The New Career Smarts: Zig-Zagging Your Way to Career Satisfaction

Rebecca Bryant, Ph.D.

By Caitlin Williams

We all know that the “rules” for moving forward in our careers have changed considerably over the last couple decades. Rather than a career “ladder” where one moves steadily upward in lockstep fashion, career success these days is all about moving forward along a non-linear path – taking advantages of possibilities that present themselves and continuing to learn and upskill all along the way.  In this interview, you’ll meet someone who has done just that – shape a rewarding career while continuing to stretch, grow and constantly identify opportunities along her way.

Caitlin Williams, Ph.D. Conducts an Interview with Rebecca Bryant, Ph.D., Senior Program Officer, OCLC Research

Caitlin:  What is your background and how did you come to be where you are right now?

Rebecca:  Like most professionals, I’ve had a non-linear career path, and I’ve zigged and zagged in response to new opportunities made possible by new skills, continuous learning, and relationships.  In the course of my career I’ve continued to learn about new things and develop new knowledge. I think that responding to that and developing new relationships is what has led me to this current role.  

You may hear people who say – “you should know where you want to be in five or 10 years.” I disagree with that because I don’t think we even know what the possibilities will be.  In my own career, I have had numerous positions that hadn’t even existed five years or less before I held them. My own career philosophy is that I’m in the right place if I’m developing new skills and new relationships.  If that’s not happening, then I have to figure out how to fix that either through leaving, negotiating some new challenges internally, or maybe even developing some new interests and skills outside of work.

Caitlin: Sounds like there’s an internal restlessness to keep growing.  Is that accurate?

Rebecca:  Yes, but I think you also have to be comfortable with some uncertainty, too. Are you familiar with the book on Planned Happenstance by John Krumboltz?  I recommend it for anyone at any stage of their career, as it emphasizes that if you’re constantly building and stewarding relationships and keeping your skills sharp, then you will position yourself to have good opportunities.  

Caitlin:  Tell me, did happenstance play a part in your career?

Rebecca:  You bet!  I was a first-generation college student and went away to school, and the one thing I did really well was play the piano.  But once you get to college, you realize that though you play well, there are people who play a lot better than you do. Along the way I also realized I really enjoyed musicology.  So, eventually I went to grad school and studied that. But then also along the way, I realized that although I enjoyed that, I wasn’t sure about thirty years of teaching the same courses.  You always gain more information. Most of us, especially early in our careers, are making career decisions in the absence of information and that’s what I was doing.

I also had some other opportunities.  I ran out of assistantship funding through my graduate department and I ended up as a graduate assistant in the Graduate College.  I was the thesis reviewer, checking the margins on the theses and dissertations at the University of Illinois as students deposited. Even though that position came about because I needed to find support outside my department, it was a very fortuitous opportunity for me, leading to new knowledge, mentors, and opportunities. That was the moment when I realized I didn’t want to be a faculty member, and I realized I needed more opportunities and change and maybe I didn’t want to be a narrow expert on just one thing for the rest of my life.  

So, there was an Assistant Dean there at the time who was a mentor to me and she said to me:  Why don’t you go to the Dean and say you want to build your career here?  That was hard advice for me—I was nervous about talking to him.  But I followed her advice -and the Dean thoughtfully stroked his beard and he said: Well, I don’t have anything for you.  But two or three months later, he called and said: Why don’t you come in and talk with me.  I might have something.  And that was “something” that no one else in the college wanted to do, which was to go and work on the campus implementation of the student information system.  I had no idea what a student information system was – I knew almost nothing about registration or records or the three campuses of the University of Illinois. But I was smart enough to know that if I didn’t take that opportunity, I might not get another one.  

So, I took it and at first, I didn’t have any idea what I was doing!  But I found that I was able to learn as I went along. And that’s what a graduate education does for you.  It teaches you to learn quickly: You get a lot of skills in synthesizing a lot of information and making sense of it.  I applied those skills in that environment, and in return, I was rewarded by learning a lot about the university, the intersection of its policies, practices, and hierarchies, and project management, which I’ve used in every position since.  I also learned that fast-paced, short term projects, which usually don’t offer a lot of security, can still offer an abundance of skills development, networking, and opportunity for advancement.

