Nope, Don’t Like That: On Making Course and Career Decisions

There’s a movie I like, Hell or High Water, and in it there’s a scene where two police officers stop at a diner for dinner. The waitress greets them by asking, “What don’t you want?”  

Understandably thrown by this unconventional method of ordering food, they ask her to explain. “I’ve been working here forty-four years,” she says, “and ain’t nobody ever ordered nothing but t-bone steak and a baked potato…so either you don’t want the corn on the cob, or you don’t want the green beans. So, what don’t you want?”

I’ve been thinking about that quote this week because my school, San José State University, posted their graduate profiles – in lieu of an in-person graduation ceremony, degree-earners could create a profile page for themselves and professors, family, and friends could comment in their ‘guest book’ and leave well-wishes.  It’s been fun to flip through some of them and see what my classmates (or, now, former classmates) have learned and reflected on from their time at the iSchool, and also what they plan to do now that they’ve got that diploma in hand.

I thought I might get some good ideas for myself (maybe someone would say they were really touched by a particular internship or course that I hadn’t heard of or considered before). Mostly what I learned, though, was what I don’t want to do.

Before coming to libraries, I did an internship with the publications department at the Los Angeles Zoo. I was leaning toward a career in copyediting, then, so that aspect of the job was fun, and I liked being at the Zoo and meeting the staff and volunteers who worked there (not to mention the animals). When I was offered the opportunity to write an article to appear in the member magazine, I jumped on it. I did finish the article, and it was published (with by-line!), but I discovered that journalism-style writing is not something I enjoy. I struggled with learning how to interview people, and how to make something readable out of the final product. If I had really enjoyed the process, that would have been one thing – I could have continued practicing and honing my craft and I certainly would have improved as time went on – but the entire thing was like pulling teeth. I happily went back to ‘just’ editing and publishing, and left the article writing to others who enjoyed it more.

After that, I went to work at a public library. I was very happy there – I liked the work, I liked my coworkers, and I became close to a number of our regular patrons. I left rather reluctantly – I was only employed part-time there, and when I was offered a full-time job at a different library I couldn’t very well say no, but I was sad to leave. Now, though, I realize that academic library work suits me better. For the four years I was at the public library, I threw myself into creating programs and crafts and displays with gusto, and I’m glad I did, but it was actually a large relief when my new job no longer asked me to do those things. Given my druthers, when it comes time to apply for MLIS-requiring librarian jobs, I would choose academic library jobs over public library ones, every time.

I also don’t think archives and records as a career path is for me. The community college where I work has a small archives section, and when a job at our library opened up that included some hours each week devoted to archival work, my co-worker nearly beat down the door putting in her transfer application. Archives work is important, and it needs people who are that passionate about it – and I’m just not. I’ve been in our archives, and felt nothing for it. Documenting school history doesn’t excite me, the way it does others. (Alyssa wrote about coming to a similar conclusion here.)

I realize there is an aspect of privilege to this kind of trial and error. Sometimes, you have to take the job you’re offered, even if it’s not your dream job, because you just really need a job and an income. But grad school can offer some pretty low-stakes opportunities to figure out what it is you do want – either through internships that maybe only last one semester, or a one- or two-unit elective on an off-the-wall topic that you don’t really have time to explore thoroughly but would like to get a taste of.

Conversely, grad school is also a great time to draw up a (mental) list of deal-breakers – the things you don’t want. I, for example, don’t want to move – so any future career I consider would either need to be local to me, or fully remote. (Emily wrote about the opposite experience here – she was willing to move, but wouldn’t compromise on other must-haves.) I also, as mentioned, would prefer to work in an academic library on non-archival projects. Which still leaves me so much room to work with! Eliminating the things I don’t want gives me the time and the mental space to focus on instruction and reference and student worker management and OER and all the many other topics and areas I am passionate about. We may all work in libraries and information science, but there’s a lot of wiggle room in there to narrow it down and find your particular niche.

Photo by Kai Pilger on Unsplash

Lauren is Associate Editor of Hack Library School and a student at San José State University. She likes Westerns, space operas, and space Westerns. You can find her grappling with library and information principles and swooning over Star Wars on Twitter @darthbookworm3.

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