I wrote this post for Rethinking Information Careers a couple of years ago, but just found myself in a conversation on this topic with several former students about to graduate. So I thought it might be useful to revisit this issue for all of those about to complete their degrees and start the job search…I hope it’s helpful!
Recently I had an opportunity to work with a young woman who had just graduated from an MLIS program. She was unsure of how to proceed with her job search given the precarious job market for librarians (and everybody else).
This young woman had never worked in a library before, and, like many of us when we complete our degrees, wanted to get a job in the same town where her university was located. But the reality is that with little or no library experience and facing the stiff competition that comes in an area flooded with fellow MLIS graduates, this young woman’s job prospects would be dim at best.
In fact, probably her best opportunities lie in a direction often avoided if not dismissed by recent grads: working for a library in Smalltown, USA.
The Starter MLIS Job
A starter job is the one you take when you’ve got little or no experience, so need to build up this aspect of your professional value. It may offer few of the elements you’re might want to go after in subsequent jobs throughout your career (high salary, cutting-edge projects, flexible hours, etc.), but it provides something else of high value: the opportunity to establish for yourself and others who you are as a professional.
A starter job can be of fairly short duration, which can be one of its attractions – if you find you really don’t like the place you’ve landed, you can comfort yourself that most of us can put up with anything for two years. (On the other hand, you may be surprised to find that the job and town you thought would bore you to death turned out to be a delightful community with a wonderful library, and you’d like to build a career there.)
Regardless, when you take a starter job, consider it a terrific opportunity to identify and practice those professional behaviors and attitudes that will help you succeed in the coming years.
Put together an agenda for what you want to accomplish/learn/practice over a given period of time – say two years. Then, if you love your job, you’ll have positioned yourself to continue to grow in value to your employer – and if you don’t love your job, you’ll have prepared yourself to move on to a better position.
The Starter Job Agenda
Here are some ideas for what you might want to consider as action items:
• Try out as many roles as you can, and then note what you enjoy and what you do not. What do you enjoy enough that it might be an area you’d like to explore further?
• Establish your professional persona, for yourself – establish and practice positive habits, expectations of yourself, and “best practices” for how you handle your career. This is a wonderful opportunity for you to watch and learn from others, good and bad.
• Focus on the lessons you learn about yourself and how you respond to circumstance around you – if you don’t like what you’re discovering about yourself, determine better responses and practice them.
• Learn everything you can about management by observing the managers around you, and how their actions are or are not successful and effective. (Trust me here – you may start out your career wanting to avoid any management responsibilities, but they tend to sneak up on you when you’re least anticipating them.)
• Start building your professional brand by writing, presenting, researching, and collaborating on topics that interest you, and for which you’d like to become known.
• Start building your community of colleagues. Establish positive, supportive relationships with the people you work with, but also consider joining regional and national professional groups in your area of interest. When you volunteer, no one cares how much experience you have – they’re just thrilled to have you on board!
• Become known as a great person to work with – focus on building rather than burning bridges.
• Start bulking up your portfolio of professional capabilities and accomplishments – on the job if possible, outside the job if not.
• Learn to work with all types of personalities, a skill that will be critical to you over a decades-long career. Anyone who’s played team sports knows that you don’t have to like a team-mate to win a game with her; it’s the same thing with work. If you’ve got a problem co-worker, disengage emotionally, stop taking it personally, and embrace it as an opportunity to practice a very important job skill.
• Learn how to work with a boss. In general, this means (besides just generally doing a good job) 1) learning how to provide the information he or she needs in the preferred manner, and the preferred frequency; 2) making sure your boss is always up to date on any situations that may come up with his or her boss; and 3) whenever possible, making your boss look good. (Corollary here: try never to make your boss look bad….)
• Learn self-management. Be honest with yourself regarding your professional strengths and weaknesses, and practice how to manage your weaknesses and play to your strengths. If in doubt about these, ask a trusted colleague, mentor, or boss.
• Develop an attitude of respect for the knowledge of everyone you work with. No matter how smart you were in grad school, you’ve still got a lot to learn. People will always be much more willing to respect the new knowledge you may bring with you if you first bend over backward to make it clear that you respect their hard-won knowledge.
• Learn how to collaborate within and across teams. Being seen as a strong and positive contributor willing to share information, experience, and credit will cause people to trust you and seek out your participation.
Bottom line: understand that paying dues is an honorable and wise activity. Your job is to learn, to establish your professional persona, to contribute to the best of your ability, and to become known as a strong, valuable contributor who employers will hate to lose.
Then when you’re ready to move on from that starter job, you will have built a solid career base from which to launch, and will have a folder-full of people eager to write letters of recommendation for you, the now-experienced information professional.
This is wonderful advice, Kim. You’re right, these positions can be less competitive, which helps a new grad in his or her first job search. My first post-MLS position was in a 5-person community college library in a small rural town, and it was one of the best training grounds I could have chosen. I was able to learn various library roles, find out what I liked and disliked, and gain diverse experience (including supervisory experience, which can be hard for new grads to gain). In addition, the community was full of lovely people who remain friends to this day. I often recommend this strategy to new grads, too. Thank you!