Within one year I had 7 people reporting to me.  I excelled at that project, even though I didn’t initially know what I was doing.    After a couple years in that role, that same Dean asked me to come in and see him again.  By then the Graduate College was establishing a new career services office for graduate students, and he wanted me to lead that initiative. He had seen me navigate my own career transition successfully and had seen me succeed in the previous role, so he asked me to lead an effort to help other graduate students.  I took that role and was promoted to Assistant Dean and had a lot of other responsibilities over the course of my ten years there.

Caitlin: It’s great that you had so much opportunity.  Certainly, you took the initiative and ran with it.  And it paid back. How did you then, as you did different things, end up at OCLC?

Rebecca: I had many opportunities to develop new skills—establishing a post-doc affairs office in addition to career services. I did a lot with academic policy and academic program review.  During this time, I developed extensive knowledge about early career researchers, policy, and the graduate education. I worked with 300 graduate programs and 100 graduate departments, and I had the benefit of a broad, enterprise view of the institution because I would work with the humanists in the morning and scientists and engineers in the afternoon. I also worked closely with the University Library to implement electronic theses and dissertations (ETDs).  I had a terrific experience working with the library and became a true believer in the value that the library can offer to other parts of campus. This knowledge and experience helped me land a position at ORCID (Open Researcher and Contributor ID) because a lot of what they were interested in was my experience with higher education administration, scholarly communications, as well as my experience with early career researchers.

Caitlin: So, you brought a great combination of skills to the table and experience that they were impressed with!

Rebecca:  It was that experience, yes.  I spent nearly two years with ORCID and continued to learn and build relationships within the broad scholarly communications community. After that, I returned to the University of Illinois and University library to lead a project supporting research information management (RIM).  That was the experience that directly led to what I do here at OCLC.

Caitlin:  Can you explain more about RIM?

Rebecca:  We define Research Information Management (RIM) as the aggregation, curation and use or reuse of information or metadata about a research institution’s research portfolio.  Another way of saying that –that’s in overly simplistic terms – is that it’s a faculty research bibliography for the campus.

I think that in an increasingly technologically-networked, interoperable world, Research Information Management practices can support institutional workflows; provide institutions, departments, and faculty with better information; and help with institutional decision support.  I think it can give us information to help support the reputation management of our institutions, as well as the individuals within them, and it intersects with library values like open access and open data that can support research and discovery.

Caitlin: In terms of the work that you do with research information management, what is the part that you’re most passionate about?

Rebecca:  I see these as real opportunities for institutions to improve their information for decision making.  I’ve been in a lot of meetings where I saw decisions made with very poor or no data – or anecdotal information.  It doesn’t have to be this way, and universities will benefit from better information.

I’m also very optimistic that we can reduce the burden on our researchers in time, because they have to re-enter a lot information over and over, and I think with increased interoperability and improved workflows, we can start to offer that.

Caitlin: In your current role, do you mostly supervise others?  Do you get into strategy? What is your primary role there?  Your day-to-day work?

Rebecca:  My current job as a Senior Program Officer is a blend of research activities, as well as more external community-facing activities.  A lot of what I have been doing is actually trying to work with members of our library community – specifically with members of our Research Library Partnership to conduct research and to gather information about their experiences to help package that and share that with the broader library community.  That in turn helps research libraries better understand the rapidly evolving landscape and respond strategically. That’s part of our service mission as a nonprofit membership organization. What’s so fun about my job is that I’m somebody who’s curious and keenly interested in emerging practices, workflows, and technologies, and I get to monitor that closely and work with our community to report on that.

Caitlin:  It gives you a variety of things you’re able to do to make a difference.  I’m curious, if someone wanted to go into work in the area of research information management, what advice would you have for them, re: the skills, background, what to bring to the table?

Rebecca:  I think that curiosity, problem solving skills, and some general project management skills will go a long way—and for just about any job. But perhaps most important is the ability to build relationships with other stakeholders across the institution. It’s important to understand the pain points of other stakeholders in the ecosystem, to help you identify the synergies of working together. Research information management is an enterprise level activity, and it can help solve a lot of problems for a lot of different stakeholders—but only if it’s done as a community.

Caitlin: Who are these stakeholders?

