Q: How do I overcome the catch-22 of having experience that is often disregarded?

Q: I am in a strange situation that I am unsure how to change. I currently work in a paraprofessional position at a small public library. After working for five years and obtaining every possible promotion, I realized that if I wanted any chance of a decent salary and a decent career, I needed to make a significant change.  About two years ago, I received my library degree but have yet to find an opportunity to make a change. Because of the nature and flexibility afforded to me by my library’s size, my resume runs the gambit from Circulation assistant to two different department heads and shows that I performed the duties of each for a year before being promoted to another position (and often doing multiple positions simultaneously.)

Since each of these positions were prior to receiving my degree, they are often disregarded as actual experience despite performing the duties of each. On the rare instance that I am able to interview for professional opportunities I am often questioned as to why my experience is even on there or why I have switched positions as often as I have.  After explaining size, staffing constraints, promotions and skills, I am often told that I am in essence lying about titles that I have held. This level of disbelief is compounded by the fact that I have nearly ten years’ experience across a broad spectrum in nearly every department before reaching my mid-20s. I have tried to obtain extra skills by gaining extra certificates and doing continuing education following my degree to overcome any inadequacies anyone may consider I have. To offset any of the title disputes I have tried applying for part-time experience only to be told I’m over qualified and they know I will leave quickly.  From the few interviewers who have spoken to me after the interview, I have been told that I will have a successful career ahead of me and they understand that I am more than capable and qualified, but the titles matter to them. Some have even gone as far as saying that they would love to hire me but they know it would have been harder for the other candidate to find a job because of their age so they chose them.

Since this problem has been haunting me for a few years, I’d like to find a way to make a change for quality of life reasons. However, I am starting to get more than a little disheartened. I would consider switching concentration away from public libraries if that was the answer but I feel I would run into the same situation anywhere. My real questions are these:

1) How do I overcome the catch-22 of having experience that is often disregarded?

2) Is it worth changing my job titles?

3) Since my age is often questioned, should I take off my degree dates?

Thank you for any help you can provide.

TA:
Wow.  There’s a lot going on in this one question.  It’s hard for me to choose where to start, so I’m going to just jump in and answer your three specific questions.  Then I’ll add some additional commentary that I hope will also be useful.

1) Overcoming experience.  Most of the time, when we hear from folks the question is usually “How do I get experience without experience?”  It’s not often that we hear that having experience is what’s holding people back.  But there is some reality to it, and you should know you’re not alone.  Sometimes when you have the track record of being good and reliable, you’re given certain experiences not afforded to others.  And sometimes this experience can seem accelerated.  What I mean is, it can be judged by others as being too much, too soon.  It can also often result in quick promotions that might be perceived by potential employers as job-hopping and can cause concerns about whether you’ll stay in a position for any amount of time.

To combat these perceptions, you can do a couple of things.  First, address some of these things in your cover letter.  In your question to us, you describe the “nature and flexibility” afforded by your library’s size…this information should also be in your cover letter.  You should also talk about the duration of time and level of commitment you’ve displayed at your current institution, by staying on board for years and stepping up to assist when asked to move into new roles and positions.  What you want to do is shape the perception you’re presenting to employers:  Are your materials presenting an employee who constantly needs to be moved, who is overly ambitious and never content?  Or are you the kind of employee who is so dedicated to the life and success of the organization that you are willing to step up to new challenges, take on new responsibilities when asked, and who leaves behind a track record of successful projects and activities?

Second, be prepared to talk about your experiences (and your successes) during the interview.  Be sure to present a logical pathway from one position to the next, especially if you were asked to assume additional responsibilities based on success in another position.  (I say to folks all the time, “the reward for good work is more work”!)

2) Job titles?  They vary from state to state, institution to institution, so the meaning is difficult to translate from one context to the other.  My advice here is to be honest.  If you’re worried about how a title will be perceived by a potential employer, go with the simplest form.  But still be honest.  One of the greatest risks to a successful candidacy is being dishonest, even if you were trying to help.

3) And about the age thing…From what you’ve written, I just don’t think this is about age.  I would encourage you to leave the grad dates on (it’s actually very helpful information, and not a true indicator of age—librarianship is one of the most common second careers) and try to address what you perceive to be the age thing in a different way.  Let me give you one example…

In your question to us, you say “I have nearly ten years’ experience across a broad spectrum in nearly every department before reaching my mid-20s.”  I know that you hedge a little bit with words like “nearly” and “mid” but at the roughest calculation, that would mean you started working in the library at the age of 15, which most employers would not consider relevant professional experience.  In this case, it’s not the age that’s the problem, it’s the hyperbole.  You may have been writing at a time of great frustration, but these kinds of statements can be interpreted by employers as embellishment or a magnification of your real experience.  Don’t devalue your real experience by making grandiose overstatements.

And finally, let me add one other note about something you mention in your question.  You state that you have started applying for part-time positions only to be told you’re overqualified.  This may actually be true.  Given the fact that you have had all kinds of opportunities over the years in your full time job, it is natural for a potential employer to wonder why you are interested in their (possibly somewhat limited) part-time position.  If you are really interested in the part-time position, you need to make a case for it in your cover letter.  Maybe you’re looking to try librarianship in another context, or a different type of library.  Maybe you’re looking for an opportunity to develop new skills.  Or maybe you’re looking to relocate.  Whatever the reason, offer an explanation in your cover letter.  Don’t just let the hiring supervisor or hiring committee guess, or worse, speculate as to your reasons.

To summarize, let me mention a few action items:

  • Have an excellent cover letter and resume.
  • In the cover letter, address some of these lingering questions (Why did you move around so much in the same organization? Why are you interested in this new position?)
  • Have someone outside of your organization review your resume.  How does it read?  Does is make sense in terms of promotional opportunities?  There are a lot of professional associations who will hook you up with a resume reviewer…
  • Be aware of how you describe things and how that might be interpreted by others.  Avoid hyperbole.

One thought on “Q: How do I overcome the catch-22 of having experience that is often disregarded?

  1. I think it’s important to acknowledge that there is reality to the questioner’s experience. A similar thing happened to me as a new librarian with a lot of paraprofessional and professional-level experience obtained prior to my MLS. Salary-wise, I earned less as a new librarian than I had as a paraprofessional for several years, largely because the only jobs I was able to get hired for acted as though I had zero experience. It was immensely frustrating. This has also happened to several new librarians I am aware of.

    This is not to detract from Tiffany’s advice, which is excellent. Take a hard look at your resume and determine which skills you have that are truly professional-level, and then articulate that to prospective employers. You are more than just a list of job titles, so think about how you are presenting your work history. You must be accurate and honest, but you tell the story you want prospective employers to hear.

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