Or, Jenica’s Guide To Interviewing For An Academic Job.
I’m in one of our now-rare windows between the hiring cycles — offer has been made and accepted on one, and I’m writing the description on another — that have become our norm in this era of retirements and job mobility. So in this brief moment while I have no conflicts of interest, let me share my next bundle of thoughts on academic library jobhunting.
Also, it only seems fair to tell you that the soundtrack to writing this post is Cake’s Short Skirt, Long Jacket, and that I’m going to be judgmental again. (We should all be so lucky as to have jobs where it’s our job to be judgmental.) Brace yourself. Your mileage may vary, your experiences may differ, and there’s a lot to add to what I say here. Other people have also said smart things on the subject. There is no silver bullet. But some stuff works better than others.
1. Be confident and sell yourself. Because, really, we just paid about a thousand dollars to get you here. We are, in fact, hoping that you’re gonna rock this thing. We want to be wowed. We want to know we’re going to be able to fill our open position with confidence and excitement. You are the key to this: Excite us. Be your most confident, best self. Tell us how great you are, and make us believe it. This is your opportunity. Do not be shy. Do not be afraid. Do not lose yourself in terror. I know interviews are hard — I’ve done ‘em. But your job, today, is to get past the fear. Use Xanax. Beta blockers. Meditation. A mantra. Your lucky ring. Text messages (on silent) from your BFF every 15 minutes. Whatever it takes. Just get past the fear. If you cannot get past the fear in the interview, we will worry about your ability to get past it when you need to represent the library and meet hundreds of new faculty. Thousands of students. All of our constituents. So if you can’t talk confidently to an audience that wants you to succeed, we worry that you’re screwed in academia. Be big. Be bold. Sell yourself.
2. Study up on answers to the basic questions. Seriously: We all ask the same damn questions. Here, let me tell you the right answers:
What is it that entices you about this job? Anything that indicates you’ve thought about it beyond “I need a job because my loans come due in November” is a good answer. Something about our job ad, our organizational structure, our student body, or your personal life and experiences will be an added bonus here. “I’ve always wanted to be a librarian, and this is a great opportunity” is a bad answer: You’re not trying hard enough. I am unimpressed.
Tell me something about your experience working in teams. Don’t you dare tell me that a library school student hasn’t worked on enough group projects to prompt wrist-slitting. Seriously; it’s some sort of pre-req for teaching LIS grad classes: Make ‘em work in groups. Wrist-slitting aside, surely you learned something? Tell me about it! Even if it’s “group work is hard, and it takes a skilled personality to make it go smoothly.” That’s a good answer, and has the bonus of being wryly true. We will chuckle. A bad answer is “I can’t really think of any teams I’ve been a part of”, largely because I don’t believe you, recent library-school grad, so that means you’re just locked into rigid thinking and definitions of “teamwork”. Which is bad.
What achievement are you most proud of? It can be that you finished knitting a seriously complex lace shawl, or that you published an article last semester, or that you designed a very cool project for your internship, or that you taught yourself to play that song on the piano, or that you finished grad school while parenting a 2 year old. Any of those things tell us something about you, your sense of accomplishment, and what kind of achiever you are. All are good answers. A bad answer, however, is “I don’t know.” That’s… sort of sad.
What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the academic library in 2012? There are lots of right answers to this question, and all of them are designed to give you the opportunity to show us that you’re thinking about the intersection of practicality and theory. “the expectations of students regarding e-readers and tablet technology” or “the googleization of the research process” or “enhancing our teaching skills to support information literacy” or “our dual roles as spaces and services and how those interact”. Anything. ANYTHING. Whatever it is, justify it. That’s the part that matters — talking confidently about our shared profession. We want a sense of who you are, how you think, and what you’re interested in. Tell us!
We need someone comfortable with emerging technology. Talk a bit about your experience learning new technologies. Again, enthusiasm, and this time, with honest assessments. I’m fine with “I used Elluminate for a distance class I TA’d, and I thought it was awkward for certain class functions but I did learn how to operate despite that, which was a great accomplishment”, but I’m not okay with “The professor I TA’d for made me use Elluminate and it was awful. I wish he’d picked anything else. I already know how to use other things.” The first indicates some critical thought about how software works, and an ability to learn to use it. The second indicates reluctance to try new things, with no nuance to the critique. Be the learner, not the hater.
3. Interview us. You look at the schedule, and you see that you have individual meetings with the President, the Provost, the Director of Libraries, and the Search Committee, not to mention open meetings and lunch with library staff. Holy shit, you think, that’s a lot of face time. That’s a lot of me talking. I say, back up, hon. That’s a lot of face time, yes. But at least a third of it should be filled with us talking. You should be asking us questions. You should be interviewing us as much as we interview you. Yes, we’re going to decide if we offer you the job, but you have to decide if you’re going to say yes. If you don’t ask us any questions, how do you know if you should join our team? So when you sit down for an hour with the Director, you’d best have some questions prepared. This is your new boss. Don’t you want to know some stuff? Maybe about tenure? Or about management structures? Or our strategic goals? Our new initiatives? The responsibilities of the job? Who you’d be working with closely? How much latitude you’d have to propose new things? If you don’t want to know these things, I’m worried about you as a candidate. You’re not engaging. You’re not considering all the ramifications of taking a job. I want you to be considering. I want you to be engaged. ASK ME QUESTIONS.
4. Have a plan. Someone will ask you what you want to gain from this job, or where you want to be in 5 years, or what your plan for scholarship is, or what your professional goals are. Have some. It’s that easy. I want to know you’re engaged not just in the profession, but in building yourself as a professional. Why does this matter? Because as your new colleagues we’re going to be supporting your professional growth, we’re going to be integrating you into our team, and it’s a good thing to know if your trajectory matches ours. And if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice if your answer lands badly. If your answer lands badly, you now have more information about whether or not this is a job you want. And don’t be afraid to be bold. I announced to both my former Directors, during my interviews, that I wanted their jobs. Plant that flag.
5. Be yourself. I’m hiring a person, not a librarian construct. I want to know who you are. I’m going to have to work with you, support you, help you succeed, and wrangle your personality as part of our team for the foreseeable future, so… show me who you are. I’m going to be conversational, and show you parts of my relaxed personality, and try to draw you out. It’s in your best interests to let me: I have an hour in which to stare at you, and you want to sell yourself well in that hour, because, you see, I’m the Director. In the end, I decide. I’ve never countermanded the recommendation of our hiring committees, but you need to impress me. Turn on every bulb, and shine as the individual that you are. I have seen and am going to see more people who are qualitatively just like you before I make my decision, so you need to wow me with your integrity, your passion, your engagement, your smarts. Relax, and be your best self. I know you can.