The Conundrum of Picking Your First Professional Job

Many HLS readers and several of our regular writers, myself included, are preparing to graduate from library school and to head into the real world. As Megan wrote last week, this stage in our careers is both incredibly exciting and scary. Speaking for myself as someone who’s been in graduate school for nearly four years now, and someone who’s had new and different jobs every academic term, the prospect of finding something permanent is strangely daunting. I have been talking to just about anyone who will talk to me about this and asking for advice. So, I want to spend some time sharing some of the nuggets of wisdom I’ve received.

My boss and two of my coworkers at one of my jobs have been flooding me with all kinds of advice over the past couple of weeks after they found out that I was on the job market. The sentiment at the core of all their advice is always this: be really careful about choosing that first job, but more importantly, get that first job!

So that’s basically a two-pronged piece of advice. On one hand, of course it is important to be picky with your first job. Especially for people like me whose longest job lasted just under two years, but almost all others lasted a semester, the idea of looking at a job that could last three, four, five years, or maybe even forever, it is incredibly daunting. What kind of job can I possibly find that I’d be happy with for so long?

Every job I apply for, even if it sounds almost perfect, has some element that sticks in my brain and gives me anxiety as I think, “is that going to drive me insane after a year?” The jobs I’ve had, while most were great, some were terrible in one way or another but it was manageable because I always could tell myself, “hey at least I won’t be doing this in three months.”

I told my current boss about this feeling I’ve had in other jobs and she said to me, well, the key is that you have to remember that nine times out of ten, your first professional job is temporary–you work there for two or three years, and then all the sudden your options open up because you have a resume with that coveted “librarian” title on it.

So after she explained it that way, I felt a little better…before I remembered what had happened to a friend of mine in my first graduate program. She was a librarian at the university I was attending at the time, but that wasn’t her first job. Right after her MLIS program, she took a tenure-track faculty position at a school in a different state. She liked the job just fine, but it was by no means her dream job. So, when a job opened up at the school I was currently working and studying at, she jumped on it. She left a tenure-track job for a temporary position because the job description looked ideal for her and she really wanted to return to the city she fell in love with during her undergrad. The heart wants what it wants.

Unfortunately, her contract was not renewed at the end of her first year. After several stressful months adrift, she found another job, luckily. It was in the same state, but not the same city, and was not ideal, and this time, while at least not temporary, the new job is not tenure-track. She has a very slim chance of getting another tenure-track job in her career because she left a tenure-track job in the past. That’s rough. As we learned from Melissa not too long ago, this process is not fun or easy and there are tons of obstacles of all kinds in our way to finding our first job. As tough as it is for us coming out of grad school, it’s quite a bit tougher for those librarians who left a tenure-track job.

Here’s the takeaway here–while tenure-track jobs are very appealing, you really need to think carefully about accepting one as your first professional job. There is a decent chance that, a couple years after accepting a tenure-track job, you’ll come across a highly desirable job listing that you just can’t pass up. Leaving a tenure-track position is damaging to your future career, so think hard about whether you are willing to spend the rest of your career in that position. It is not impossible, obviously, to recover from quitting that first tenure-track job, but as my friend’s example shows, you’re likely to end up in a less-than-desirable job if you do bail out on your tenure-track position.

The advice of most of the people I’ve spoken to can be summed up like this: Be very skeptical about the tenure-track jobs that you apply for. Consider carefully if you’re willing to hitch the rest of your career to that position. That said…just take a job.

So, really, I think the lesson we as MLIS students can draw from all this is similar to what our former writer, Dylan, wrote a few years ago: do not burn yourself out during grad school worrying about your first job. That first job is almost never going to be permanent, and really, no matter where you end up, you’re building your resume and after a few years, you will have so many more options. Be mindful of your goals and priorities when it comes to applying to jobs but remind yourself that your first job doesn’t necessarily define you and your career. Unless it’s tenure-track.

Featured image by Caleb Jones via Unsplash.

4 replies

  1. It has not been my experience that one’s career is necessarily damaged by leaving a tenure-track job. I’ve not only known many peoplle who have done so, but I’ve never experienced people looking down on you or thinking it was weird, as long as there’s a decent reason. Personally, I’ve had tenure 3 times in my career. The first time was my first professional job out of library school, at a large R1 research institution in a big, exciting city. I was in a job that was fine, but I was bored after 7 years in the small subject library I was running, and my husband couldn’t find a job in his field in that city once he finished his PhD. I left for a smaller institution, but a much bigger job – Dean – in a smaller city 2000 miles away. I had tenure there too. Unfortunately, I hated the city, and the job my spouse found fell through when the local economy crashed. We moved to another country, another R1 in a big exciting city. I took a non-tenure track job. Loved the city, hated the job. Left again. Hired in another research institution, in a big city. Tenure for the 3rd time. Loved the job, loved the city. Stayed a decade. Left for a number of strong personal and financial reasons, took a Dean level job at another research institution, but not tenured – long term contract. 50% lower cost of living, raise of over 60%, exciting and challenging job. Tenure is nice, but it’s not the be-all and end-all, and as long as you have strong reasons that make sense to people, I would not say that you have to feel like you’re wearing the “golden handcuffs.”


    • That’s good to hear! Thanks for sharing your experiences! The trouble with coming up with conclusive statements is that I think is everyone seems to experience these things differently. Perhaps that friend of mine didn’t handle leaving her tenured position too well. Perhaps the colleagues that my boss and some other folks I’ve talked to just had bad luck in their experiences. Glad to hear it’s not as bleak for everyone though!


  2. I would agree with the above comment that leaving a tenure-track position does not damage your future prospects. My first job was tenure-track and I left after 1.5 years because of the office politics and location. I went on to other academic library jobs without tenure. Just a few years ago, I got a tenure-track job without any significant problems. Now whether I think tenure-track is really important in an academic setting is another thing….. but I wouldn’t worry about leaving and hurting your future prospects. Be active professionally and publish no matter where you are at and that will give you the skills you need for tenure.


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