How to Stand Out in the Job Search

By Christina Steffy, Librarian

When I entered my master’s program last year, it appeared to some that I was spending a large chunk of money for a degree in a field that was disappearing because of Google and e-books. I didn’t let that get me down, but I knew when I was beginning my job search that I was being hit with the proverbial double whammy – looking for a job in a difficult economy, and looking for a job in a library.

But as someone in the library and information science field, I knew how to dig for information. I also knew libraries weren’t going anywhere any time soon, but that’s a discussion for another article. And despite the naysayers, I landed interviews for many job opportunities, had a temporary position in a prestigious academic library as soon as I graduated, and landed a wonderful permanent position in a small nursing school library just one month later. So what tools did I use? Social media outlets, listservs, job search engines, university websites, and of course, networking. 

According to the Kutztown University Career Development Center’s Job Search Guidebook, employers receive hundreds of unsolicited resumes, but networking can make you stand out, either by mentioning someone’s name in your cover letter or by hearing about a job before it’s even been posted. In fact, the Riley Guide says, “networking is consistently cited as the number one way to get a new job,” especially since “80% of jobs are never advertised.” Throughout the course of my studies, I quickly discovered the best form of networking to dig for job, internship and publication opportunities; to generate new networking opportunities; and to engage in career exploration is the information interview.

I heard career services departments talk about this specific form of networking many times. Just go and schedule an appointment with someone to shadow them, to discuss their career, to do a site visit. In fact one of my undergraduate professors told me he never had to do a job search in his life because he always networked, and he constantly sung the praises of the information interview. I never did this as an undergraduate, although I was never afraid to reach out to my network and to ask people if they needed an intern, writer, publicist; in fact that’s how I stumbled across most of my jobs and internships. But I realized that, in order to stand out in this economy, I had to step it up with the search and find a way to expand my network rather than just depend on my current network. And so began the information interviews.

The most important thing for anyone taking this step to remember is that an information interview is not a job interview; the goal is not to get a job offer that day. According to Wendy Enelow’s article Honing Your Information Interview Skills, an information interview has the following objectives:

  • Establish rapport with the person you’re meeting. 
  • Educate the person about how valuable you are by sharing your experiences, knowledge, and accomplishments.
  • Get advice about what you can do to better stand out or to improve your career skills.
  • Get information about your field. 
  • Get referrals for who else you can speak to about this career.
  • Be remembered favorably by the person you spoke to.

So, why take the time to go on an interview that won’t get you a job now? Because it may pay off eventually. What better way to get your foot in the door and to learn about your profession, especially if you’re not sure what branch of librarianship you want to work in? You get to meet and discuss in a casual way, there’s no job interview pressure. You dress nice, but not in an interview suit unless, of course, you’re visiting a library where that’s the dress code. You learn a lot about the business and see the practical application of what you’re learning, and you learn about things you haven’t discussed in the classroom yet. You can also get suggestions on how to improve your skills. And the best part – it’s fun to spend a relaxing day in a library talking to someone who is passionate about his or her career. Clearly you gain so much more than just another job contact.

So how did a busy graduate student working and attending school full time find time to do information interviews? I didn’t wait to start! I began networking and conducting information interviews as soon as I was accepted into the Rutgers MLIS program. Two months after I was accepted, I attended the Lehigh Valley PA Library Association spring meeting at Muhlenberg College; this was my local PA Library Association chapter. The week after the meeting, I met with Muhlenberg College Library’s outreach coordinator to discuss the profession. 

After that, I asked people I knew if they could recommend librarians for me to meet with, and I made contact and scheduled interviews; I also searched library websites for people to contact. Most of my interviews took place between semesters or at conferences I was already attending; for example I landed a summer 2011 internship at Millersville University when I met with the outreach librarian at the PaLA conference in Lancaster in October 2010. I also had another interview during that conference, two over my winter break, and I had more interviews lined up as I completed my spring and summer sessions of graduate school. 

I also used my class assignments to schedule meetings. For example, one semester I had a reference services course that had an assignment to interview the head of a reference department at a library of my choice. Rather than interviewing the head of the reference department at my undergraduate alma mater, at my place of employment, or at Rutgers, I decided to schedule my meeting at a library where I had no connections. Sure scheduling the meeting at places where I already knew people would’ve been convenient, but what would I have gained from it other than the ability to stay in my comfort zone? Nothing. I certainly wouldn’t have made three new connections at another library.

So, do you want to get started with information interviews? Here’s my advice. 

  • Start early, long before you need a job, so there really isn’t any job search pressure. However, it’s still never too late to start.
  • Contact librarians directly, especially if you’re using email, rather than through a general phone number or email (unless a general number or email is all you can find).
  • Don’t send your resume right away. This isn’t a job search, so wait a bit. You shouldn’t send an attachment right away anyway because it could get spammed and your message requesting an interview will never reach its destination. But do, in your phone call or email, give your elevator speech along with your reasons for wanting an information interview (other than to find a job) and reference a professional web page if you have one. 
  • Schedule your interview at least a few weeks in advance. With my schedule, I set them up at least a few months in advance.
  • Follow up a week or a few days before the interview to confirm it’s still taking place. That’s when I sent my resume so the librarian could learn more about me before the interview. And I made it clear that’s why I was sending the resume.
  • Prepare questions about careers in librarianship in general and about careers in this library or library system specifically. Craft your questions to convey your library knowledge. 
  • Get a business card from the librarian, and leave your card behind (even if you have to make your own card that says “MLIS Candidate”).
  • Send a thank you card (an actual card in the mail) as soon as you get home and, if you’re on a professional networking site like Linkedin, connect with the librarian.
  • Keep in touch with this librarian. Send periodic updates and, once every few months, send an updated resume so he or she can see your academic and professional progress. Also, if you are taking classes and have a project that requires contact with a librarian, reach out to this person in addition to reaching out to new people.
  • Catch up with this librarian again when you’re in the area or when you’re both at a conference.
  • Treat this librarian as a colleague, not just as a job contact.

In addition to those steps, always remember to be conscious of your netiquette when sending emails and posting things about yourself online. Also, mirror this person’s level of professionalism in emails and conversations. And always be conscious of your etiquette. Take an “etiquette dinner” lesson if you haven’t already, because some interviews may take place over a meal. I had more than a few that happened over campus and conference lunches. 

Three semesters of information interviews helped me be incredibly successful in my job search despite the odds being stacked against a new graduate. Of course my flawless and visually appealing resume, teaching, and variety of library experiences all counted, too. Interestingly enough, I didn’t get a job at the places I had information interviews at; unfortunately no positions were available at those places. But what I learned in those interviews helped me discover what I had to do to stand out in the crowd so that I, a brand new graduate, ended up with multiple career offers. And I now have people that want to hire me when positions open up in their libraries. So go out and try what Enelow calls the best, most underutilized form of networking. You just might have fun!

Christina Steffy is a librarian at the Schuylkill Health School of Nursing in Pottsville, Pennsylvania.