Nov 03 2008

The Search: Landing your first academic librarian position

Published by rachel at 10:22 am under Job Hunting, getting started

by Erin Dorney

As a graduate student you  have many things on your mind: finishing assignments, seeking out publication opportunities, student loans, networking, attending conferences, and all-around learning how to become a librarian. Although many people focus on what is (or is not!) being taught in LIS programs, you will never get the chance to test the effectiveness of your expensive education if you don’t land that first gig. Start thinking about the job application process even before you get your hot, sweaty, information-seeking hands on that diploma.

My experience and advice here is aimed towards library students seeking their first post-MLS/MLIS job in academia, but could also apply to those seeking shifts in job or location. The public library job process may (or may not) be strikingly different, and I am relying on readers to add their advice on that complicated subject. Comment away! From here on in, I’d like to offer up some information stemming from my exposure to multiple sides of an academic job search: my own.

Flexibility is key

From the beginning of your library school experience you have hopefully heard about the importance of flexibility in your job search. It’s unlikely you’ll find the ideal library in the exact location you want right off the bat — that just happens to have an opening you’re qualified for. But, flexibility doesn’t mean you can’t hit the ground running. Look for positions that are closely aligned with your skills, address your personal and professional interests, and are within realistic reach.

Definitely apply for any great opportunity you might have a shot at. When dealing with life-changing events like moving across the country, though, you have to consider factors like family, spouse, and finances. In my case, it helped to determine a list of states I was willing to relocate to. I took into consideration a number of issues: geographic distance from family (especially important if it’s your first move away from home), sales tax (some states don’t have any, including Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire, and Oregon), my boyfriend’s wishes (juggling multiple careers while relocating is tricky), environment (urban, rural, poisonous snakes), and weather (hot, cold, rainy, tornadoes, hurricanes, snow, etc). Once I had that list down, it was much easier to sift through the jobs appearing in various lists, job sites, blogs, and publications.

Apply, apply, apply!

During my job search, I applied for over 45 positions in states from both the East and West coasts. That’s 45 personalized cover letters, 45 institution-researching sessions, 45 labeled envelopes, and about 6 iterations of an updated resume. Academic librarian searches most often require three references (with phone and email contact information), a cover letter, and a resume or CV. Some institutions will also ask for a teaching statement and salary history or requirements. Be sure to have these at your fingertips as you begin applying.

Some institutions will want you to use their online job application system, which usually requires a reliable Internet connection, a login name and password (write these down on the tops of each job description for future reference), and adherence to their standards. This may mean PDF- or Word-formatted resumes with variations of cover letter, resume, and references included in a single file. Others will ask for each document separately, so it’s good to have your materials easily accessible and in multiple formats.

Be aware

While playing the numbers game of multiple applications, be aware of what you’re applying for. Unless you are truly looking to move to a specific area, try not to apply for positions for which you are overqualified. This may put you out of the running — and if you do make it, you run the risk of poor job satisfaction.

Also, research each institution you are trying to become a part of. Search committees like to see that the applicants have a vested interest and have done their homework on the way a library, college, or university works. This might provide the personal touch that gets your resume to the top of the pile. Your research may also reveal valuable contacts within the institution, including fellow graduate or undergraduate alums, friends of coworkers, or distant family members. You never know who might be in a position to help you in your search.

Don’t fret

Academic librarian search timelines are ungodly long. You will forget that you applied. You will have completely given up hope. You will have moved on to the next enticing opportunity or considered staying in school for a second master’s degree. And then the call will come.

Most college and universities aim for fall semester start dates, but search committee work begins far before then. For one position, I applied in December of 2007 and heard back in March 2008. After conversing with the chair of the search committee for my current position as a tenure track Outreach Librarian at Millersville University and comparing this with my own application notes, I have compiled a brief outline of my job timeline below:

Spring 2007 - Library department discusses job need with Director and Dean’s Council for approval
Summer 2007 - Interview questions, ad copy, and job description are created
Sept. /Oct. 2007 - Meeting with the Office of Social Equity & Diversity for legal check
November 2007 - Job advertisement is disseminated
December 20, 2007 - Postmarked my application packet
January 2, 2008 - Received acknowledgment of my application
January 14, 2008 - Deadline for all applicants
January 30, 2008 - Contacted for phone interview
February 8, 2008 - Conducted phone interview
March 10, 2008 - Contacted for on-campus interview
March 24 & 25, 2008 - Interview (including dinner, presentation, and lunch)
April 1, 2008 - Received offer
May 12, 2008 - Signed appointment letter is received by the University
July 7, 2008 - Moved to Pennsylvania
August 11, 2008 - Began new faculty orientation
August 25, 2008 - First day of work

After chatting with my search committee chair (and now colleague!), I have compiled a few “insider tips” about landing that first job:

  • The key to moving from phone interviewee to on-campus interviewee is to know your stuff. By showing the search committee that you’ve done your research, you display initiative and confidence. One way to accomplish this is to preemptively ask questions: about the job, university culture, additional responsibilities, and anticipated challenges.
  • You’ve got to want it. Search committees will pick up on the fact that you applied just because it was convenient or easy. If your skills and interests are not even remotely compatible with the position, your lack of knowledge and/or apathy will hurt your chances.
  • Submit a well-written letter, design your resume to be attractive yet readable, and present yourself as the “whole package,” showing the committee that you can communicate well both in person and in writing.
  • References are usually contacted in order to weed out applicants; therefore, you should be sure that the references you provide are complete and honest. If references are either over the top or halfhearted, the search committee will be able to read between the lines, deeming your applications shreddable.
  • Dare to be confident. During my interview, I was given two presentation scenarios to choose from. However, I took another approach and did something a little bit different. Because I explained my reasoning at the beginning of the presentation and it made sense to the audience, my breaking of the rules was seen as not only acceptable, but effective. It added to my desirability as a candidate because it showed that I could think creatively while backing it up with solid information.
  • Where’s the knowledge? “Anyone has a chance to be inspiring (or have that wow factor) during their interview. But you also need substance,” said the head of my search committee. And it’s true. For most of us, the interview day is something that we’ve waited and hoped for, practiced, and dreamed about. We can put on our nice clothes, go out there and put on a good show, with the pressure of years of schooling and mountains of student loans egging us on. But academic search committees are required to document evidence of tangible skills and abilities. While important, outward personality alone will not suffice.


Erin Dorney is the Outreach Librarian at Millersville University of Pennsylvania and has been selected as a 2009 ALA Emerging Leader. She blogs at

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