Surviving and thriving and getting that professional archives position.

Welcome. If you're here, you're probably wondering how to get some job--maybe the perfect professional archives position or maybe just something you can use as a springboard--and you're seeking advice on how to do that. From searching for advertisements to writing a resume or cover letter to making it through the interview. And hopefully even beyond.

No guarantees, you probably already know a lot of this, but maybe some help from a lot of people who want to make sure that good candidates get good jobs. If you've got better advice? or need further explanation? Please share in the comments.

Friday, April 23, 2010

A table of contents

Since anybody coming on to this blog might prefer to read specific sections or have the ability to read it in the written order (instead reverse chronological), here's the TOC. With some brief annotations to help decipher the occasionally goofy titles. The BTP entries represent Between The Posts entries which weren't originally part of the plans for the blog but were inserted because of questions or comments.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

In conclusion

So that's it.  That's what our survey respondents (and me) had to tell you about job searching.  Giant round of applause for those who took the survey please?  Let me tell you, this was not easy for them to do.  The survey was a marathon and since my design skills stink, it was an obstacle course, too.  But many persevered, and the most of what they said has been presented in the preceding 49 posts.

One last bit, though.  At the very end of the survey I asked if any of the respondents might be interested in doing some one-on-one reviewing of application materials with potential candidates. This was when I was still hoping to make this some sort of a workshop with a practical component.  Anyway, those that answered? Most said no.  Some said they were doing it already with interns working at their institutions.  I've had a few requests myself as a result of doing this blog and my answer has been no.  I realize that sounds kind of cold, but in my case, this whole project has taken a large amount of my personal time. If I ever do that level of review again? It will be under one of two circumstances: a) as a mentor in one of the professional organizations or b) as a volunteer at the SAA conference Career Center.

SAA has an active mentoring program and a lot of this type of work happens within it.  I've done this with several mentees myself over the past 6 years.  I've also volunteered at the Career Center at the conferences for the past two or three years: if you can take advantage of the opportunity, it's a phenomenal chance to have an unbiased strangers with hiring expertise take a look at your application materials in a no-stress environment. If you can't afford SAA and you're in the northwest states, NWA has an active mentoring program. Other regionals may as well, I haven't researched this.  Call up one of your profs and ask if s/he knows anybody you can tap for work like this. Call up your internship supervisor. Call up the president of your regional (after you pay your dues) and ask him/her to figure out how to help with this.

Thanks everybody, for hanging with me.  I appreciate your trust, your candor, and your responsiveness.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Meta part 5: More survey generis

And on we go.

Since I've talked only a bit about volunteering, I'd like to give some time to our respondents who addressed it directly in their comments.
  • Begin "working" as a volunteer. If you're reliable, you'll be first in line for any paid positions that become available.
  • volunteer, if possible, as that's how we often hire people - by who we know. Otherwise, come for an information interview, and do your homework about us.
Along the lines of being patient, several respondents elaborated on that.  I'd like to share those with you too, as I think they might help. If nothing else, this lets you know that the interviewers are aware this is frustrating.
  • Follow the rules, be patient. There are more administrative rules that seem necessary, but they are there nonetheless...
  • Careful about asking too many questions about when the offer will come in, it is often not up to the search committee to make the offer they only make recommendations. These recommendations are almost always followed but the committee often has no idea how long an offer will take.
  • Academic institutions take time. Be patient. Don't call us, we'll call you. Know something about the institution before we contact you.
By the way? That last sentence on that last one is not just a simple add-on.  This is essential. When you get that call? You should be at a stage where you could potentially do a phone interview within a couple of days.  Part of what is going on is that there's a lot of the time frame that is out of our control, hence the constant comments about "be patient." But sometimes things like scheduling interviews may be under the purview of the committee chair.  And when that happens, things can often move along quite quickly.

Do you see now why respondents encourage you to pick and choose the jobs you apply for instead of blanketing? On your behalf, it means you don't have to remember which of the 20 applications you're juggling when the phone rings.  Trust me, "who from where?" is NOT a good response to a request for an interview. That and fewer applications means a lot less research for you. Here's some thoughts on that.
  • Know the job requirements; take some time to investigate our institution so you know the context for the job; be prepared to explain why you feel you and the job are a good match
  • research the institution, the library, the department via the Web pages to get a basic understanding of the complexity and where the position fits.
  • Study the website, learn about the set up, see what records we have that we advertise, see what the professional staff are involved in
  • Study our organization and be prepared to show this knowledge in the interview. Ask questions about the work and the work environment. This emphasizes your interest in working at our institution.
  • Do convince me that you want this job, in this workplace, with these people. Not just "a job" in this field.
Tailoring isn't just to get you past those all important screening documents and I think our commentators  nailed exactly why. Tailoring is to convince us that you want the job we have on offer.

I know some of you are applying for any job that comes open just in hopes of getting a foot in the door.  But what I'm hearing from some recruiters is that they think they can spot those people.  So make sure that your blanket applying is completely and totally invisible to the people reading your job application materials and interviewers.  If you are willing or able to be more selective in applying, step back, take a look at the job ad again, decide if you really are willing to move to that place.  Or do that kind of work. Or work for those paltry wages some places still insist on paying.  If the answer to any of those is well, maybe not, then save the time to work on the job app that is for the position that intrigues you, that fits well with your goals, that pays you a living wage.

Here's some other advice I hope you'll find helpful. Or perhaps not. It's all a matter of assessing how this might apply to you, isn't it?
  • Do not focus on one member of the interview team, after deciding that is the member with the power to make the final decision, and treat the rest of the team as if their perceptions of you don't matter.
  • Dress formally and bring a nice leather portfolio and pen, we want people that make nice impressions and could represent our institution well. 
  • At meals, eat sparingly and be careful of your manners. 
  • Be friendly.
  • I've seen some list commentary on interviewers not getting back to candidates, and I think they should know - it's not always possible, or may be forbidden by the institution. Complaining about this to an interviewer, or in general, is not very helpful.
  • Applicants need to make sure they do not bad-mouth their current or past employers. They want to get across that they are wanting to go TO your job, not get AWAY from another. They also don't want their prospective employers wondering if the applicant will be bad-mouthing them when something happens they don't like. 
  • Be professional. Dress as you would for an important day at work. Speak as you would to an important donor. 
  • Re: getting to know the personality of the candidate: in these days when every job posting gets many, many responses, personality really makes a difference. 
  • The ability to write a good cover letter and to speak well (not mumble or fidget--the simple things) and to be knowledgable about the context (institution, area) as well as the job requirements, are very important.
And two last comments from our respondents that I think anybody job-searching needs to remember when making decisions about what to and what not to apply for.
  • Do not apply for a position on the chance that they will consider you for a future position unless you want the job you are applying for. Interviewing someone for a job and finding out that while they want to work for our institution but not in the open position is a waste of time and leaves a bad impression.
  • Don't apply for a position that you are completely and obviously not qualified for--if something comes up later that you are qualified for and we feel like you've wasted our time once already it may affect later feelings towards the candidate.
I've watched search committees get candidates like this moved onto a do-not-call-for-interview list.  In perpetuity. Most places neither have that ability nor have the institutional memory to do that, but is it worth chancing?  Note that the first person isn't saying don't do it, they're saying only do it if you're still content with the job that's actually on offer here. So that's not exactly a no. And that second one? While I still think, "oh, cold" I also understand the reaction.  Because chances are, at no point during the process will anybody actually tell you why you weren't hired.  The very idea got me yelled at by my HR rep when a candidate asked me for a review one time.  So you won't necessarily be told that the reason you didn't get a call back is simply that you were viewed as unqualified.  Which is another good reason to have proofreaders who are willing to be very honest when reading your application materials.  Because if you apply for a lot of jobs--or if you're looking at geographical boundaries--eventually you may need to apply at the same place twice. And why have this this bias awaiting you if you could have avoided it?

