A Job Readiness Strategy for MLIS Students and Recent Graduates

By Heylicken (Hayley) Moreno

There is a saying by Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, “Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.” This can ring true in many aspects of our lives but it is especially imperative when it comes to getting ready for the job market. As the economy continues to recover, library school graduates are facing better prospects in landing a job but still face challenges when it comes to competing with more experienced professionals and acquiring the necessary skills being asked by employers. Librarian job ads are requesting very specific skills from applicants. These skills can range from a number of qualifications such as being familiar with a particular software, experience working with a specific group of library users or proficiency with certain technical skills. Having these qualifications can be difficult for someone who is getting started. MLIS students and recent graduates must prepare themselves for a job market that is asking for more than a master’s degree. By using a job readiness strategy, MLIS students and recent graduates can set themselves for a more successful job search.

The job readiness strategy in this article focuses on two pillars: first, building experience through “temporary” positions. Temporary positions are defined in this strategy as jobs that are short term and help develop a career. These jobs should increment the knowledge and skills needed for a particular type of professional librarian position. The second pillar is to form a network. As a person works through these temporary positons a professional network begins to take shape; hence, creating new opportunities for collaboration and professional development.

It is instrumental to begin the job readiness strategy by first identifying your role as a librarian (what type of librarian do you want to be?) and the institution where you want to fulfill this role (in what kind of library do you want to work?). This is preferably done in library school, and the sooner you answer these questions, the more time you will have to prepare for the job market. Even if a recent graduate already knows the answers to these questions, it is worthwhile to reconsider them given that librarianship, as most professions, is not stagnant. If anything, it is continuously evolving as new types of positions are appearing in the job market. Examples of such positions can be found in the areas of digital humanities and data management. By going through this identification process a student or recent graduate can tailor a work experience and network that is focus on the career path chosen.  

After identifying a possible path, it is time to perform a reconnaissance tour to determine whether your perceptions of the field match the realities of the practice. Starting off with a temporary position like a volunteer can provide this opportunity at this stage of the process. Libraries are usually willing to take volunteers to provide skills like customer service and teamwork, which are all applicable to any type of position in librarianship. More importantly however, are the opportunities that apprentices are given to sample the different departments and associated environments. Therefore, the goal at this stage of development is to begin the process of finding a fit within librarianship. Once it becomes clear that the career path chosen is the right fit, it is time to move on to the next type of temporary position, internships.

Internships begin the journey of specialization in librarianship. Through this type of temporary position an intern starts to develop particular skills and knowledge. The work of an intern can help familiarize a student or recent graduate to the environment and culture found in a niche of librarianship. Interns can learn about the journals that are read, jargon that is used, and systems that are needed to perform tasks. Internships can also provide a student or recent graduate with the skills needed to be in a paid temporary positon like paraprofessional. The professional network also forms in this stage as you begin to work closely with a supervisor that is related to your field of interest. These working relationships can foster a mentor-mentee bond. Interning for a person that is already in the field doing the work one day you hope to do is an influential experience and important contact to have in your network.

Once an internship ends, a MLIS student or recent graduate should attempt to apply for a paid position at a library by becoming a paraprofessional or support staff. Paraprofessionals are trained to assist professional librarians but lack the official authority of the professional.¹ However, paraprofessionals are the backbone of a library. Many of the responsibilities that were exclusively done by librarians (e.g. reference, copy cataloging and interlibrary loan, to name a few) are now being done by paraprofessionals.² Furthermore, MLIS students and recent graduates can become familiar with the  culture of an organization, and with the process of hiring a librarian by attending interview forums. These are invaluable opportunities as they reveal the complicated process of selecting a candidate, a decision that ultimately comes down to how the hiring institution perceives each candidate and deems one as the right ‘fit’. Candidates invited for in person interviews should at least meet the minimum qualifications and many of the advertised preferred qualifications. Although these become obvious in a candidate’s CV, in many instances the top candidate on ‘paper’ is not always the best interviewer, and vice versa. Getting a firsthand encounter with these different scenarios are indispensable for future candidates. Finally, as a paraprofessional, a graduate can ask a supervisor to expand his or her job responsibilities in order to learn new skills and in this manner earn a potential reference.   

