Q: I am a 40-something communications/PR professional with a degree from a well-known university. I am embarking on a mid-life career change and applying to MLS programs with the hopes of starting school in January. The problem is that I have never worked in a library and would like to work part-time as I get my degree. I’ve applied for about 20 different positions in the last two months that don’t require an MLS and have received no interviews. I’m applying for jobs in the $8-$15 hour range, which is a big pay cut for me, but I’m more than willing to start at the bottom. I know that some may feel that I’m overqualified, but I clearly explain my motivations in my cover letter. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!
SM: I applaud your efforts to get a taste of the profession and its day-to-day work before you begin library school, and admire your willingness to take a pay cut to get (much needed) experience. Many people are unable to do just that. We have stated many times in this column that any library experience you get before or during your time in library school can be crucial to finding a job once you get your degree. Also, working in the profession while getting your library degree will only enhance your studies and help you to decide on an area of specialization.
Since I do not know what kind of positions you are applying for, and I have not read your cover letters, I can only guess as to the reasons why you are not getting interviews. As you mentioned, potential employers probably do see you as overqualified for the position because of your extensive work experience and knowing that you would be taking a severe pay cut (e.g., does this make you seem desperate?). However, other applicants may have previous library experience, which (in some cases) would make them more qualified for that particular position.
Also, potential employers, knowing that you are going to start library school, might see you as a transitory — as someone who is not all that serious about the position at hand, seeking any experience in order to bide time while getting a degree. Employers don’t like to fill positions with people they know are going to leave quickly, and they often do not like to fill paraprofessional positions with professionals. Even though you do not have the degree, they might view you as a “librarian,” since you are on your way to becoming one.
To get past these obstacles, write your cover letter carefully. Stating that you are interested in the profession and plan on getting your library degree is not enough to get you the job — or even an interview (as you’re finding out). I wouldn’t take that out of your cover letter; it is important to your motivation and addresses the larger context of the position, but doesn’t hold as much weight as you may think. Focus more heavily on the job description and your transferable skills. For example, if the position is in public services, your communications background will come in handy. Use concrete examples of how you might excel at a given position because of your prior work experience. This helps potential employers see you as the right person for the position and your interest in the profession then becomes an added bonus.
If you’re focusing on one type of position (reference, circulation), or one type of library (academic), maybe you need to widen your search. Even if you know you want to be an academic librarian, it won’t hurt you at this point to work in a public library, or a special library. Any experience will be beneficial to you as you begin library school, and any library job will be a stepping stone to that next position, and the next, and so on.
Many library positions in both academic libraries and public libraries require you to fill out applications (some online) and/or take civil service exams. Find out if this is the case with positions you are interested in. If you want to work in an academic library, you might want to wait until you are enrolled in classes, so that you can apply for student jobs at your school. Also, think about volunteering at a library, which could lead to a job; or doing an internship, which could be arranged through your library school. If you haven’t done so yet, talk to someone at the career development office at your school. They might be able to help you find something, or provide you with job leads in your area.
Don’t give up hope, you will find a position. I started from the bottom up, and my diverse experiences along the way have provided me with invaluable skills and knowledge. I have become a better, and more well-rounded, librarian than if I would have started somewhere in the middle.
“Getting Started: Employment Opportunities for Graduate Students in Library and Information Programs” by Charlie Potter and Shelly Franklin
“Reasons Why People Don’t Get the Job” by Sean Duffy
“Making Your Cover Letter Work For You” by Tiffany Eatman Allen and Richard A. Murray