So are you tired of my nagging about proofreading and tailoring? Fair enough. The good news is that it's almost over.  The bad news is that I'm sure there's a whole bunch of questions that not only haven't been asked yet, but I'll never be able to answer them. 

Friday, April 16, 2010

Meta part 4: Network blues

First, let me tell you what networking is not.  At least amongst the archivists who have been talking to me.  I recently received an email from a jobseeker who explained networking as approaching archival management types, providing a copy of a resume or telling the person about his/her skills, and then following that off with a "if you hear of anything, will you let me know?" I'm told that's what a lot of the job seeking guides advise. I've had people (non-archivists) say it to me, too, as part of their job-seeking advice.  I've run it by a few archivists and they're saying "not so much." I'm not saying no, but as the jobseeker in question noted to me, it doesn't seem to be working anyhow.

So let me give you another view of what networking might be. Networking is about building relationships.

But, you might say, if that's networking, why should I bother? It's not a direct line to a job and apparently not even a crooked one.

Fair enough. But consider it anyhow. If you build relationships with co-professionals (or soon-to-be-co-professionals) that network you're building here gains you things you can use in the job search. Co-professionals you can use as references.  People who--because they're your friends--might remember that you're searching when they see job ads (and sometimes they'll forward them even when you aren't searching). And when you're writing up your job app materials or your interview answers, wouldn't it be nice to have somebody you can call who may work in a similar type of institution so you can tailor?

The archival colleagues I've talked to about networking suggest this: go to conferences.  If you can't afford national, go to local or regional.  Attend sessions. Propose sessions. Go to social events. Attend business meetings. Volunteer to serve on committees or task forces. If you don't have any conferences upcoming, figure out alternative ways to meet people in the biz. Like volunteering in repositories.

Okay, I was going to provide a long rant on volunteering but since that was only unhelpful, I won't.  I'll just sum it up with this. If you're volunteering as a professional development mechanism, at some point take a look at your volunteer work and honestly assess the value of it to your career.  If you're doing it for love of the work, good for you, keep it up. And when it comes time to write up your resume for the job, you'll still need to present it as you would any other job experience if you intend to include it.

If you're new to the profession, don't make the mistake I did and not jump on networking opportunities when you can find them while still in grad school or shortly thereafter, just like that survey respondent said in that last entry in the last posting.  Your archives profs? Chances are they know working archivists.  In my grad program? We took field trips. We had guest lecturers.  Some of the biggest names in the biz showed up in our tiny classrooms or we showed up in their offices because, well, I'm still not entirely clear on that, I think Bert Rhoads may have been blackmailing some of them.  (That's not a networking technique I'd advise, by the way.)  Do I remember any of their names?  More to the point, do any of them remember mine?  Nope. I wasted some opportunities there. Perhaps it wouldn't have done me any good in the job search.  But I'll never know now, will I?

Let's use me as your cautionary tale.  Mine takes a different bent from many of you since I didn't finish my thesis for five years after I'd finished my grad school courses, so I didn't have the M following my name for several years. Which limited my search far more than whatever the second initial might be.  But the first year I was in grad school, the SAA conference was in a city two hours away.  Did I go? No. The first SAA conference (1998) I attended was a full five years after I finished my coursework and put myself on the job market. The first regional? About the same time.  So all those years I was trying to get an entry level job? A professional-level job? I wasn't networking. At all.  I was working as an archivist in a local county court system and sure, great experience and I made some good friends, but no professional connects.

And when I finally attended, I hated going to those conferences. I went to the first SAA as a presenter--an add-on to a "lite" session where I was supposed to represent the academic side of things. (Yes, I can hardly believe it either.)  I knew enough to know that the other people in my session were "names" but that just made me more nervous.  And the next year when I went, I didn't attempt to build on those ties, but did the alone thing again.  By this point I knew a few people from my home city so I had an occasional person to talk with, but again, not so much.

It wasn't til the third time I attended a SAA conference that I started to finally get the hang of it.  Helped along stupendously by one of those co-presenters from that first one deciding that I needed to be shoved out of the nest. To do so, she volunteered me to run for a steering committee for one of the sections. During the election, as a write-in candidate on the ballot.  Without telling me first. And either they were short of candidates or her reputation preceded her, but I was elected.  By the fourth time I attended, I was getting involved.  This is one thing I learned: serving on volunteer committees? It's a great way to meet people with the social pressure off.

But what you should be asking yourself now is what trajectory would my career have taken if I had taken that leap out of the nest either in or shortly after grad school?  Again, I'll never know.  I lucked out when I eventually entered the networking fray. Somehow I ended up on a session with Danna (don't ever give Arlene a choice) Bell-Russel and Frank Boles.  Not sure that Frank really saw anything there, but something made Danna take me under her wing and start introducing me around. And eventually Frank did too, as did Rand Jimerson, who ended up as one of my connects by virtue of being the one who forced me to finish my thesis so I could be awarded the degree.

What I kept telling myself was that it was all financial.  I couldn't afford to go to national conferences.  When the degree was done, I managed to get a position with the Utah State Archives and they at least were able to help defray some of the travel costs.  So a bit of luck there.  Not all employers can do that. But money shouldn't have been quite the issue with the regional ones.  So what held me back? Not sure. Fear maybe a little, finances a little.  Does it matter? Not really other than to lead me into saying this: don't let this be you.  Don't rely on serendipity to get you places.  It's not all that reliable.  And it's really not very fast, either.

Did any of that eventual network get me my job now? Well, probably not, or not directly.  Rand did serve as one of my external reviewers when I went up for tenure two years ago.  (Thanks, Rand). But because of the efforts of those people, because of the relationships I developed--and continue to develop--with them, I became a better archivist. For me, that's the most important potential of networking.  Better-read, better-rounded, better able to figure out the needs of an academic repository within a university library when almost all of my experience had taken place within government archives. My presentation for my original interview here for the reference archivist position in '02? I re-used the paper I'd delivered at SAA the month before. A paper I'd delivered because Danna once again had called me up and said she was putting a session together and I'd better start writing. It was the single most organized and polished interview presentation I've ever delivered. Even if I did start out with a slide of my dog.

But I'm getting off track again, you've probably noticed I do that a lot.  What I'll close with is this: even though I can't draw the direct lines between the networks I've built with archival colleagues and any job I've been offered, I still know those lines are there. Even if they're only in my psyche? That's okay.  If it settles my nerves, gives me the impetus to spend the time it takes to apply for positions and prepare for interviews and then to sit in interviews thinking "I can do this", I'll go with a perceived effect any day.  And even if you don't end up with a Danna in your life who decides to mentor (or shove) you in a non-official capacity, you might just end up with a support network of friends who are dealing with all the same job-hunting and career development issues at the same time as you are.  And that's invaluable too. Just do it faster than I did, okay?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Meta part 3: Survey Generis

Be patient. No, I'm not saying that because I'm about to say something very important, I'm saying it because it's what a bunch of our survey respondents said when I asked them "was there anything else you want your candidates to know about applying to your institution?" Be patient. It takes time. And they're not just saying that to keep you from breathing down their necks during the process, they're saying it because they want to save you some stress during the process. Don't panic or get yourself worked up because the responses aren't coming as fast as you could have wished.

