|Volume 59 Number 2
Demystifying the Academic Search Process,
or Getting that Academic Librarian Position
Suann Alexander, User Services Librarian
Jackie Dowdy, Interlibrary Loan Librarian
Sharon Parente, User Services Librarian
Middle Tennessee State University
TLA 2009 Conference Program Abstract: Much has been provided in the way of career advice, but what does it take, really, to get hired? Three academic librarians who have served on more than thirty search committees give pragmatic advice on landing that academic library position.
Much has been written in the way of career advice for librarians. A brief search of the internet yields a myriad of web pages, blogs, and listservs with advice from information professionals from around the world. But what does it really take to get hired? What follows is an amalgam of advice from three academic librarians, with participation in more than thirty search committees between them, who seek to give pragmatic advice to help you land that academic library position.
Deciphering the Ad/Job Description
Advertisements can appear in a variety of formats, but most often include the position title, supervisor, rank, salary (range) and benefits information, a position description or list of duties, general information about the institution and community, approximate starting date, application procedures, and most critically a list of required and/or desired qualifications. Due to the increasing expense of print advertising, a link to a longer web based advertisement is often provided. Once you decide to apply for a position, it is critical that you be prepared to address each required qualification in the advertisement. Candidates who fail to address the required qualifications, which highlight the core needs of the library for that position, either in the cover letter or résumé are in danger of being weeded early in the search process. If you do not meet all of the required qualifications you should probably not apply for that position. At public institutions the search committee must be able to legally justify its final recommendation and will probably need to describe in writing exactly how you meet each of those requirements.
However, any qualifications listed as “desired” are where you have wiggle room. These are the extra qualifications that are not essential but usually indicate a need or departmental desire not being met by the existing staff. For example, an advertisement for an instruction librarian listing knowledge of legal resources as a desirable but not required qualification could indicate a lack of comfort among the existing librarians in performing library instruction for legal classes. As long as the advertisement is not for a position in a law library, a response indicating some interest in the topic and a willingness to learn should suffice to move you on to the next round. A “can do” attitude is important in addressing desired qualifications. In many instances, the advertisement is worded this way because the search committee does not want to severely limit the number of applications received by asking for too much. Failed searches are costly in both money and time. The legal knowledge request is negotiable, but the search committee would love to have you to take on the responsibility of becoming the library’s resident law expert in addition to your core duties.
Typical Search Process
Unfortunately the search process at most large public academic institutions is a slow and cumbersome process. This is usually not the fault of the search committee. Be sure to look at when the advertisement was posted and the suggested start date to determine the basic time line for the search. Employers try to select a reasonable starting date that allows enough time for the search to be successfully completed, but nothing is guaranteed. It is increasingly common to see advertisements with wording indicating that review of applications will continue until a position is filled. In reality, most search committees will start seriously evaluating applications four weeks after the advertisement is posted. For this reason it is important for you to move quickly. Search committees for specialized positions receiving ten or fewer applications will typically accept new ones longer into the process. However, the review of new applications will cease at some point and will not be publicly announced. Adding even highly qualified applicants late in the process can negatively affect the overall quality of the pool of candidates; the resulting delays could cause early applicants to drop out.
Search committees will usually devote several meetings to weeding the applicant pool. The earliest candidates rejected are those not possessing either the required educational qualifications (ALA accredited MLS degree) or experience. It is acceptable to apply if you will receive your degree prior to the advertised starting date. Next, the pool will be narrowed to a finalist group of 5-10 applicants which may consist of an A and B group. At this point, the A group consists of the individuals the committee would like to interview and the B group acceptable alternates. This pool of finalists must be approved by the university department concerned with affirmative action or institutional equity and compliance issues and/or the academic affairs office. This approval process could take up to a week or longer. Once the finalist pool is approved these applicants will be asked for at least three letters of reference and transcripts from every institution of higher learning ever attended. It is acceptable at this stage for your references to email letters and for unofficial transcripts to be sent for review. (Original letters of reference and official transcripts will be required before an employment contract can be issued.) Candidates’ failure to produce reference letters and transcripts in a timely fashion often further delays the search process. You may wish to call or email your search contact to verify that all your materials have been received.
