Behind the Scenes: LIS Hiring at Academic Institutions

After having participated in five on-campus, academic librarianship interviews, I have learned a good deal through observation and immersion in the market’s ebbs and flows. As a follow-up to “Things You Learn On Your First Interview,” I offer some insights that may not be wholly transparent to those applying for LIS positions within academic libraries. May these tips be of some use.

  1. Expect delays.

I applied to a position overseas in November 2015. Having heard nothing from the institution for at least four months, I independently determined that I was out of running. And I was wrong. I was contacted in April 2016 and invited to participate in a preliminary interview via Skype. While I did not make it to the second round of interviews, also to be carried out via Skype, the lesson to learn here is you are not eliminated until they say so. This is, again, especially true for academic positions for which searches may take 3-6 months.

  1. Interview season means absences.

When you are invited to an on-campus interview, you will need to plan absences around your regular obligations. If you are a student, this will likely mean missing class, and/or work hours, if you are a professional, for 2-3 days. You will likely need to dedicate at least half a day for travel to your interview site, a whole day for your on-site interview, and another half day for your return home. The hiring committees conduct interviews generally during standard business hours, frequently starting between 7:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. and ending between 3:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. While my instructors and colleagues have been very understanding of my absences, I would recommend informing all key parties early about anticipated absences and keeping documentation that justifies your absences for future reference.

  1. Buses and trains and planes, oh my!

On-site interviews mean you are doing something right. Your cover letter and screening interview have impressed the hiring committee and it looks forward to knowing more about you. However, this does not mean getting to the campus interview will be easy, especially if you are going to or coming from smaller college towns. You may first have to take a bus/ shuttle to a major transportation hub, catch a flight with potentially multiple legs (stops), and then a taxi/bus/shuttle to your hotel/site of accommodation. For one interview, I spent about five hours on two trains with a three-hour layover in between. So, be prepared for Greyhound, Amtrak, and Delta, as they may all factor in to your next voyage. Moreover, consider this travel as part of your decision: Do you want to live in a place that requires three modes of transportation to get in and out?

  1. Your presentation, your calling card

For academic institutions, general protocol calls for you to lead a 20-30 minute presentation on a topic related to the position to which you are applying or a demonstration instruction session, and then there will be a question and answer session, all of which may be recorded. The recording is typically intended to make the presentation available to library employees who cannot be present for the live session. The presentation has at least two objectives: one is for you to display the skills and knowledge you intend to contribute to the institution upon successful hire; and the second is to introduce you to the institution’s personnel. All in attendance will have the opportunity to provide feedback to the hiring committee regarding their impressions and how suitable they imagine candidates will be for the position in question. Therefore, speak not only of the projects you have managed successfully but also incorporate the institution’s mission, projects, and funding paradigms (federal funding, grants, etc.) into your talk to show that you are aware of the local priorities and have spent some time thinking about the ways you can truly fill the need being advertised. Remember that the underlying question is not exclusively “What have you done?” but additionally “What will you do on-site if hired?”

  1. Be likeable.

Being likeable in person is as important as being qualified for the position, if not more so. In addition to determining to what degree you are qualified to carry out the demands of your work, the institution’s employees are measuring your collegiality. Does s/he speak in a way that allows for non-experts to understand him/her? How interested is s/he in the LIS efforts being forwarded in other departments? Will s/he add a personable air to the shared office space? The people in your audience will likely be the people you lunch with, serve on committees with, and share general responsibilities with upon hire, so offer your best to the hiring committee, those who join you for lunch, and anyone else your encounter throughout the day.

  1. The “right fit”

Being the “right fit” will likely supersede being “rightly qualified.” Hiring committees are not merely looking for people who have the required degrees, years of experience, and innovative ideas. They are also looking for candidates who align with the ethos and priorities of the institution at a given time. Despite having a seemingly transparent job description on hand, there are no guarantees that what appears to be an exact match on paper will turn out to be an exact match during interview season. One reason for this is that job adverts are created months ahead of time by a committee before any candidates are interviewed. This can sometimes mean that the job description may be out-of-date by the time you arrive on campus, and the supervisor for the position may want to emphasize aspects of the job that the committee had not envisioned.

Some unanticipated circumstances can cause the “right fit” as opposed to the most “rightly qualified” candidate to take precedence: say, for example, an institution gets approved for a national grant to support a particular collection after the job ad is posted or the local expert in a particular field retires and someone must assume the projects s/he managed. There may be no preparing for this type of situation. Yet, it is your job to represent yourself and your capacities to the best of your abilities and prepare to manage rejection gracefully. Based on these scenarios described above, you see that rejection is frequently not personal. As a matter of fact, merely attaining a campus interview is indicative that the committee believes in the candidate’s competency. Job descriptions can be rather static but the job market is dynamic, unpredictable, and susceptible to change.