Yeah, I know, not so likely.

So what else have I got that you can do something about? Do your homework. A lot of them said that too. Still not clear on what comprises your homework?  Let's hear it. Have some solid advice? Add that to the comments too.

So this is going to be the first of a couple of posts, mainly because I can't fit it all into one. The quotes from the survey respondents are highlighted in pale yellow (or yarrow, as the maniac who designed the paint color that wound up on my office walls calls it) with frequent accompanying commentary by yours truly.

For federal jobs the KSAs are your first interview questions as well as showing how you communicate. Be concise, but descriptive. Merely saying yes is not demonstrative of anything. And y’all spotted that posting—both in the comments and under the job search news link above—about the possibility that KSAs might go away, right?  I guess we’ll keep watching that one. If you're not doing KSAs, this still applies.  Don't just say yes, I can digitize, mention a project. Provide a URL.

Do research! Maybe contact people you know or a colleague knows at the institution. Find out about the people, structure of org., type of job and work. Apply through the normal channels with a good cover letter and resume. Do not contact me to say you are the friend of so and so and they suggested you write me.   Good point. Networking will get you introductions, maybe, but there's enough people out there who have been burned by the "it's who you know" style of recruitment that they won't follow it themselves.  Or, sometimes, the who-you-know may be a detriment.  Unless you're very sure of your friend's reputation with the people to whom s/he is recommending you, tread lightly. Use him/her as a source of information if they're reliable, but maybe leave it at that. More on networking in another post (see below).

Make sure you review our web site, and have your own questions.  See? It's not just me. Other people feel this way too.

Be interested, know what makes you stand out and present your strengths. Don't hide weaknesses, but build on your strengths.  The more confident you are about what it is you can do, and what you want to do, the better you'll perform.  Spend some of your research time reviewing you, maybe.

Answer every qualification, even if it seems obvious. We have a chart and a 0 can mean elimination even other areas are strong. Don't assume that a Master's in History means you meet the research skills requirement, give me an example. Great clarification there and a nice continuation of what the person above talking about KSAs meant.  This is another time that having a proofreader in a totally different profession can be really helpful: they may not know that your masters degree should convey some sort of a skill and so they might catch that you failed to state this specifically.

Stick to the job description. Large institutions have no lee-way in hiring someone with only partial credentials. This is a hard one to hear, I know. And it's not just large institutions.  Some hiring types might be able to take some chances, sometimes the candidate pools just work out that way. But even then, you'll do better the closer you match. 

Show knowledge of the institution and be able to express why you wish to work with this subject matter.

Look at the website. Dig up background information about who we are and what we are doing. Know thyself. Again, probably several discrete pieces of advice there, but they add up to something together. A candidate who can talk about himself or herself well and relate it to the institution? Terrific.

Don't apply for every position. Be patient and go for the one that you want.  This is really hard to follow.  I've applied for a few jobs that I probably wasn't all that interested in, just because I needed a job and I figured that eventually it would be a stepping stone.  If you blanket apply? Just make sure it isn't apparent to the recruiters.

Personality and a genuine interest in the organization make candidates memorable (in a good way).

Be patient with the process, read the job description carefully and get to know as much as possible about the institution.  There's that be patient again.  Note this respondent is making it clear that it's not the people delaying things, it's the process.  Okay, sometimes it's the people.

And I'll close with the following piece of advice and pick up on the next set in the next posting on this topic.  I want to close with this one because I think it contains so many wonderful items of advice and sets them off in a useful context.

Start to network before graduation. My insititution hires interns and work-study students from a nearby graduate program. I can't tell you how many times I have sat down beside an intern in the lunch room and the student doesn't introduce herself . It's not an ego thing--I'm happy to eat my lunch in peace--but as a hiring manager and someone who often sits on hiring committees for different departments (processing, digitization, etc), I'm surprised that these students don't take advantage of these networking opportunities.

I'm going to leave that one alone, for the moment, because I'll be getting back to it in a posting dedicated to networking--next up.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Meta part 2: Follow-up, anyone?

Okay.  The next question I asked was: Do you want candidates to follow up with you regarding the status of their application.

Guess what?  Bad question--or at least I structured it badly. The short of it is that there's no single answer to this.  What will work with one recruiter will clearly not work with the next.  Like I said at the beginning of this, there's no surefire way to do anything in a job hunt.  There's no perfection here.  Answers were mixed from  no to yes, it shows interest. What do you do? I don't know.  I cannot figure out the answer to this one.  Review your observations on the interview and try to recall if they said anything about where the search went from here. But don't assume that their reticence to give you response on a follow-up is a sign of where you are in the rankings.  To be blunt, it could be. Maybe you're not the candidate of first choice or top tier but they still don't want to write you off or have you write yourself off, so they're justifiably anxious about saying something wrong to you.  I once received a letter after a phone interview where the recruiter said, basically, that I hadn't make the cut to the top tier but she wanted to know if something happened to their top tier, would I still be willing to interview?  That was years ago, but I still haven't decided whether I appreciated the honesty or would have preferred to wait for a definite yes/no. But there are other possibilities. They may not know themselves.  There's always a good portion of the search where the decision is out to somebody else for approval.

I find this all rather fascinating. Here's some of the other statements they made.  For your viewing pleasure. 
  • HR handles, although I can respond to additional questions regarding the nature of the job.
  • I do not have time to respond; it's not a rule. Because of lack of time, I get irritated.
  • Thank you/summary after the interview; one follow up if the process takes more than a week or two.
  • HR handles all inquiries.
  • There's not a lot we can say.
  • Thank you note after interview is always appreciated.
  • Brief follow-ups to ensure application has been received are OK. Aggressive follow-ups have a negative impact.
  • I wouldn't know. HR does but rarely communicates that to the committee.
  • They may if they wish
  • We always let people know we have received applications, we also let people know after a phone interview whether or not we will conduct an in-person; and let all in-person candidates know whether or not we will make a job offer
  • Doesn't matter to me, really.
  • Don't care one way or the other
  • It does not influence me one way or the other
  • If a candidate has been interviewed in person, they may follow up.
  • I only mind if the person does it in a demanding way.
So you see what I mean about mixed messages.  But since a couple of the respondents mentioned another thread, let me go there.  Thank you notes.  Do you write them? Is it not worth the effort?

I was taught, and I don't recall when or where, that thank you notes were obligatory. Am I right? Apparently not, or not entirely. 42% of respondents say a thank you is unnecessary after a phone interview. 21% say it is unnecessary after an in-person interview.  However: don't read unnecessary as something you should not do.  Many of those who said it was unnecessary still filled in some blanks on what type of thank you they prefer to receive or specifically noted that while it might be unnecessary, it was not unwelcome.  It may or may not figure into their calculations (probably not) but there's a lot of things that don't figure into the calculations that still needs to be done. With this one, I'd go with the percentages.  Either email or handwritten and quickly, not so much phone call. If for no other reason than the strictly practical: if it's a search committee, a written (or email) thank you has the possibility to reach all of them with one effort. With a phone call you can either call the whole committee or you can hope that the person you do reach remembers to pass on the message.

And here's the nice part. From a purely practical perspective, a thank you note allows you to do that follow-up check in under the guise of courtesy and manners and not as a nagging "why haven't you called me yet."  Reiterating your interest in the position and availability, that sort of thing. You might not get an answer, but you might not get an answer with a follow-up query anyhow.