If you are deemed a top candidate the library will contact you to schedule an interview date, inform you of any required presentations, and to make travel arrangements. Since most large university libraries conduct nationwide searches the process is often delayed at least another two weeks in order to obtain the best prices on airline tickets. Search committees prefer to interview the top candidates as closely together as possible, but due to candidate scheduling conflicts this does not always occur. The final interview may take place as late as 1-2 weeks after the first.
If you fail to receive an interview offer several weeks after providing your references and transcripts you have probably been placed in the B group. Because searches are so time consuming and expensive, committees prefer to maintain the option of dipping into their B pool if the A candidates do not work out rather than re-advertise the position. You may not receive further notification until the position is filled.
Your search committee may have the authority to make the final decision or may only serve in an advisory capacity to the department head and/or dean/director. Once the interviews are completed the committee will likely schedule a meeting with other departmental library faculty to garner input and then proceed to compile a written report on each interviewee which summarizes their strengths and weaknesses relative to the job description. It is essential for the committee to be able to justify its decisions legally. The final decision makers, if not the committee, will then need to meet, make a decision, and submit their recommendation to the university administration. The Academic Affairs Office will also need to prepare a salary offer. The successful candidate will receive a call indicating that they are being recommended to university administration to fill the position. If the individual is not willing to commit immediately they will frequently be allowed a reasonable amount of time to make a decision. The final salary and a starting date must be agreed upon before the employment contract can be prepared and mailed. Do not consider anything official and absolutely do not resign your current position until you receive, sign, and return the employment contract. By this time nearly a month may have passed since the final interview. Occasionally, candidates vacillate after receiving a contract and either fail to return it promptly or decide ultimately not to accept the position. For this reason if you are the second or third rated candidate you will not be rejected until a signed contract has been returned, nor will you be told that you were not offered the position first if you ultimately become the successful candidate. If you truly want the position, stay patient and allow the process to reach its ultimate conclusion.
The résumé and the accompanying letter are the candidate’s greatest marketing tools and should be used to the fullest advantage. Be aware that the search committee reads many résumés and letters so those that are unique will stand out from the others and are most likely to be competitive. Let’s talk about the résumé first. It should be an accurate record of professional experience, not a description of every position held. The only job description the committee is interested in is the one they are trying to fill, so don’t bore them with every detail of previous positions. In the book, Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Perfect Résumé, the Third Commandment (of The Résumé Commandments) states:“Thou shalt not write job descriptions; thou shalt write about achievements” (Ireland, 1996, p. 8). The committee wants to know about achievements in each position and how these achievements could impact the position they are trying to fill. They want to know how the applicant will fit into the position, so tell them only about those experiences and achievements that are relevant to their position. Personal information should not be included unless it is relevant to the position. Since the search committee is not allowed to ask for personal information, please do not give it. This includes hobbies, family, political preferences, and of course, religion and sexual preferences. But, for example, a hobby of rare book collecting should probably be mentioned in the letter, since it would be an added bonus to the library to have someone with that kind of interest. It is especially important to address every item in the job description. One way to be sure that everything is included would be to list each point in the job ad and then match up achievements and experiences to each point. That will give an outline to work with when preparing the résumé and letter. And remember that a lack of experience in a “desired” area should be considered an “opportunity to learn.” Of course, too many “opportunities to learn” will not impress the committee, so pick one to emphasize.
One of the basic rules to writing a résumé is to keep it short and to the point. There is a lot of reading involved in being on a search committee and succinct résumés are usually greatly appreciated. Another way to impress the committee is to place achievements and relevant experience at the beginning, leaving the less important things for the end. Although they are interested in those less important pieces of information, they are more interested in how the experience and achievements listed will fit with their requirements and needs. If the most relevant information is right up front, it is more likely that your résumé will be read carefully than if it was buried on the second or third page. So put the “meat” on the first page where it can be easily and quickly noted and your list of educational institutions attended at the end.
Links to web pages should be working properly, the content should be professional, and the committee should be able to tell if you created the page/s yourself or collaborated with someone else. If it was a group project, please indicate which part is yours. And along with this, remove any personal web pages that could be considered unprofessional. There is always someone on the committee who takes the time to search the Net for the top applicants. If it isn’t professional, take it down. This includes Facebook and MySpace pages.
