Navigating in the Fog
Shining a Light on the Library Job Search Process
Abstract This interactive workshop prepared library professionals to navigate the library job search. The facilitators started by demystifying the hiring process and timeline. Second, the group looked at real job ads to identify the most important components. Third, attendees developed questions they should ask in the interview, learned how to anticipate and prepare for common interview questions, and learned how to navigate illegal or inappropriate questions that shouldn’t be asked in the first place (but frequently are). Fourth, the workshop provided hands-on activities to review and revise attendees’ cover letters and CVs. Finally, the workshop covered the most exhilarating and terrifying part of any job search process: negotiating an offer. Attendees left the workshop with a clear understanding of interview processes, a nuanced ability to interpret job descriptions, a list of interview questions to ask and answers to give, strategies for negotiation, and updates to their own individual documentation.
This workshop was designed for Atla professionals at every career stage to better understand and reflect on the job search process in libraries. Facilitators encouraged attendees to approach the job search process from an appreciative-inquiry mindset, rather than a deficit mindset, and to reflect on and share what strengths they bring to the process and to the field. Attendees left the workshop with strategies for reading descriptions, developing applications, attending interviews, and negotiating job offers.
The workshop was organized into six sections:
Section 1: Reviewing the job search process
Section 2: Reading job descriptions
Section 3: Writing and revising application documentation
Section 4: Engaging with interview questions
Section 5: Strategizing about negotiations
Section 6: Selecting and preparing references
Section 1: Reviewing the Job Search Process
Facilitators reviewed the various stages of a job search process from the perspective of the search committee. They described, based on their experiences, how search committees are often formed, how positions are written and posted, and the different (often invisible to candidates) steps in the process. This section also introduced attendees to the different types of positions often found in academic or theological libraries, such as staff, tenure-track faculty, and academic faculty. Facilitators encouraged attendees to think about their interests, skills, and experiences, and reflect on which type of position they may want to pursue. Attendees were also introduced to common mistakes, such as addressing a cover letter to the wrong institution, focusing their cover letters on the wrong qualifications, or repeating too much of their CV in their cover letter. Increasingly, institutions are requesting statements asking candidates to reflect on their positionality, including theological institutions asking for a statement describing religious affiliation. Facilitators briefly introduced the purpose of these statements and some tips on communicating values through them.
Section 2: Reading Job Descriptions
Facilitators led a group activity in which attendees annotated real job ads by marking frequent or important phrases in order to identify what is important to the posting institution. Annotating these ads can help candidates understand institutional priorities and thoroughly respond to these in their application materials, with emphasis on articulating how their experiences align with institutional needs. The group discussed what kinds of clues to look for in job postings to learn about the culture of the organization. Facilitators emphasized the difference between required and desired qualifications, and they discussed evidence in literature that women and People of Color (POC) are less likely to apply for positions in which they don’t meet all of both categories, even though institutions are frequently ready and willing to hire people who lack the desired qualifications, as long as they have the required qualifications.
Section 3: Writing and Revising Application Documentation
Based on years of experience with thousands of applications, the facilitators offered advice for structure, content, and length of application documentation, with focus on CVs and cover letters. The facilitators summarized specific advice and gave examples of how to implement that advice. For example, reducing the number and length of bullet points under particular jobs, and modifying their content to be more measurable and informative. The group discussed some cultural differences, for example that US-based organizations are more likely to expect to see education right at the top of a CV, while British organizations might prefer experience to be listed first. In the discussion of cover letters, facilitators emphasized how to separate the cover letter from the CV in both focus and content, using the cover letter to talk about values, vision, professional philosophy, and impact, while using the CV to focus more on measurable accomplishments. Attendees worked in pairs to revise their own documents based on this advice, both shortening and revising bullet points in their own CVs, and refocusing content of cover letters to talk about the importance of their work and their values instead of reiterating contents of the CV.
Section 4: Engaging with Interview Questions
Focusing now on the interview experience, facilitators guided several forms of discussion related to interview questions. First, they led an activity soliciting from the audience example questions that might be asked of candidates in job interviews, and then offered additional examples that they have asked or seen. They discussed the kinds of questions that are often asked in interviews, why those questions are frequently chosen by committees, and the most helpful mental framework for candidates to respond to them. For example, how to answer “what are your weaknesses” in a way that is effective and informative, by focusing on how one has grown or learned.