So assuming you get an offer, what are the deadlines for you?

If you are offered a position, 95% of respondents expect an answer within a week. 30% of them want the answer within a day or two. Of the three respondents that answered with "other", one said one to two weeks, one said if there's other constraints like children they might be willing to wait a little longer, and the third said that it depends on the job: if something with time constraints it will have to be quicker, if not, it could be a little longer. Keep in mind that some places may have HR rules that only give them a certain amount of time as a couple of our respondents were very careful to point out.

My take? Whatever you ask for, be careful how you phrase. If you want more than a couple of days, have a solid reason for it. You're mostly in the driver's seat at this point, but depending on the institution and the person doing the asking, you may not be.

And since I'm heading that direction, once you say yes, when are you expected to show up?  Time frames are scattered from about two weeks to over a month, to "it doesn't matter." Within about a month or so isn't out of line.  Some exceptions exist. Sometimes it depends on the candidate (how far the hire has to move, significant others, children, current obligations.)  Generally if they have a specific start date required, you will find that either in the job ad or it will be told to you at some point.  Some noted that start dates are controlled by outside powers, one academic reminded that start dates are usually predicated on semester start dates (not true for all academic institutions though).  And on those with a specific required start date, one respondent noted that if the candidate could not meet the required date, the position would be offered to the next person in line.  I hope that, in most cases, a specific start date if required will be made clear to you somewhere during the process.

So guess what? We're nearly at the end of the recruiter survey.  I had two last questions: 1) If you were to give candidates any specific advice on how to approach a job search with your organization, what would it be? and 2) anything else you think needs to be said?  So that's the next set of postings.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

BTP: when I don't follow through

I owe some of you an apology. About 97 of you, it appears. That's how many respondents the survey for jobseekers had before I shut it down about a week ago. And here's why I owe you that apology.  Because I'm not going to do anything with it--in fact, I probably can't do anything with it. So I've wasted your time there, and I am sorry for that.

Here's what happened. I took a sneak peek at some of the answers last week. At least one of the respondents took the opportunity to point out where I'd gone wrong with the survey. And you know what? S/he was really insulted by my failure to do this right--above all, it was just too important to do on a whim. And I stewed on that a while and thought about the objections presented and decided that, for the most part, the respondent was correct. The questions were skewed and it was done more in a spurt of energy and not so much really thinking it through beforehand.

Which is exactly what I've been telling you not to do with your application materials. How ironic is that? At any rate, I've been thinking it over for over a week now. And what I came to realize is that doing the survey was akin to applying for a job I didn't really want. An initial commitment of time that could lead to an outcome of expectations that I couldn't--and didn't want to--fulfil. I started this blog project with the idea of figuring out--and sharing--what it is that archival recruiters want from archival jobseekers.  Anything more? was definitely beyond me.

Do I think it still needs to be done? Absolutely. Apparently a lot of you agree with that, especially the person who disagreed with my methodology (or more precisely, my lack of methodology.) Do I think I'm the person to do it? No, I don't. Having said that: you know all those things I've been saying about building your resume? Doing research and writing on archival-specific topics is a great addition to a resume. Here's a clear research/publication opportunity for one or more of you. In the meantime, if you haven't yet found it, here's an anecdotal option. NewArchivist: the MSI Diaries. Check out the "From the trenches" series.

Again, I'm sorry. I wish I would have thought this through and come to the realization earlier that heading in that direction wasn't somewhere I wanted to go. Well, nobody can say I'm not educable or that I won't let go of a wrong position. And next time I get asked in an interview about a mistake I've made and how I've handled it, I may have a new answer.  Here's hoping one of you does it right.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Meta part 1: Could anything possibly take longer than this blog?

And the answer would be a resounding yes and the answer to "what" would be: a recruitment.

Ranges on how long a recruitment takes were from one week to better than six months. The majority of respondents went with three months or higher.

What else about the time frame?

2/3 of respondents leave the job ad out there for 2 weeks to a month.   A few do one week, a few do longer than a month, but mostly you're going to be looking at having to respond within a couple of weeks.  Other numbers.  70% respondents do the first screenings within a month.

If they're going to do the phone interview followed up by an in-person interview, there's usually 2-3 weeks between those events.  Why? If they're paying air fare, maybe they're trying to get beyond that magic 14-day-out rule so many airlines seem to have before their prices start to skyrocket.  Is that true for anywhere else? It's been so long since I've flown somewhere that hasn't required an Alaska leg that I don't even know if the airlines have that 14-days rule anymore.

And next comes the time period that interests me most.  Nearly 40% of recruiters call a candidate with an offer within a week of the in-person interview.  Two weeks bumps it up to 57%.  But that still leaves a pretty healthy number of them that are going to take longer.  Including a few who may take 3-6 months.   I would expect that the recruiter would keep in touch with candidates to let them know the situation is still in flux.  If for no other reason than the purely practical: got a good candidate or candidates? Let them sit out there too long without an offer and you may just find that they've moved on to an institution that can act in a timely fashion.

Oh and one last time period.  About 20% (one in five) of respondents need about a month til you can start once the job offer is extended.  Exactly half need over a month.  So even though you might want to start right away, there's probably going to be a delay of at least a month.

One last note.  One of the great frustrations is when your application disappears into the ether and you never again hear anything about it.  I've had it happen to me and I know how frustrating it is.  But apparently this has also happened to some of my candidates: I recently found out that our software that runs the search management stuff hadn't been sending out the basic "sorry" letters to candidates who didn't make it through the first couple of passes. I tend to send out personal notes to anyone getting an interview, at least. So I know I've been a culprit in this too, albeit unintentionally.  I think we got it fixed this last go-around and now we know to be on the lookout.  This software? It's used by a lot of the universities in the US to handle personnel management and finances.  So it wouldn't surprise me if this were happening to other institutions too, unbeknownst to them.

So that's it, for those of you who have been curious about how long this will last. Next up: what interaction they want from you along the way.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Interview part 10: the public speaking thing

So you're headed off to an interview and when provided with the schedule for the day you're zooming down the list and you spot it. The Presentation. Usually scheduled for anywhere between a half-hour and hour, often with a Q&A time. Sometimes with a clue as to who the audience might be, sometimes not. Sometimes with a clue as to what the topic should be, sometimes not.

I made another giant mistake when doing the survey, I forgot to ask about the whole presentation thing. So I'm going to try and make it of a piece with the comments provided by survey respondents elsewhere.

