One of the central questions deserving our attention as mentors to LIS students on the job market is: How can students maintain a sense of their own worth while going through the process of an academic job search in libraries?
In this post I’d like to address some of these issues based on my personal experience, with the hope that they might be valuable for someone currently struggling on the market. And I’d like to invite folks with jobs to share their experiences/advice in the comments section in a similar spirit as well.
I think I started to apply for positions in January of my second year in library school and was hired for a position at my current university sometime in June of that year. I noticed, sometime maybe in March or April, that I was feeling very depressed (or, perhaps, let’s be honest, more depressed than usual …). Naturally I wondered why. The obvious answer was that I really wanted/needed a job and I was afraid I might not get one. This makes sense. I’d worked really hard in library school to get experience, and here was the time to see if all that hard work was going to pay off. Also, there was the financial thing. I get that this is a stressful part of the process. Until now, I’ve never really had any money, ever, and I was hoping I might get a nice job in a library somewhere to somewhat rectify that. When I was growing up my mother was a waitress; I started working when I was 15 washing dishes in a series of restaurants, and, during college, when my friends were sleeping in on Sunday mornings after going out, I was going to work at 8am at the local gas station. During library school, once the vast, Trump-like nest-egg I’d built up after four years of adjuncting at several different schools all across Southwest Virginia with no medical insurance ran out, I concurrently worked three different jobs in libraries and still had no idea how I was going to pay my rent most months. I slept on an air mattress for my first year in Chapel Hill because I couldn’t afford a U-Haul. Because of this, I spent a good portion of my time in upscale, preppy Chapel Hill returning air mattresses to a Wal-Mart in Durham, because I’d wake up at least once a week on the floor after the thing had deflated in the middle of the night with a hole in it (For the record, I started to develop a sneaking suspicion that Wal-Mart was just recycling the air mattresses). For the first three months or so the only place I had to sit was on a lawn chair. This is all to say that I hear you, young librarian. I get it. Before I was in my current position, pulling down a big-shot full-time librarian salary, paying back a six figure student loan debt and seven figure California state taxes I, too, really needed a job after library school because I needed the money. And this was, indeed, stressful part of the process.
But what I notice from talking to friends in a similar position, the real stress doesn’t usually seem to be financial. The real stress always seems to be the belief that it’s taking me a long time to get a job because they don’t think I’m good enough (which, therefore translates to I’m not good enough). And I can tell you, straight away, that’s what was going on with feeling depressed when I was applying for jobs: I was in a mental space where I was always trying to prove my worth to other people. No wonder, then, that I was feeling depressed, for lacking a sense of your own worth and always trying to prove it to others is, like, a big part of what causes depression, e.g., psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan write, “a common theme in the clinical literature is that psychological ill-health is the all too typical product of alienation from one’s true self.” This really was what was going on with me: by trying to prove that I was valuable I’d lost a sense of myself in the process. And it didn’t really feel all that good.
Now I think this is a really important point for job-seekers, because there is, inherently, a sense that you’re trying to prove that you’re right for the position. But what we mean by “you’re” here is very important. There could be a sense in which, yeah, you’re not right for this position, because something about “you” is not “adequate” for the position. But really this just means that something about your application or experience isn’t right for the position (and there are ways to rectify that). They aren’t saying you, Kevin Michael Klipfel – the boy who, say, really likes loafers, and was very hurt by his parents’ divorce, and has a nice time with his girlfriend – doesn’t matter. But this is how I was taking it (even though I wasn’t actually even being rejected – it was just … taking a long time to hear back from some places) and this is why I felt bad about myself. I was adopting a mindset that I was proving myself rather than, say, demonstrating my fit and enthusiasm for a particular position, or seeing if I even wanted to work there at all. I was talking it personally when it’s not personal at all.
But look – and here’s something nobody really seems to say – sometimes it can be personal. I am like 100% certain that I didn’t get offered one of the positions I applied for simply because they didn’t really like me that much as a person. One of my references was told (believe it or not) that people thought I was too “quiet and reserved” during social situations, like dinner. One way to translate that is to say that I didn’t get the position because the people who I might’ve worked with didn’t really like me. That kind of hurts my feelings. But you know what, there’s two things about that that catch my attention: (1) I sometimes am very quiet and reserved when I’m in a social situation that is not particularly comfortable (especially when, I don’t know, I’ve been on during an interview for … like 12 hours) and so effing what? – that’s what I’m like!, and (2) I also happen to think that it’s probably one of the most pernicious ideas in modern life that everybody is supposed to like (as opposed to respect) everybody. There’s as many different personalities as there are people and it’d be crazy if you liked them all. It’s more important that I like myself than that I impressed someone on a search committee.
Now, look, none of this is not to say that you shouldn’t be a nice, charming, wonderful person on your interview. You should put your real, best self forward. But I encourage you not to fall into a way of being during the application and interview process where you feel like your own personal worth is at stake. All you can do is get the right experience, do work that matters to you, try to see if the organization is the right fit for you, and remember that you’ve got nothing to prove.
I wish you a lot of luck in that.