The Academic Library Interview: COVID-19 Edition

This week, I had my first all-day interview for an academic librarian position. I was not psychologically prepared for it. I would have been even worse off except that one of my classmates had mentioned having one scheduled a couple of weeks prior, so I had a little time to get used to the idea before I got called in for one myself. I knew all-day interviews were a thing, and I knew that I was applying to academic jobs, but somehow I had just never made the connection that such a thing could happen to me.

The iSchool and the Graduate College at the University of Illinois have excellent career services, and they would have been delighted to help me get ready, but I loathe role playing with the fire of a thousand suns. I feel imaginary spiders crawling up my spine at just the thought. This is a real problem, because I have a habit of rambling and forgetting the question during interviews. I’ve gotten better over time, but I could use more practice and it would be wiser if I stopped trying to wing it in high stress situations.

The most nerve-wracking part, though, was the presentation. I had literally never given a presentation outside of class before. I knew that presentations were part of academic job searches, why hadn’t I prepared? Why hadn’t I attended any of the workshops put on at my university, or done any theoretical reading, or put together a few lower-stakes presentations during grad school just for practice? Planning ahead is what I do, how did I manage to go so wrong?

Honestly though, it wasn’t that bad. Let me break it down for you.

The advantages and disadvantages of virtual interviews. Since this interview occurred in the spring of 2021, in-person was not an option, though this employer would have normally flown me out to visit. The downside was not getting a tour of the town, or any free meals. I also didn’t get a good sense of what they consider appropriate work wear. I did see one person wearing jeans, but is that normal or are standards relaxed because of the pandemic? Here at Illinois folks show up to serious meetings in sweatshirts and pajama bottoms and normcore is club wear.

On the flipside, that meant I didn’t have to fret too much about what I was wearing, either. Zoom covers a multitude of sins and most of my wardrobe is just different shades of black, so as long as I wore pants without too many holes everything was fine. I also have the big advantage of living alone in an attractive apartment with a lot of natural light and robust internet. Virtual interviewing is almost all upside for me, since I don’t have to negotiate with roommates or family members for a full day of quiet and bandwidth, or find an alternate location. I can spend breaks however I like. Maybe most importantly, I didn’t have to spend an additional two days on travel.

The schedule. Every institution is different, and this interview was for a position that is neither faculty nor patron-facing, but the schedule break down will give you a general idea of what to expect. The day started at 9 am with a virtual tour of the library, where the hiring manager walked around with his phone camera, pointing things out.  I hadn’t been looking forward to this part, since I was worried about the potential awkwardness and motion sickness, but it was actually interesting and pleasant. The tour took 45 minutes, and then there was a fifteen-minute break. This was followed by two 45-minute interviews, first with the hiring committee and then with two of the departments I would be working with, separated by another 15-minute break.

At 1 pm there was half an hour for my presentation and a question-and-answer session, and then at 2 pm, another 45-minute interview with representatives from several more library departments. The final meeting, with library administration, wasn’t until four due to a scheduling conflict. This last was less of an interview and more of a rundown of benefits and a broader view of the library and its goals. I was too tired by the end of all the meetings to accomplish anything else that day, but overall it was less stressful and exhausting than I had expected. There were plenty of substantive breaks, and I have a high tolerance for video calls and reciting my software experience.

The presentation. I got lucky here since they only asked for a 15-minute talk. I was given the topic, and the title for the presentation, which isn’t the case everywhere. The topic was based on a technical skill that’s essential for the position and that I had emphasized having in my application materials, so the choice wasn’t random. I think that on balance it was a kindness that the topic was so specific, and that the decision was out of my hands. Otherwise, the anxiety of vague instructions and too many decisions may have paralyzed me.

Because of my tendency to ramble, I always use a script for presentations, with space to freestyle here and there to avoid that canned feeling. I also set up multiple timers in my lines of sight and structed the last quarter of my talk so that I could stop more easily if I went over time. It’s a good thing that I did, too. Even though I came in well under time during practice, I either talked too slowly or freestyled too much and nearly went over the extra grace period.

I don’t know if my presentation was any good. It wasn’t earth-shattering, of course, or particularly clever. One person gave me a nice compliment, which I appreciated. I used that university’s branding guidelines to match the school colors for the slides, a detail that I was especially proud of and that probably went unnoticed. There was a week to prepare, which was plenty of time. Surprisingly, 35 people attended, many more than I expected or that I had seen at similar talks. This didn’t bother me in a virtual environment, and I’m not sure how I would have felt looking at a similar crowd in person.

One last thing: when I was feeling especially anxious, I would remind myself that people know that interviewing is stressful. They’re generally kind about it and forgiving of mistakes. This really helped me, especially when I was worrying about the post-presentation question and answer session.

Cover photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Emily is graduating in May from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her strongest claim to employment is being Alma certified.

2 replies

  1. Congratulations! I have sat on many interview panels and the last point is very true, most of us absolutely feel for the interviewee and try hard to make them feel at ease. I hope a lot of new grads read your post – the lived experience is very valuable. Good luck with the progress of your application. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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