Presentation wrongs:
  • Don't wing it. Prepare for this thing like you would prepare for a formal paper at a conference. 
  • Don't run over.
  • Don't read your paper. They've said "presentation." That means you need to engage with the audience, eye contact, verbal cues, movement.
Presentation rights:
  • Practice. In front of an audience, if you can get one. Several times. With all of the technology you expect to be using.
  • Time yourself. Get as close as you can to the suggested length. No more than a couple of minutes either way, if you can.
  • Consider the audience. Don't assume it will all be professional archivists unless you've been told that. So you may have to provide translations for jargon terms.
  • Find out what you'll have available when you present. Will you be expected to use a microphone? Will you have a computer and projector to use? Should you bring materials on disc, thumb drive, or other? Will you have net access?
Q&A wrongs:
  • Vague answers. 
  • Diverting questions. I recently listened to a rant on a job candidate who, when asked policy or procedural questions, would answer those with "well you'd know better than I regarding what works best at this particular institution." And stopped with that. You can maybe get away with it once, maybe, but the reason they're asking is because they want to know how you might handle the situation. If you're worried about sounding despotic, you could say "well of course the needs here might not allow this approach, but..."
  • Don't start answering the question before the speaker has finished asking it. (This is my single worst habit in these circumstances. I fight this one all the time. I fail, all the time.)
Q&A rights:
  • Keep smiling, keep the tension and fears inside. If you're shaking like a leaf, hold on to a lectern or clasp your hands.
  • Watch for reactions from other members of the audience.
  • Ask for clarification from the questioner when it will help you frame the answer better.
  • Expect questions that are totally unrelated to the presentation and perhaps even to the job. Some attendees want to know answers to questions that would more typically be asked in a formal interview, which they won't be attending. So if you have prepared for the interview questions well, you should be okay with most of these. As for the totally unrelated, hard to predict those, but take them in stride if you can.
  • If you can work in something you've learned about the institution that very day, bonus points.
So what should you expect? Chances are the presentation theme is going to be along the lines of "Current trends in X" where x=some major component of the position. Or if they leave it up to you, make sure you make it relevant to the position.

Expect inconsistent turnouts. Some places it seems like everybody in the org shows up for the presentation. Other places it may just be the search committee and what looks like a person who has wandered in off the street looking for a quiet place to sleep.

So what's the point of this anyhow? The presentation, I mean. It allows recruiters to assess candidates for public speaking skills. Writing/presenting/research/analysis/synthesis in ways that really can't be done in standard interviews or short meetings. Can write a coherent presentation? Probably can write a coherent FA or response to a research request.

So you have to be sure that when you present, you keep all the possible outcomes in mind. Why they're making you present. What they might want to learn from you under these circumstances.

And what you can learn from these experiences? Tons. How the people in the organization interact. See, they're watching you. Sometimes when they do that, they forget that you're watching them too, and this can be the best time to really observe how these people function together or if they do. It's amazing what I've picked up about internal politics from presentations and Q&A sessions as a candidate. Things that didn't come out in any of the other forums. Sometimes just in who comes in late, leaves early, and how they go about doing that. The questions are often good signposts as to the personality and concerns of the person doing the asking. And if people from inside the organization and outside the department attend, you can sometimes get an excellent view as to the relationship of the department with the larger organization. How supported the department is. How much people understand it.

So that's an initial take on the presentation. Any thoughts?

Monday, April 5, 2010

Interview part 9: Good or bad, what makes it so

I think on this one, I'm going to mostly let our survey respondents talk for themselves with some minor editing. I'll put any editorial comments in brackets. And I've color-coded somewhat. Green for the good, blue for the bad, and the standard black for things that aren't necessarily bad or good, maybe a matter of balance, or "disconcerting" which is a term that got used more than a few times throughout the survey results.
  • bad interview: unprepared to understand the type of institution and nature of work, good interview: has done some background work, ready and able to ask questions of their own
  • If I have to pull all the answers from them it's a bad interview. If they cannot understand the question I am asking it's bad. Good interviews: someone who seems confident in their basic knowledge and can talk easily on many issues related to the job requirements. Who doesn't seem totally flummoxed by a question but conversely doesn't hesitate to ask for clarification when needed.
  • good interaction and feel about a person, and impressed with their qualifications
  • A good interview is one where I am looking forward to eating lunch with the candidate once it is finished. The candidate has said interesting things and I want to continue the conversation and get to know them better.
  • clear, to the point, short answers [I'm assuming this is good, but short answers aren't, not always. Concise, succinct, yes.]
  • A good interview is one where the interviewer is able to form a solid impression of the candidate, both professional and personality wise. A bad interview is one where after the interview there are no notes written on the review sheet; lack of questions asked by interviewee is also particularly bad.
  • the worst interviews are the ones where the we all wonder why the candidate wasted our time, they do not seem interested in the job or us or the institution. The candidate should do a little background research and ask at least a few relevant questions.
  • Someone who is genuinely interested in the job and its duties and possesses substantive professional ideas and abilities is good [and who presumably is able to verbalize those]! Bad situations include interviews in which the candidate is not familiar with the basics of the institution and collections.
  • Good: Answers that are full and detailed, but remain on topic. Thoughtful questions from the candidate when given the opportunity, both about specific items and larger programmatic issues. Taking notes, especially for multi-part questions or complicated responses.
  • Candidate on same page as committee, since we have something specific in mind that we are looking for.
  • Good interview: very clear communicator with well thought out answers. Smiling. A clear understanding of expectations. HONESTY. Bad interview: Overly short answers with little explanation. Exaggerated and excessively long answers. Evasion.
  • answers that are direct, to the point, fully address the question but do not ramble.
  • Someone who clearly has good chemistry with the people they are meeting with. Generally we know from resume, references and phone interview about professional competencies (though interviews can surprise), so the in-person is as much about figuring out whether the person is someone you want to work with or not. How they will fit into the organization.
  • good interview: person seems interested in the institution, people she meets, and the job. Has done homework on both institution and job. Answers questions thoughtfully. Bad interview: the opposite of all the above.
  • Complete woodenness; inappropriate informality; evidence that they're just fishing for a raise at their current job or only want to move for the location or until they find something better
  • Being late---Never be late for an interview! Someone who is unprepared and doesn't know a lot about the institution.
  • The best interviews are where the questions and answers show signs of starting to flow like the conversation you'd hope to have with a co-worker.
  • a good interviewer is someone who can clearly communicate answers to the questions without sounding arrogant or too timid.
  • If by the end it is more of a conversation.
  • Eye-contact, enthusiasm, some preparation, but an ability to react to questions. Focus on question being asked.
  • A successful hire. [I'm kind of fascinated by this one: that the eventual outcome determines how the interview is viewed. It wasn't really what I was trying to get at with the question, but I suppose in the end, it's what we're all looking for, so this is a criteria.]
  • bad interview: unprepared to answer basic questions [the typicals I already mentioned], can't answer questions related to the work described in the job posting, can't provide clear and focused answers to questions
  • It really annoys most of us on the committee when the candidate won't make eye contact! If they stare at a wall or at the table or something, it's a big turn-off.
  • The overall impression the candidate gives. A good interview is when a candidate is indeed the person she or he said they were on their resume...and leaves the impression of intelligences and good knowledge. A bad interview is one where contradictions are apparent in answers relating to skills listed on resumes.
  • Good: has a flow, establishes rapport with panel, has good answers although they may take some refining questions. Bad: hasn't researched the position, doesn't understand the position or institution well, gives incomplete answers, shows frustration, badmouths previous employers or colleagues.
  • Good: the candidate is engaging and seemingly prepared for the interview. Bad: although it's not always "bad" it is somewhat disconcerting when candidates don't have any questions regarding the position or their potential work.
  • good: thoughtful complete answers, see some of the candidate's personality and it's an amenable personality, they ask thoughtful questions, they listen to the complete question.
  • A candidate has to give clear, concise answers that cover all aspects of the question. Long pauses on phone interviews can sometimes be disconcerting. I understand being nervous, but being completely wooden and unresponsive can be off-putting.
  • A totally unprepared candidate with nothing to say for themselves would be bad.
  • Its effectiveness in bringing about mutual understanding about expectations and qualifications.
  • we understand that applicants get nervous and might unintentionally repress their personalities in order to make a good impression but we want to see the real person underneath the interview robot! That doesn't mean that they get to dress as themselves but it does mean that they should try to let their personality and sense of humor shine through as that's the real person we'll be working with.
  • Good: the interviewers should always have questions prepared in advance, give everyone on the search committee a chance to ask a question, ask the same questions of each candidate for fairness, ask follow-up questions for clarification. [Recruiters on the hot seat here.] Bad: candidate talks longer than the allotted 20 minutes for presentation which shows lack of preparation time that would carry over to conference presentation, candidate doesn't answer questions directly. [note: I'll be getting into the whole presentation thing in the next posting.]
  • Good: candidate has appropriate background and experience and responds to the questions that are asked. That is, by answers, provides evidence of having listened. Bad: candidate tries to sell us even though their experience is lacking. **Worst: interview makes clear that candidate padded his or her resume.**
  • A good interview gives us not only facts, but a sense of how the candidate will or will not fit into our team. It also gives the candidate enough information about us to make a decision if we offer employment. The only bad interview is the one in which a candidate succeeds in concealing things we need to know, and causes us to regret deciding to hire.
  • Give and take, appearance of comfort
  • Candidate should appear confident, knowledgeable, outgoing and friendly. Candidate should volunteer information, but not to the extent as to be seen as verbose, and should limit personal information to an appropriate level.
  • Good: listening, interacting with ALL employees in the archives, even those not involved in interview. Bad: lying on resume, badmouthing previous employers, doesn't ask questions, argues with search committee or potential supervisor
  • Bad: Poor posture, attire Good: OK if nervous but be CONFIDENT, don't answer any questions with a one-word answer
One of the things I find interesting in this is that as I was reading them, it didn't really hit me until the comment about designing a good interview that perhaps our respondents weren't just addressing the interviewees: some of this is within the purview of the interview designers. Flow, rapport, questions that elicit informative answers, much of that is up to the interviewers. I've been through a few badly designed interviews, where the questions were so straight out of the manual that it rapidly became clear that none of the search committee was bothering to note down any of my answers because my answers didn't really matter. They didn't care what I said because they hadn't asked any good or relevant questions. Will this happen to you? I hope not. And if it does, I'd be a little worried when they offer you the position as to what they're basing their decision on.