Some other things that the search committee will look for are grammar, spelling, and typographical errors. Poor grammar will move you to the bottom of the list rather quickly, especially if the position is at a college or university. The library and the institution expect their employees to have excellent communication skills. In this day of automatic spelling and grammar checks, misspellings and typing errors are often interpreted as a lack of knowledge or a lack of caring; either of which will get you booted from a search pool. Always check and recheck grammar, punctuation, and spelling, and then have someone else check. A fresh pair of eyes is always a good idea. It’s amazing what someone who hasn’t read the material before will find. Academia is, for the most part, still a very conservative world, and it expects a professional appearance to the résumé, letter, and especially the candidate. Black or blue inks are the colors of choice, with a nice traditional font on good quality paper, for your application materials. And don’t be tempted to make the font small so that everything will fit on one or two pages. If it is too difficult to read, it probably won’t be read.
Many of the guidelines that are important for the résumé also apply to the letter. In some ways, the letter is more important than the résumé because it is most often the candidate’s introduction to the committee. The letter is usually read before the résumé, and if done correctly, could heavily influence the committee’s initial impression of the candidate. Take some time to research the position and the library to gain information about that library that can be referred to in the letter. Evidence that you checked out the library’s web pages is usually interpreted by a search committee as a good indicator of a candidate’s interest in the position.
Since the letter introduces the candidate to the search committee, it should, first of all, emphasize those experiences and achievements which are pertinent to the position. The letter is also a good place to explain any anomalies in the résumé. For instance, gaps in work history, taking twelve years to complete a degree, or changing jobs every other year, should be explained in general terms. Without an explanation, the search committee could easily assume the worst and probably will. Unreliability, laziness, or an inability to get along with co-workers are only a few of the “possibilities” that come to mind.
It is best to address the letter to a person, rather than “To whom it may concern.” If there is no person’s name on the job description, do some research to find the name of the head of the library or even the chair of the search committee. Addressing it to the search committee is also a possibility. This makes it more personal and again shows interest in the position.
Above all, keep it short; three paragraphs that fit on one sheet of paper are adequate. And check and double check for grammar, punctuation, spelling, and typographical errors before sending it out. The letter and résumé should be consistent in style, font, and paper. The quality of the paper may not seem important, but it shows professionalism and that the position is important enough to pay attention to details. Of course, the quality of the paper and color of the ink will not be a consideration if the application materials are to be submitted electronically (which is increasingly common). But the rest is still very important.
Telephone interviews are often used by institutions to narrow a search pool. They require a relatively small investment of resources, and save time while eliminating unlikely candidates. If there are more qualified applicants than a library has the resources to interview, a search committee may employ telephone interviews to select the top candidates for personal interviews. The downside/limitation of the telephone interview is that you have only your voice to convey your suitability for the position. For this reason, Mary Dillon Johnson in “The Academic Job Interview Revisited” (Johnson, 2004) suggests that you can help your voice do that work by behaving as if you are in a personal interview – sitting upright, leaning forward, and perhaps even gesturing as you would in a face to face meeting. The activity will energize your voice and make it more expressive.
The personal interview is the candidate’s opportunity to demonstrate knowledge, skills, and experience to a potential employer. It is the employer’s preferred tool for identifying candidates who have the behavioral traits and characteristics that have been deemed necessary for success in a particular job. In the academic environment, an invitation to a personal interview at the institution indicates that you are most likely among the top three candidates for that position. You should not accept the interview invitation unless you are seriously interested in the position and would be ready and able to relocate if the position were offered.
A quick Google search on “interviewing well” retrieves nearly 700,000 hits, many of them “tip lists” for successful interviewing. Many of the tips are pretty standard for all fields – arrive on time (or a little early); dress appropriately for the position and the work environment; avoid badmouthing former jobs and/or supervisors; listen carefully and respond honestly, appropriately and succinctly; and always send a thank-you note. For helpful tips relevant to candidates in academic libraries, however, the American Library Association’s New Members Round Table Academic Interview Process web page (Kodaira, 2009) is an excellent resource.
Kodaira advises candidates to study the prospective library as well as your own. Go to the library’s website and familiarize yourself with their resources. Make note of any features or collections that are unique to that library, and try to get some idea of how the university library system is organized. Are there library branches on or off campus? Reviewing information about the surrounding community will give you a better picture of the work environment. If you are currently working in a library, don’t forget to study and be prepared to answer a few questions about your current workplace. The search committee will probably be interested in learning about your current work environment, and may ask you about almost anything, including the number of volumes in the collection, the food and drink policy, or the library’s organizational structure. You should be able to thoroughly explain the duties and significance of your current job, and tell how it compares to your prospective job. Listen carefully to questions and respond appropriately and succinctly. Be sure that the stories you share are relevant, and avoid rambling off topic. And remember that your facial expressions and body language should match your words. Finally, be familiar with the job description for the position for which you have applied. Know what you are getting into, and be prepared to speak to your qualifications.
