customer service experience. I was a new librarian, but I clearly knew how to work with the public.

    You just never know!


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