Second, the facilitators led an activity soliciting from the audience example questions that candidates might ask in interviews. Approaching this topic from a strengths mindset is particularly challenging for candidates, so facilitators emphasized that candidates have more power than they might assume and encouraged them to ask questions to identify whether the potential workplace would be a match for their professional ambitions and values. Both kinds of questions—those which candidates may be asked by the search committee and those which candidates should ask during their interview—were collected by the facilitators in a shared, publicly available Padlet (see Figure 1), for attendees to be able to access again after the workshop and use as a potential interview preparation tool. Readers may view the Padlet by visiting: https://liblearn.padlet.org/mewe/Atla.
Finally, the facilitators discussed what kinds of questions are legal and illegal, or legal but inappropriate, how those rules are nuanced in religious institutions who may be legally allowed to ask questions related to religious affiliation, and how to respond to illegal, legal but inappropriate, and other tricky questions in the moment. Facilitators also talked about how to handle less-formal interview circumstances such as meals and hallway conversations in ways that are comfortable, but still maintain awareness that these moments are still part of the interview.
Figure 1: Screenshot of Padlet with collected interview questions
Section 5: Strategizing about Negotiations
Facilitators began by emphasizing how important it is to negotiate when receiving an offer. Frequently, women and POC do not negotiate for salary, and the facilitators explained how that contributes to or exacerbates pay disparity, since White men are much more likely to negotiate. Facilitators talked about strategies for negotiating salary, how to determine what is too much to ask for, and also emphasized the many things that can be negotiated in addition to salary, such as space, professional development, technology, and sometimes benefits. Facilitators emphasized just how powerful the candidate is throughout these negotiations, despite seeming, or sometimes feeling, powerless. Candidates must understand the importance of planning in advance for salary needs and must consider how life circumstances can dramatically influence what those needs are. Facilitators also offered guidance on how to both phrase and justify requests for additional salary or other benefits, how to prepare for the conversation, and how to gracefully either accept or reject an offer, depending on the outcome of the negotiation. Most importantly, facilitators reiterated to always, always, always ask for more money in a job negotiation.
Section 6: Selecting and Preparing References
Facilitators offered guidance on what kind of professional relationships can make good references, and which aren’t likely to be helpful to candidates, as well as how to communicate that information in an application. While the candidate cannot control what their references say, they can intentionally choose good references, share the job ad and their cover letter and CVs with references so they can highlight key strengths and experiences, keep their references updated throughout the hiring process, and inform their references about strengths that the candidate may or may not have demonstrated in the interview.
Final Reflections from Attendees
In the final few minutes of the session, attendees were asked to reflect on their primary takeaways from each of the six sections of the workshop and share those in a form with the facilitators. They were also asked to revisit the question of what strengths they bring to the job search process—a question that several attendees found difficult to answer at the beginning of the workshop. The following themes were evident in the feedback:
Attendees generally gained a new understanding of how slow and committee-based the hiring process can be.
Attendees see job descriptions more as aspirational documents from the search committee that communicate values, as much as describing the work, and commented that they are likely to apply for more positions that feel like a “reach” professionally.
Attendees found some clarity in thinking about how application documents function in complementary and different ways, and how they might revise their documents with this understanding in mind.
Attendees all commented on feeling more empowered and courageous about negotiating, and all expressed their intent to always negotiate in the future, using tools discussed in the workshop.
Attendees planned to engage in slightly different ways with references to make the process easier for the references and more helpful to the candidates.
Attendees were much more able to identify their strengths in the job search process, and many commented in the final reflection about increased feelings of confidence and empowerment.
The library job search process is often confusing and complex, especially to early-career professionals or those transitioning between positions. Understanding the process, reflecting on one’s own strengths and experiences, and having a plan for approaching the key stages of the hiring process—application, interview, and negotiation—all allow the candidate to approach a job search with more confidence and clarity. Through this pre-conference workshop, the facilitators hoped that they could demystify the library job search process and make it less harrowing and more affirming for attendees, ideally resulting in attendees’ identifying and getting the position they want with the best possible salary.
The facilitators encourage Summary of Proceedings readers to view a folder of resources they created for attendees by visiting https://bit.ly/Atla2022JobSearchFolder.