Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Career advancement: identifying strengths, applying, interviewing and vulunteering

Part 1: strengths and interests

As suggested by Maria, I have found conducting a SWOT analysis of my strengths and interests to be quite helpful. I did this in preparation for writing out my Chartership PPDP a few months ago, but I think it's still pretty much up-to-date. Generally, it suggests that I like the customer-facing side of library work more than the information-structuring elements, and that I am strong at supporting use of our services both at the desk and 'in the field'. I also, perversely, enjoy statistics and working with spreadsheets to measure service performance. I think I throw myself into all elements of my job, and seem to be seen as a font of knowledge by colleagues (particularly with the technical side of things - in the kingdom of the blind, the man who once spent half an hour on a mac is king...), but definitely favour working on desks and with customers over back-office pursuits; this is unfortunate in some ways, as progression generally means managerial responsibility, and consequently less time (if any) directly customer-facing.

What was my last dose of great satisfaction working in the library? Without doubt an Information Skills session I assisted a professional colleague with. We supported a cohort of Education students who were researching material for their dissertations; it was an unpressurised, constructive academic environment which yielded useful results for the participants, and it felt like my presence made a tangible difference. I'd like that feeling more often. Unfortunately, this was a one-off engagement, and sessions like this do not form part of my standard work.

I'm not sure I love my current job - I definitely like it very much, and think I probably did love it at one point, but... let's just say I'm ready for a change. So I have been applying for jobs...

Part 2: Applying for jobs

I keep a log of skills and experiences for various reasons, but it's definitely helpful when working on job applications. I confess that I don't tend to start from a 'blank page' in terms of applying for jobs - I have a reasonably-expansive pro forma personal statement which I then expand and contract to meet the desired areas in the job specification. I'm not sure this leads to the best possible application, but you can make applying for jobs a full-time occupation in itself if shortcuts like this are not taken...

I always try to address every desirable, as well as essential, criteria given in a job spec; where I don't meet the desired level I try to demonstrate how I am working towards this point and how I would plan to develop this area if appointed. I'm less good at thoroughly reading the job description and ensuring that my description of my current work echoes the language and thematic content of the brief; whilst I try to address the major areas in my personal statement, it makes more sense to cover these in relation to my current employment where possible. I have applied for jobs where I don't meet every essential criteria (and have occasionally got an interview!); the areas where I regularly don't meet job briefs informed to a great extent my goals for Chartership PPDP, which has definitely already aided me in filling some of my previous gaps in experience. Despite recognising it as being necessary, I still feel uncomfortable 'bigging myself up' - I think I present my skills and aptitudes in a measured way, with examples where relevant, but I have definitely read more confident applications. I should probably try to write a more arrogant account of what I can, and do, do - maybe I'll try it out on a job I'm unsure about first though!

My references are relatively current: I generally use my line manager (a given, as most applications stipulate this) and my former dissertation tutor, also using my MCLIP mentor if a third referee is asked for (generally only if the job uses an academic-post application form rather than a support-staff one). I should perhaps switch this up; although my tutor has always given me great references, she hasn't seen me for over a year and perhaps doesn't realise just how great I have become!! My major problems with making this change are that my two references would have the same [work] address, and that using one's mentor seems a little like nepotism. I'd like to know any readers' opinion on this matter (joking! I know no-one reads this rubbish!!! :( )

I've never really found where to use a CV, as every job I apply for asks for its own exhaustive application form to be filled in - what's the CV adding to this? My CV is 2 sides of A4, and I think it's okay, but it's pretty dense with information. I think I could maybe cut back on my employment history (which is patchy due to the whole 20-years-of-full-time-education thing, and quasi-relevant at best) and add in a bit more about transferable skills, abilities and aptitudes - but who's got the time?

Part 3 - Interviews

Silence: the reason I go
to pot in interviews...
This is where it all goes wrong for me. Whilst I try to prepare, getting my ducks in a row by organising travel and logistics well in advance, reading job specs again and trying to formulate answers to likely questions, on the day I feel like I babble incoherently. The problem is the silence in room and the expectant faces of the panel - I desperately want to keep talking until they look satisfied, which generally results in me tailing off with something along the lines of "so, um... yeah". Who'd hire that?! I think the 'context, actions, result' framework which Maria mentions provides a useful framework, and would prevent me from doing this so much (it's impossible to stop me waffling entirely!).

No matter how much preparation you do, you can never accurately predict what an interview will consist of. I've found that stressing over this, and over-analysing what may come up, is counter-productive. I now try to check into a nearby hotel the night before an interview (a Travelodge, not the Hilton, but still not a particularly cheap practice): this not only cuts down on travel stress on the day, but also means I'm away from other people who want to know how I'm feeling, if I've prepared etc. - I can shut out the world, do the preparation I feel I need to do and then relax. I think this has yielded broadly better results, but if check-out leads to an awkward gap before the interview it can lead to nervous stewing. Nonetheless, this works pretty well for me.

Part 4 - Volunteering

I'm adding Thing 22 on as an adjunct here as it does not form a full blog post in it's own right. I've not undertaken voluntary work within a library to advance my career; however, I did volunteer in a charity bookshop for about a year, which gave me breadth of experience transferable to library work which I suspect was instrumental in securing me my current role (or at least in getting me an interview). I accept Jo's argument that she was better to refuse full-time library assistant work and get experience elsewhere; however, I took the other route and don't really regret it. I've found that having boots on the ground means you can bully your way into things which are outside your job description and above your pay grade; if I'd stayed in my part-time position I don't think I'd have had half the opportunities I've had at work in the past year.

I've not considered volunteering time to CILIP committees/groups; look through previous posts for reasons why, as I feel that negativity towards one's professional body is not the best thing to continually reiterate! I recognise all the points about widened professional networks and gaining different experience and transferable skills, but at the end of the day I prefer to get paid - I'd rather be a whore than a slag. And on that unfortunate metaphor, I'm done.

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