Rebecca:  It can vary by institution, but it’s likely to include the vice president or vice chancellor for research, who oversees the research portfolio of the institution. And there are also many stakeholders within academic affairs—deans, directors, and department heads, as well as the provost.  They have an interest in quality information and they also oversee faculty activity reporting workflows—which may make sense to incorporate in RIM practices at some institutions. The data warehouse and IT folks also have a role.

Another important stakeholder is the institutional research office.  These are skilled social science researchers who are extremely adept at working with student data and reporting that to the Department of Education. However, they are increasingly being asked to report on research productivity.  They are typically less familiar with persistent identifiers like DOIs (Digital Object Identifiers) or ORCID, and the distinctive challenges of publications metadata. That’s where the library comes in because the library has that expertise.  It’s increasingly a big challenge for institutions – these are enterprise-wide initiatives. And, by and large, the folks sitting in institutional research or even the provost may think “Oh, yeah, the library. . . books… , failing to realize that the library has expertise and knowledge to help make RIM efforts successful..

Caitlin: Is that a hard sell to get everyone involved to understand that?

Rebecca: Ultimately, I think it’s a communications issue, particularly for libraries. We can point to examples where the library has been a partner in RIM, and where there is a deep appreciation for the types of things that librarians know – like publications metadata– that have added value.  But so many people throughout our research universities still seem to have antiquated notions of what libraries do. I’m interested in how my work here at OCLC Research can help libraries address that. That is one of the things we did with our position paper (oc.lc/rimpaper) on Research Information Management, offering some talking points for libraries that they can use with others on their campus.  I’m looking forward to doing more.

Caitlin: What do you see as particularly challenging in the work you do right now?

Rebecca:  I think everyone is feeling challenged and stressed by trying to keep up with the rapid cultural and technical changes in scholarly communications.  I find that there’s more work than I can do to learn and share in this landscape—which means I have time management challenges. ☺

Caitlin:  Thinking about library students who are finishing their education and who want to move in the direction we’ve been discussing, what might they do to prepare themselves?

Rebecca:  My advice to anyone managing their career is to continue to build relationships and continue to build new skills – constantly acquiring fresh knowledge.  That’s my core advice and my mantra from my own career.

In addition, I would encourage them to read our OCLC research in this area.  I would encourage them to engage with user group communities. Follow conversations.  That’s sort of the relationship piece, but that’s also the knowledge piece – to get active in the community as best as they can.  Continue developing technical skills as it relates to your interests. I would also encourage some project management training, which I frankly think benefits just about anybody.  

An interesting personal story that fits here – I was still writing my dissertation when I went to work on that student information system implementation, which at Illinois was called UI-Integrate.

We worked with folks from Accenture consulting, which offered external project management support. It was a little heavy-handed for a university culture, but it was also extremely beneficial to learn.  I ended up applying a lot of that knowledge to how I disciplined myself to write my dissertation.

I created a project timeline of what I had to get done (on my dissertation).  Implemented regular communications with my stakeholders (my doctoral committee) and sought sign-off type agreement on chapters as I delivered them.  

I still apply those basic high-level project management skills in just about everything I do today.  But I first applied them in finishing my dissertation. I finished it on time, which was exactly what I wanted to do. This was all done while working full time and being newly married!  

Caitlin: Last question:  As you look toward the future, what are you optimistic about regarding the work you are doing and for what library professionals can contribute to making it all happen?

Rebecca:  I remain pretty optimistic in general, and I believe there are many important opportunities for libraries.  I think the risk for libraries is that we may not be communicating as effectively about all the value that we offer. My hope is that I can work with others in the library community to improve our communications to the other institutional stakeholders.

Caitlin: Thanks so very much for your time and for sharing your valuable experience with readers!

Rebecca: You’re welcome.

Here are some questions for you to consider, based on Rebecca’s comments.  Take the time to reflect on them and see how you can apply her wisdom to your own career growth.

  • How long has it been since you negotiated some new challenges in your own position to keep you energized and on the cutting edge in your area of interest or specialization?
  • Rebecca suggests that “you always learn new information” in every activity you take on.  What new information have you gained in the course of your work over the last six months?  How have you put that information to work for you?
  • Our interviewee has made an excellent case for the importance and value of networking.  Consider how well you are nurturing your own networking contacts. What are you learning from them?  How are you contributing to these relationships?
  • Do you know what value you bring to the table, in terms of your own expertise?  How well do you share your unique strengths with others who need to know what you can contribute?