Further Questions: What’s the Worst Job Search Advice You Ever Heard?

Each week (or thereabouts) I ask a question to a group of people who hire library and LIS workers. If you have a question to ask or if you’d like to be part of the group that answers, shoot me an email at hiringlibrariansATgmail.

This week’s question is:

What’s the worst job search advice you ever heard? Why was it bad? Bonus info: who said it and when/where did you hear it?

Jaime Taylor, Discovery & Resource Management Systems Coordinator, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts: Literally anything and everything from my mom, who tried to give me advice when I was a new librarian struggling to find a job in 2009-2010. She hadn’t job searched since the early 1980s & everything she said was out of date & useless. (No, mom, no one keeps a file of promising resumes that they will pull out later, so sending mine to orgs that weren’t hiring – on paper, no less – wasn’t going to go anywhere but the trash.) So – the worst advice comes from anyone who has neither job searched nor hired lately, doubly so if they have never worked in your field and are therefore unaware with the field’s norms. That person might care about you and want you to succeed, but that doesn’t mean they have good advice.

(Yes, you can put my name on it.)

Ellen Mehling, Job Search Advisor/Instructor and Brooklyn Public Library’s Job Information Resource Librarian: The worst job search advice I’ve ever heard is that you should lie or mislead others in order to get a job, and that includes presenting a resume or cover letter that someone else wrote as if it is your own work. Employers don’t want to hire people who are dishonest and/or desperate, and who don’t actually have the required experience and skills for the job, or for the job search(!)

Anyone who gives this advice is telling you that they are dishonest and they are comfortable enough with lying that they recommend it to other people. If they are employed they probably lied in order to get their job. I would keep that information in mind as you interact with them. 

Randall Schroeder, Director, Retired: The worst piece of career advice I received was cumulative. Too many suggested that if you stay in one place and one position, your career is static and you could become irrelevant. I knew of one small college director who claimed when hiring a new librarian, the new librarian was expected to move on after three years and that after five, the library would start working to make them want to move. I hesitate to think what they might have looked like.

Sometimes, you are, in fact, where you need to be. Some of the happiest people I have known in academe knew early on that where they landed with their first or second jobs was where their bliss was. Not participating in campus politics or professional politics to climb to the next level was of no interest. They seemed to be very happy.

Don’t be ambitious if it doesn’t feel authentic to you. I felt pressured to move to the next levels and I regretted it. Where I was in my first and second jobs was where I wanted to be and I was good at it. Don’t let outside pressure sacrifice you from your authentic happiness to your misery. To me, the object of the game is to serve your community, patrons, clients, or students, not your ego.

“What do you want to be when you grow up, Linus?

Outrageously happy.,” – Peanuts

Laurie Phillips, Interim Dean of Libraries, J. Edgar & Louise S. Monroe Library, Loyola University New Orleans: I have friends (who don’t know libraries) trying to get me to apply for every job that’s out there, not really understanding how library jobs at my level are so siloed (public universities vs private/small vs. large/collections and systems and access vs. Learning Commons or teaching, etc.) My experience is varied, so I have a little more leeway, but it’s a total waste of time for me to apply to jobs outside my niche and expertise. If you don’t meet the qualifications and can’t even make your experience work, don’t bother. It’s a waste of time for you and the people who have to review applications. Academic applications take a tremendous amount of time to put together, if you do it right. I’m very careful about choosing jobs that are a good fit. Also, job openings run on a cycle for most academic libraries, especially at the higher levels. Fiscal years start on July 1 or August 1. Deciding to apply for everything in the fall isn’t really going to get you very far. 

Angelynn King, Head Librarian, Delaware Technical Community College:

I have heard people recommend trying to negotiate your starting salary, but most of the places I’ve worked have had a static chart based on qualifications and years of experience with no room for variation.

If you try to bargain at a place like that, you will probably come across as arrogant and entitled. 

Julie Todaro, Dean, Library Services, Austin Community College: Let me start with the last “bonus” question “Who said it and when/where did you hear it?” In short, the bad answers I am including are coming from years of reading articles, books and blogs on both commercial and non commercial content to determine not only specific paths (the best EDI questions, recommended organization of the room, online-only interviews, etc.) but also best practices for overall HR hiring practices. The worst advice includes “ask this question” and “give this answer” typically but also includes advice for length of resumes. 

I have two bad questions: “Where do you want to be in five years?” and “Please identify three of your strengths and three of your weaknesses.”

The first or “five year” question is a no-win for everyone. There IS no right or genuine answer. If someone outlines their retirement you don’t want to invest time in them only to leave. If the applicant says “I want to be in your job” it doesn’t show “your vision for the future” or the fact that you want to assume a leadership position and it certainly doesn’t signal ambition the way some think. If the organization wants to determine if an applicant is interested in moving up eventually or if they are trying to determine if the applicant will – for example – hopping from job to job there are better and more direct questions to determine an applicants next role or if they are possible successors or have an interest in succession planning.

The second question of strengths and weaknesses is – obviously – an opportunity for applicant self-assessment. As the first question – it doesn’t typically produce authentic answers but instead – if applicants have thought about it – strengths identified might be valuable, but weaknesses are strengths re-positioned such as “I pay too much attention to detail.” If the organization needs to know specific elements they should instead – list some strengths and list some weaknesses and ask applicants to rank these as they pertain to their potential roles and responsibilities. 

Finally some ideas not recommended include:

  • Don’t feel obligated to squeeze your resume into one page or less as we often hear. Clearly a lengthy resume is too much but it is better to be accurate, organized and specific to the position being advertised and that is seldom able to be reduced to one page.
  • Resumes that lead with a single job goal quickly become out-of-date. It is best to state areas of work interested in and map education, experience and competencies and attributes against job descriptions/job advertisements identified in cover letters or in attached documents such as a statement of professionalism or a values statement.

and finally and most importantly

Job seekers should be very, very careful about the content a search firm or professional employment consultant creates to represent you on a resume or document packet or specific position or job search. Specifically – positions held, job titles, specific roles and responsibilities, length of employment professional goals, values, promotions or job trajectory in one or more organizations, or products produced as exemplary of education or experience. 

Why? I can recall more than one situation where documents didn’t parallel, answers to questions didn’t jive, job titles were similar but inflated, reference check information wasn’t the same as applicant paperwork had implied and – literally – the applicant’s narrative about their work life was simply not accurate. It is also obvious to say that with today’s alternate avenues for finding out about applicants through web resources and often an applicant’s own web-published content – great care must be taken to be accurate, to be proactive about possible discrepancies and to be forthcoming about addressing appropriate interview questions. Simply put, advice to inflate or better represent oneself or to stretch the truth is never good advice.

We’d love to hear your thoughts here in the comments, on Twitter @HiringLib, or in the faint burbling of a mountain stream. If you have a question to ask people who hire library workers, or if you’d like to be part of the group that answers them, shoot me an email at hiringlibrariansATgmail.


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