  1. Generational shifts are a real phenomenon.

As referenced above, sometimes vacancies come on the market because a nationally recognized figure has decided it is time to retire. This person may have worked in a position for nearly 30 years and have established a legacy that seems impenetrable. Fear not, wise applicant. Hiring committees know who their local celebrities are and while they value these figures’ contributions, they also seek fresh perspectives in librarianship. The information age and the 21st century inspire countless new approaches that were unfathomable in the 1980s and 1990s. While you may have some inherited responsibilities and relationships, you are not expected to replicate exact models of librarianship that are three decades old. If you are, you may need to question the dynamism and the longevity of the institution to which you are applying. A good position will allow you to learn from predecessors, but also shape a unique identity that is your own.

  1. Everything depends on the “pool.”

Again, job descriptions on paper (or on screen) usually describe the qualifications of an ideal candidate: s/he has a secondary master degree, three years of reference experience, and the ability to turn water into wine. However, the actual pool of candidates will have an assorted variety of strengths. Instead of a secondary master, the candidate may have significant coursework in a field of expertise. Instead of reference experience, s/he may have staffed an information desk at a popular tourist site. And in place of turning water into wine, s/he may curate her/his own blog on making margaritas. The point is that the job description will often reflect high standards and the committee is looking for someone who comes as close as possible to those standards, not necessarily a candidate who meets them all. This is why you will regularly see two separate sets of requirements in a job description: the required and the preferred. So, if you see that you meet three of four requirements, it may be in your interest to take a shot and apply. If the hiring committee finds that those in the pool come close enough to honoring the requirements of the job, it will likely proceed with its search. If the pool fails to meet the minimum requirements, the search may be extended and/or the committee may consider halting and launching the search with a revised job description that includes fewer stringencies. Overall, the job description is not the ultimate decider of a search’s success; at times, it is who applies for the job or, that is, who you are competing against that can shape the process.

  1. Overdoing it is possible.

While it is strongly advised that you do not “put all your eggs in one basket” by applying to one, sole position, applying excessively is also to be avoided. As some of us say in the African American community, “Don’t be extra”—that is over-the-top, excessive, dramatic, superfluous. If you have submitted 30 applications and not received a single response, you may need to re-evaluate your strategy. For example, one generic cover letter is unlikely to grab the attention of 30 different hiring committees. You will want to tailor your cover letter and resume/CV, too, for each of the jobs for which you are applying. Know, too, that when you do get invited for on-campus interviews, again, you are likely to be asked to give a presentation and you will be away from your normal duties for a few days. Will five separate presentations and groups of absences work for you? Be sure that you are not applying for a position merely to “go through the motions.” Each application should reflect thought and intentionality. Otherwise, you may end up exerting a lot of energy for a post that only minimally interests you and that you may or may not be offered. Be strategic and realistic, too.

  1. Residencies vs. fellowship vs. continuing appointments vs. full-time faculty positions.

On that note, be aware of the differing types of positions available. Some positions like residencies and fellowships are designed to last a set period of time: one, two, or three years, generally. Some are for introducing new LIS graduates to the field; some are for curating a particular collection or forwarding a particular goal. Some are funded by “soft money” (grants or other limited funding sources). Not every position will translate into 9:00 a.m.- 5:00 p.m., medical, dental, and vision benefits, and a 401K. Moreover, some of the diverse types of jobs are not necessarily advertised on HigherEdJobs and/or the ALA Job List. Some are on list-servs and advertised to smaller, intimate/specialized communities. It may be in your interest, then, to sign up for these groups, like the Association of College & Research Libraries’ (ACRL) Residency Interest Group.

Bonus: Imperfection

Remember that we all are operating within an imperfect system populated by imperfect people, ourselves included. This is the ultimate realization we must embrace. Despite the shortcomings we witness, we must maintain our professionalism and adaptability whatever the circumstances. Remember that getting hired is step one—the beginning and not the end. Good luck out there, and in the words of the late (?)Tupac Shakur, “Keep ya head up!”

Photo credit: Hudson Theater by Joe Shlabotnik (Flickr)


spencer-katrina

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 katleespe.com to find out more.

10 replies

  1. Great article! The only thing I would add is the importance of iterating. You’re probably going to go through more than one of these processes- make sure you learn from each time through and adjust your approach accordingly. I found this to be especially true with the presentation aspect. The first time I gave a job talk felt like a disaster, but I tried to use the lessons of that to shape the next job talk and it went loads better!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great article Katrina! You hit a lot of the points that I come across all the time. I work from the opposite side of the equation – I organize travel arrangements and itineraries for academic interviews at my university. I would add that while it’s general good policy to send thank you notes to the committee, sending a personal note to whomever makes your travel arrangements really helps a candidate stand out, Every time I get a personal thank-you I immediately forward it on to the committee head, and while it’s certainly not the deciding factor, it really goes far towards the ‘likeability’ factor you mentioned.

    Like

  3. THANK YOU for mentioning the importance of tailoring your resume to the job, not just the cover letter. I’ve been on a few hiring committees, and the robo-resumes really do stand out (not in a good way).

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’d add, be polite to everyone you meet or encounter. The entire time you are at the interview from the moment you step off public transportation until you head home, you are being evaluated and weighed against other candidates. Stay focused and stay “on.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • While I think staying on is especially challenging for me– someone who is introverted (despite popular belief)– I have to agree. I had a lapse in which I withdrew and I can tell the tenor of the meeting changed once I did.

      Like

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