Keep in mind, these aren't just generic good/bad advice labels up there. This is practice-based. Eye contact and enthusiasm is good? That interviewer has experienced that with candidates and likes it and not only likes it, but has found that it translates well to performance in the job. Argues with search committee or potential supervisor? Again, it means somebody out there has done this at an interview. Obviously, it's happened.

The other part I'd add is pace yourself. I often find we get to the end of an interview and the candidate is almost totally non-responsive. Again, some of that is designed by me and trying to fit a lot into what ends up being a very short interview day.  The general interview books will tell you that sometimes it's a test of your stamina. I've not heard anybody in archives admit to that one yet, but I haven't asked, either. If you find yourself fried by interviews, start figuring out coping mechanisms. Like having semi-canned answers to the typical questions so you can trot those out when needed and give yourself the mental break. Figuring out what it will take to get a good night's sleep the night before. Reminding yourself that, most of the time, the committee is asking these things because they're very interested in your responses--they want to hire somebody and you're on that list. Whatever it takes to keep you focused and engaged is what you need to do. I say that knowing that one of my downfalls has always been my tendency to say the very impolitic when I'm tired--I start to lose that censor in my head that says "don't say that!" My coping mechanism for that (very much a work in progress) is to not answer a question immediately, but to pause for a moment. This is when the writing it down thing becomes helpful--it gives me that moment to breathe and think.

One last posting on interviews coming up: what to do with those requests for a presentation. You've already had a hint buried above, we'll go through some of the variables.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Interview part 8: turnabout is fair play

And now, the classic question. Do you have any questions for us?

First piece of advice? There's a wrong answer to this one and that's No. You need to come up with something. At the heart of it, it shows you're engaged in the process, you're interested in the position enough that you want to really get a good feel for it, and at best? You get really solid information about the institution and the people that will help you make some of your decisions about how attractive the position is to you and in your career path.

The thing is, I get it. By this point in the interview, this is usually the last question or close to it, you're drained. Your brain has decided you need a vacation in the south of France, has left the building, and is refusing to respond to summons. But it's a really important question to answer.

But if you're just exhausted or you don't think you can come up with anything important enough to ask, there's a few ways around this. The first autopilot route is the pre-programmed questions. Those that the job ad didn't quite answer. These are the ones you write before you answer the phone for the interview or walk in the door. If it's a ref position: what's the actual workload? How many ref questions do they handle? How long does an average ref transaction take? How much research will they do for clientele? Who are their primarily clientele? For processing, what's the assumed rate? How big is the backlog? Maybe you even paraphrase the job duties as listed in the description and ask if that's right or what the priorities are. And so forth. You may find they answer some/all of these over the course of the interview. But maybe they don't or not completely. You can always ask for a repeat or clarification.

Then there's the standards about the recruitment process itself. When do you anticipate the successful candidate will start? What's the next step in the process? When is the next step in the process? All fair questions, sometimes with not so fair answers. As some of our respondents have noted, sometimes recruiters simply don't have any control over the time frame--or even knowledge of it.

Auto-pilot route 2 is a little tougher and is dependent on that piece of paper you have sitting next to you where you jotted down all the other interview questions they asked. Have you noticed that though it's a reference job, the preponderance of questions were on your description skills? Maybe it's time to get some clarification as to their priorities. Again, this is a little tougher because you're doing this on the fly during the interview, but it's still doable. Are all their questions about difficult patrons or co-workers? First, ow, think hard about this job, but maybe this is time to ask them what their dream candidate would have in terms of networking, collaboration, or teamwork skills. (That's a nice one because when they tell you, you might even be able to sell yourself in response a little further.)

Consider asking something--especially if there's non-archivists on the search committee--about how the department interacts with the larger institution or what their priorities are for the archives. That's a great one, and speaking as the sole archivist on the search committee (usually) this gives me a chance to pass it off to the other search committee members to answer.  And most likely the subtleties of the answer have not been provided to you in the job description itself. I've been asked this a lot lately and I even find it useful as chair: eventually one of the non-archivists will say something that will bring to my attention a concern or potential concern that wasn't on my radar. You can even adapt this to specific search committee members and ask it of them directly.

If you've got a favorite question, one that has provided good responses or allowed you to talk about some strengths or skills that didn't come up elsewhere in the interview, let's hear it! If you're a recruiter and you can share a question you've got that you thought was effective (or the opposite), what is it? And why did it work or fall flat?

Next up, hopefully a single posting on what makes an interview good, what makes one bad.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Interview part 7: canned answers, not so canned questions

The follow-up to the previous set of seven questions was this: "If you use any of those questions, do you expect the candidate will have prepared or semi-prepared answers for them?"

31% said "Yes, all." 60% said "Yes to some." 9% said no. In other words? You probably should have prepared answers to them. As I noted in the BTP posting on phone interviews, you don't want to sound too glib or over-prepared, but when the first question off the stump is "Why do you want this job?" it shouldn't sound like it's taken you by surprise. An outline is better than a script because you will sound more involved and thoughtful plus you can work in anything you've learned from the interview so far. If you're the very nervous type, it might be nice for you to have a script, just remember that you shouldn't sound like you're reading a pre-prepared statement. For those interviewers who want to see how well you can talk without preparation, trust me, they'll have some other questions throughout the interview to test that. These aren't those questions.