As students finish their library program, sometimes it is anticipated that the education and experiences obtained with these temporary positions are sufficient to attain a librarian job. Unfortunately, it can sometimes not be enough. Graduates may get discourage at this notion but there are opportunities that arise if found in these circumstance. Temporary positions that require an MLIS such as fellowships and residence librarians are possible options to consider. They are usually sponsored by a specific organization or association, expect professional development, and a higher level of work. These are entry level professional positions and are established in well-known institutions. There are variations on how these programs are run and the length of time for the position. These type of temporary positions also increase a professional network by working alongside seasoned professionals. Residency and fellowship programs can conclude with a project or presentation for the organization. These types of projects or presentations can help build professional presentation skills which are important to have as a librarian.

Part-time librarianship can also be another type of temporary position after library school. Like paraprofessionals, part time librarians are permanent and a good option while searching for full time employment. Having this type of position allows recent graduates to dedicate more time to professional development activities such as writing, attending seminars, or presenting at a conference.³ It is important to keep in mind that a potential employer may prefer to have a candidate that is already a librarian even if it is part-time, because the more experience a candidate has, the less time they are expected to be on training, and the quicker they can contribute. Therefore, the goal is to build experience, eliminate a potential time gap on your CV after graduation, and to gain new contacts to grow your network. These newly acquired attributes will make any recent graduate more competitive in the job market.

Along with temporary positions, engagement in professional development will update and increase the skills needed to become a librarian. Early professionals can write reports for conference sessions, book reviews, or have a professional blog; after all, this is a good way to get your work noted by peers and a great opportunity to sharpen communication skills. Presenting is another great way to get involved in professional development. A poster presentation, roundtable discussion, lightning talk, or a 10 minute presentation at library conferences can be based on a project done in library school or in previous institutions.  Furthermore, by participating in committees and interest groups, opportunities arise to network with individuals outside of your geographical area. Collaboration with colleagues outside your institution gives those individuals a chance to experience what is like to work with you, and if the performance is to the satisfaction of those that collaborated, these may clue you in when job opportunities arise in their institutions. At the very minimum they would extend an invitation to collaborate on a new project, or recommend you for membership on a new committee.

The job readiness strategy discussed in this article hopes to provide students and recent graduates with a roadmap to obtain the experience and network needed to get noted by prospective employers. Getting a call back after dedicating hours to writing CVs and cover letters is a rewarding feeling; however, there is a gap between getting an interview and getting a job offer. Although some of these factors are within our reach (e.g. performing well during the various interviews), much of them consist of things that we cannot control (e.g. institutional culture and politics). The focus of this strategy then is to get recent graduates an interview, an invitation that potential employers only extend to candidates they deemed qualified (at least on paper) of executing the job. By using this job readiness strategy a job seeker can feel confident in knowing that they put the time and effort to gain the skills and knowledge needed to be a competitive candidate, and more importantly, to become a full time librarian.  

Notes

  1. 1. Newlen, R.R., & Switzer, T. (2004). Taking a paraprofessional position with an MLS: savvy career move or kiss of death? Retrieved from http://www.liscareer.com/newlenswitzer_mls.htm
  2. Newlen, Robert R., and Teri Switzer. (2004). Taking a paraprofessional positions with an MLS: savvy career move or kiss of death? LIScareer.com Career Strategies for Librarians. Accessed May 30, 2015. http://www.liscareer.com/newlenswitzer_mls.htm
  3. Ibid.
  4. Johnston, Jennifer. (2004). “A permanent alternative: temporary, part time library work.” LIScareer.com Career Strategies for Librarians. Accessed May 30, 2015. http://www.liscareer.com/johnston_temporary.htm

Heylicken (Hayley) Moreno is the Resource Description Coordinator at the University of Houston Libraries in Houston, TX.