In some cases an interview may include a formal presentation about your prospective job related issues. Applicants for Instruction Librarian positions, for example, may be asked to present a short bibliographic instruction session as part of the interview. If this is the case, try to plan ahead and give yourself ample time to prepare and become comfortable with the information you will be presenting. Be sure to follow any instructions given, particularly those relevant to the presentation’s content, and keep your session within any time limits that might be given. You should be prepared to present to the entire library personnel, as candidate presentations are often considered an opportunity for staff members to meet prospective co-workers, and are usually open to everyone in the library.
You should be aware that your nonverbal communication may be just as important as what you say during the interview. Your posture, handshake, attentiveness, eye contact, facial expressions, and clothing tell a prospective employer a lot about your attitude, outlook, and interests. For example, a candidate who walks and sits upright is viewed as confident and secure in his abilities. Poor posture gives the impression of low energy and low self esteem, as does a limp hand shake; while an excessively strong hand shake may lead an employer to feel you are overly aggressive. You should also seek to maintain comfortable eye contact without staring or forced attentiveness. A candidate whose eyes roam about the room during the interview gives the impression that he doesn’t really care about what the speaker is saying, and probably isn’t terribly interested in the position. Long, forced eye contact gives the impression that a candidate is very aggressive and may not interact effectively with others. A candidate that fails to make eye contact with the interviewer demonstrates a lack of confidence and comfort with himself; while a candidate who nervously looks away from the interviewer is generally perceived to be less than honest. Although the interview is a stressful environment, you should try to avoid fidgeting, hair twisting, tapping, or any behavior that does not indicate a calm, composed, prepared individual. Keep in mind that the evaluation of your nonverbal communication begins as soon as you enter the building, so your appearance is very important. Chewing gum or reeking of cigarette smoke is undesirable, and you should avoid too much perfume or cologne. Not enough deodorant is equally as bad. Your clothing should be clean and interview-appropriate, and shoes should be polished. If you are asked to wait for your interview to start (since ideally, you have arrived a few minutes early) be friendly and pleasant, but not overbearing. And you should sit quietly and wait for your appointment to begin, refraining from cell phone conversation and iPod listening.
After the interview, when you are back at home, don’t forget to send a thank you note in which you express appreciation for the committee’s interest in you. A hand-written note is usually preferred, but email is acceptable, particularly if you opt to send individual thank you notes to each search committee member. It is also a good idea to alert your references that they may be getting a call from the employer. Remember to remain patient since the hiring process sometimes takes longer than expected. Finally, don’t burn any bridges if you don’t get an offer. The academic library world is relatively small, and you could encounter these search committee members again in the most unlikely of situations.
Why you didn’t get the job
So, even though you have a really great résumé, you still didn’t get the job. Don’t take it personally. Your résumé is still great, but perhaps not for that particular position and library. There are many reasons why this can happen but the one that comes up the most is that someone else was a better fit for that library. Perhaps that person had a special quality or expertise that made them a better candidate for the position. It may have been a diversity issue and the choice may have been made at a higher level. Many academic libraries try not to hire too many librarians who graduated from the same institution so their staff has a more varied point of view and unique ideas. Even though you may have an extensive background in libraries, have a very impressive résumé, and had a really wonderful interview, you may simply have been that proverbial square peg trying to fit into the round hole. The current staff may have felt more comfortable with someone else. So, maybe you were not the right fit for one library, but you will be perfect for another. Don’t give up, keep polishing your résumé and your interview skills, and keep applying for all those positions until you find the “square hole” you fit into perfectly.
Ireland, S. (1996). Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Perfect Résumé. New York, NY: Alpha Books.
Johnson, Mary Dillon. (2004, October 15). The Academic Job Interview Revisited. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/jobs/news/2004/10/2004101501c.htm
Kodaira, Nanako. Academic Interview Process. American Library Association New Member Round Table Résumé Review Service. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/rts/nmrt/oversightgroups/comm/resreview/process.cfm