The next question I asked was if the interviewers had any questions with a definite right/wrong answer which they used specifically for a right/wrong answer. About half the respondents said no, a few of them pointing out that they prefer more open-ended questions. I tend to go with open-ended questions myself, but I do have a few where there's still a wrong answer and since I occasionally hear that wrong answer, I continue to use that question as a weeding mechanism. Usually you can spot these questions: they're the non-open-ended ones. "Do you work well in teams?" Or the open-ended where you should know by the very fact that they're being asked that there's a wrong answer. "Tell us about a time when you worked in a collaborative environment." (Strong hint: if they're asking? It's because it matters. "I don't like working in collaborative environments and here's why" is the wrong answer.) The questions about being flexible as to work schedules or environments, the teamwork questions, the questions as to how you take direction, correction, how you might go about correcting others, all have potential to be one of these right/wrong answers. They don't have to be, if you answer them correctly. You can turn these into real and informative answers for the interviewers.

One of my previous places of work had one of these questions on the interview list. I was asked it when I interviewed there and I thought "well, that's a dumb question. Anybody with half a brain is going to answer this way." And after I got the job, I mentioned that to my new boss, about how I was so surprised at that dumb question, it was obvious what the right answer should be and nobody would say otherwise. Her response to me was "the crazies will be candid and give you the wrong answer because they aren't able to figure that out." I later sat in on an interview and one of the candidates gave the wrong answer. And as this candidate explained his/her point of view, I realized that yes, this person was never going to be able to work with others, was never going to take direction. This person couldn't listen to a simple yes/no question and step back and think: if they're asking a question this dumb, it's because this has been a problem in the past for them, and thus if I want this job, I need to answer a certain way. And no, I'm not going to tell you what the question is because I still use it and it still weeds out candidates effectively. Even though I know the candidate with the right answer may be lying because they've picked up on the subtext, I'm still better off with them, with this person who gets the value of being politic or tactful occasionally, than I am with the person who doesn't clue in at all.

For the last section on this posting, I'd like to go over the survey responses to the question "What interview questions do you find most helpful and why?" The answers fell into two categories: general areas of inquiry and then specific questions. Let me go with the general ones first.
  • questions that encourage candidates to talk about previous accomplishments and challenges
  • anything that gets the candidate to talk and talk freely and confidently
  • scenario/situational questions "what if" not for a specific answer, but to see thought processes and how you do with sudden sticky situations
  • questions that elicit the candidate's intent, goals, interests
  • questions that elicit work attitude, style, ethic
More specific questions. Several respondents reiterated some of those basic questions and helped explain why they're so important.
  • What are your weaknesses? That offers the interviewers insight into your thought processes, your self-evaluation, what roadblocks you might see and how you intend to overcome them.
  • Why do you want this job? It allows the interviewer to see if you have enthusiasm for this specific job, allows you to demonstrate that you've thought through how well you and the job match up, and sometimes it's clear from the candidate's answer that they really just want a job, not this one (that wouldn't be a good answer.)
  • What strengths do you bring to this position? This allows the interviewer to assess if you really understand the position and sometimes the candidate will bring something to the discussion that wasn't in or wasn't evident from the cover letter or resume.
  • Why do you feel you are qualified/a good fit? Allows you to match your abilities with job requirements, and as one respondent said: it allows the candidate to make a case for hiring him/her, and if the candidate can't make that case, they're not our ideal.
And some others:
  • What environment suits you best (managerial, physical, duties, etc)? Sometimes that tells us if you'll fit into our odd place.
  • Previous experience? Sometimes it's a spot check to see if you match up with your resume (see why I wanted you to have your resume sitting there?) Sometimes it's just another opportunity to sell yourself and match yourself up to the position.
  • The scenario: stressful, unpredictable, or conflict situations? Those are how well you'll fit questions, how you handle yourself, how you work with people, how you'll treat clientele, your values.
Then there's the one-offs. Maybe not so common, but perhaps after I post them here and recruiters start reading some of these, they may start using them too. I'm already pondering the adoption of some of these.
  • Provide a scenario in your previous work experience that required you to think fast or demonstrate creativity.
  • Why you want to be an archivist? (I'm really liking this one.) As the respondent noted, it gives the interviewers a better view of the attributes you bring (or don't) to the position.
  • A question about current archival literature. Allows them to see if you're keeping up on your reading. Since I'm a little behind, I'm not likely to ask this one, but then again, I might get some good ideas from candidates without having to catch up myself.
  • How would you organize X collection? Demonstrates your organizational abilities, how you organize and structure your work, and can help demonstrate how much of a self-starter you are.
And in the next posting, that question that always seems to come at the end of the interview. "Do you have any questions for us?" What to do with it, what not to do with it. Coming up soon.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Interview part 6: some more old questions

As promised, the last two typicals.

#2 at 91% of institutions asking it: Why do you feel you are qualified for this position? Are these questions all sounding rather familiar? Do they all sound like variants on the same question? They are. Have you noticed that despite sounding like variants on the same question, the percentages in those asking them mean that most places are asking most of them? Not just one and calling it good? The interviewers are giving you every possible opportunity to sell yourself to them.

What I find interesting (bizarre, strange, whatever) is that in my experience there's two groups of people who usually do badly with this question and all of its previous variants. The first group are the nervous or relatively inexperienced interviewees. That's more a matter of blanking or not having thought through the possible questions.

If you're one of those, here's some cold comfort. The other group that tends to do a bad job at these "sell yourself" questions? The known quantities. The internal candidates, the candidates who know the search committee and who know the search committee knows them. Not always, but most times I find it's the candidates who know me personally (or think they do) that do not give complete answers to these questions. They speak in shortcuts, assume we know everything they do already. Even if I do? I've probably got somebody on the search committee that doesn't know you or doesn't really understand archives. Remember, you're not just selling yourself the the archivists on the committee but to all the other allied professionals and colleagues and HR types that don't get it. And even if they're willing to assume knowledge on your part, you probably just lost some serious points for your communication ability. If the committee keeps asking you to elucidate? That's a giant hint that you've not hit the mark. And you'll get that if you're lucky. Most committees don't bother to follow up on missing pieces. If you didn't say it the first time, you may not get another chance.

Okay, and the single most popular question at a whopping 98%: What strengths do you bring to this position? Wow. Yet another sales opportunity. Remember back in the cover letter section where I said "Look over the job duties and requirements again. Do you have a special ability in one of them? A combination of some of them that would make you stand out from the crowd in some way? Some sort of compliment you received on a review that you could quote?" This is it. This is not only your chance to sell your abilities, but to prove that you really understand the job on offer. That you have a basic understanding of the needs of the position, the needs of the institution.

So how do you figure that out? Homework is the first part. You should have, by now, taken a look at their webpage. Mission statements, collection policies, collections lists, what types of guides they provide, what they highlight. The second part is the interview questions they've asked thus far. This will be hard if this is the first one coming out of the committee, but if you've already been asked a few (or for in-person have been around for a part of the day) you should be catching the subtext. Are they asking a lot of personality questions? Or questions about your ability to deal with problem patrons? Chances are, they have problem patrons or coworkers and if you're good at talking people off the ledge or teambuilding, emphasize those skills. That's, I think, one of the best reasons why you should always write down the interview questions as they ask them. Not just so you can steal them when you do interviews eventually, not just so you can make sure you're answering all of the question and all of its bits, but also so you can assess as you go for subtext and repetition. If they've asked you a lot of specific questions about task-oriented skills or your detail orientation, then you know to emphasize that in this.

