Q: How do I make the switch from a non-profit to an academic library?

Q: I was an art director for 12 years and then went to library school. I have been working at a large non-profit for the past 2.5 years doing in depth reference requests, writing white papers, creating information graphics, creating web pages, very light cataloging, strategic planning for the information center. Although I am in a non-profit, the setting is VERY corporate and I am not really finding a comfortable fit. I would like to switch to academic (I also have an MFA) or find another non-profit that is less corporate. Ideally a career that marries my excellent research skills with design and writing. I am lost? Any advice? In library school I kept hearing how employers wanted librarians who could design, but I am not seeing that at all.

SM: This is a great question. You seem like you would be the perfect fit for an academic position. You have experience doing research, writing, strategic planning, creating and designing web pages and other materials, and you have an additional advanced degree (and you were an art director!). This all seems quite impressive and completely suited to a career as an academic librarian.

However, as you’re starting to figure out, the fact is – it can be bloody difficult to break into the academic library world, especially when you don’t have academic library experience. I hear this from so many people — new librarians, and those who have worked in other types of libraries — who just can’t get a foot in the (academic) door.

Now, it could be that part of the reason you are not getting interviews or jobs is that there just aren’t that many jobs available in whatever geographic area you are searching in, or you are being overly selective in your search. Whatever the reason, don’t give up your job search if academia is where you want to be. Here are some tips and ideas that may help:

Overhaul your résumé – create a CV that emphasizes and highlights your “academic-like” work: writing, reference, research, training, web design, cataloging, etc.

Start small – if you have never worked in an academic library, then that is one strike against you (unfortunate, but true). Look for part-time/adjunct reference work in an academic library, or an internship of some kind. These positions can provide you with experience and contacts who can serve as references when looking for full time work. And, these positions could potentially turn into full time jobs. In other words, identify the experience you are lacking (look at job descriptions) and go out there and get it.

Specialize, and sell yourself as special – what type of library position do you want? Why types of jobs are you applying for? Do you want more technical services, more public services, or a combination? Do you enjoy instruction or outreach? Would you like to be a subject specialist? It will be easier to get a job if you have a clear idea of the type of role you want to be in. Academic libraries and librarian roles can be quite different from special libraries (or corporate libraries)… different missions, different clientele, different expectations. And in some academic libraries you may be required to serve on committees and publish and prove your worth (so to speak) as a member of the faculty. Research, writing and design skills are all wonderful — but these are somewhat common amongst librarians. You need to combine them with something special, something that a hiring committee will remember.

Diversify – have you considered all types of academic libraries? How about community colleges, for-profit colleges, specialized schools (like design schools or trade schools)?

Write thoughtful cover letters – again, highlight your “academic-like” experience, and talk about why you want to move to an academic environment and how your experience and skills make you a great candidate for the job at hand (just remember to tailor each cover letter to the requirements of the specific job). Check out ones that have worked.

Utilize what you know – I always like to talk to and interview people who have worked in other areas, in different types of libraries, and had different careers. They tend to bring in new ideas and new ways to get things done. In your application materials, and during interviews, make sure to relate your past and current positions and the varied skills you obtained along the way, to academic librarianship and the job at hand. We call this: highlighting transferable skills. And these can make you special.

Create an online portfolio – which will be useful for displaying your graphic design work. This way, potential employers can view it and decide for themselves if your skills can be useful. You are right that web and design skills can be extremely beneficial for a librarian to have (and will come in handy, I guarantee it!), but unless the job specifically asks for those skills, then I wouldn’t emphasize them too much. From my experience, design skills are more of a bonus than a deal-breaker.

Become involved – join academic library organizations and associations in your area. Get to know people who may be able to help you find that job. Ask questions, volunteer for things, find a mentor or someone to talk to, get advice about your application materials, and ask your contacts to keep an eye out for job openings.

The job search process – and moving from one type of library to another – can be daunting and lengthy; but with a little ingenuity and a lot of patience, you should be able to get your foot in the door, and secure the type of job you desire. Good luck!

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