Related to that, it's sometimes hard to catch the search committee names and titles as they go by at the beginning of a phone interview, but if you can note that as well, it can be helpful. The composition of the committee might (might not) tell you something about the hiring priorities. Preponderance of ref types? Probably they're seeking somebody who is more outgoing, does well with the public, and so forth. A few people from outside the immediate department or even the larger department? Probably looking for somebody who can work well in a larger environment and build connections. And that's also a hint that you should avoid overly jargon terms and not make assumptions about archival comprehension when answering the other queries.

Oh, and on that strengths question? I'd like to draw your attention to the fact that while 98% of interviewers are asking it, only about 60% are asking what your weaknesses may be. I think it's fair to say that this is another piece of the tendency to give you every available opportunity to sell yourself. They're not just trying to trip you up on the negative. Having said that, I've had candidates give me bad answers to the strengths too. Traits and skills that didn't matter much to me. What that told me was that they didn't do enough research or maybe they don't really understand the job.

To close off this entry, a look at some of the other "typical" questions that our survey respondents added. "Tell us about your experience relevant to this position." A little more specific there: not so much "I'm detail oriented" or a "quick study" but jobs and duties. This is a really good time to have your full cv sitting in front of you so you can reference it. If you mention something that you didn't include in your resume, you can always explain that. And don't just mention the experience, be sure to tie it in to how it will help you do this job successfully.

Other typicals. "Describe a difficult work situation and how you handled it." Many variants on this one. A loaded personality question, that. They're looking for descriptions of your professional judgment, your ability to work with others, that you can defuse bad situations instead of making them worse. This isn't necessarily one of those "never say die" questions--I've had one candidate describe a situation so bad that walking away from it really showed the best professional judgment. But be careful that your description of this bad situation doesn't come across as whining, blame-placing, or anything that could possibly sound like you have any tendency to complain about your job or co-workers because if that's what the interviewers hear, they're going to think that maybe you'll do the same to them if hired. This is one of those queries where it's extremely important to think about your answer before you provide it.

"Time management ability." This a professional judgment query. How you juggle, what you use to determine what has the highest priority, what gets your attention first.

Oh, and one of my personal favorites. "What would you need to learn, and how, to do this job?" I think there's two possible wrong answers to this question. The first wrong answer is "Everything." The second wrong answer is "Nothing." That's one of the benefits to an archives job: since every institution has unique collections, if you're blanking on other specifics, you can always talk about learning the collections. Or the procedures and policies. This question still gives you the chance to show off your homework such as the collections you've read about or to talk knowledgeably about how their workflows might differ (depending on what projects they're engaged in) from what you're currently doing, and so forth.

Next posting: some of the maybe not so typical questions. The questions used for specific purposes, the questions that our survey respondents really like, and how much prep work are you supposed to do anyhow?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Interview part 5: oh, that old question

Now that we're through the personality-specific stuff, let me back out a little and take a look at the typical questions you might be asked and how many people were asking them. I came up with a base set of seven, you probably know them, you've probably heard them before. If anybody reading this has another take on the value of one of these questions, will you please chime in on comments? I'll take them in reverse order of popularity:

#7 coming in at 21%: Why would you consider leaving your current position to take this one? Okay, I'll admit, this result has me stumped. I think I've been asked this at every job interview I've ever had. Only one out of five people ask it? I really did assume it was one of the typicals. So why does it get asked? And, apparently, mainly of me? Sometimes it may get asked out of fear: if the candidate dumps everything they hate about their current boss/job/whatever the interviewer can hear the giant screaming alarm bells that say "do not hire this malcontent." But I think it may get asked out of hope too: it's a chance for the candidate to reiterate or explain why they really want this job and why they're suited for it. If it helps, I've given some really stupid answers to this question. "Getting out of SLC prior to the Winter Olympics" was probably not my best option for an answer in late 2001. (Though it did get a laugh and I did go on to answer the question more seriously. I probably should have foregone saying it at all, though. I won't identify my interviewers who were smart enough not to hire me, but I'll take this opportunity to apologize. I am sorry.)

#6 in a giant response leap up to 51%: Why do you want this location/institution? Seems an obvious question and an obvious answer. I use this one, threw it in on the first set of interview questions I ever had to devise, mostly as a time-waster and a chance to put the candidate at ease at the beginning of the interview: something obvious to answer, right? And then the answers started rolling in. And I realized this not only was not a time-waster, it was enlightening. A huge portion of applicants answer this question very badly indeed. They focus on one piece of the job ad, demonstrate how little research they've actually done on our institution by telling us something wonderful about our institution that simply isn't true, tell us they like the location, tell us they want a job (and nothing else), and so forth. I've had several take this as an opportunity to deliver a diatribe on how much they hate their current job. Nobody yet has come out and told me that they're applying because of the salary we're offering but it's probably just a matter of time.

So what are you supposed to say? The interview guides will give you help with this one. Since I'm sure most of you aren't running off to the guides at this very second, I'll give you my take on it and then you can go running off. My best advice on this one would be two part: a) remembering that this question isn't really about your wants and needs and b) balance. To do that, take your opportunity to talk about what elements (include as much as you can) appeal to you, couched in terms of why you think you'd suit the position, and make sure you don't focus too much on any one piece of it. Show that you've not only read the job ad, that you've read it recently and that you have done some research on the institution--mentioning things that weren't listed in the job ad but are still clearly important to the institution and then demonstrate why and how you match up.

#5 at 58%: What are your 5 or 10 year career goals? This one, like the first one, could be a question places use out of a certain amount of fear. If the candidate tells us they want a job that's diametrically opposed to the one we have on offer and there's no connect that would let us see how we're anywhere on that line from point A to point B, well, maybe this should be a warning to us. The books will generally tell you that you want to show some ambition but not so much that the interviewers will come to the conclusion that you'll leave again six months later. On the other hand, a colleague of mine once impressed her interview committee by telling them that she wanted to remain the rest of her career in the job they had on offer, but they were specifically looking for somebody who would stick, be stable, and not going to jump ship on a whim. It was a chance she took, one that worked out for her. I wouldn't necessarily advise it unless a) you really do want to stay there til you retire and b) you're reasonably certain that they want somebody like that too. Mostly I don't find this one helpful--or not helpful enough to use when I could use other questions that would elicit more--so it'll probably be on its way out of my rotation. Don't worry, I'll find something heinous to replace it.

#4 at 60% of respondents using it: In terms of the position requirements, what are your weaknesses? Usually they allow you to talk about strengths too, but if they do, and you don't talk about the weaknesses, they're going to catch that. Hit the books on this one. Look for the advice on how to turn a weakness into a strength but remember not to make it glib. "Sometimes I get so caught up in a project that I lose track of time and I end up putting a lot of my own time in on projects!" Most interviewers (I hope) are going to see that answer for what it's worth. (If you're still wondering what's wrong with that because we should like free labor, I'll give you a hint: burnout is just the start of it. That kind of behavior can also seem as if you're showing up co-workers which doesn't help much in the workflow, either. Oh and the worst possible reason is because there's a chance that the candidate may just be flat-out lying to us.)

#3 90% of respondents say they use this: Why do you want this job? Again, a question that asks you what you want when maybe that's not all they want to hear. As I've said countless times, we'd prefer people who want our job specifically since it makes so many things so much easier for us. But I've had people answer it only on the surface: I really want to work in an academic environment. I really want to do reference. I enjoy processing. Fine answers, but terribly incomplete and if you don't complete them, it may work against you. You can answer it in the spirit of the question itself, telling the interviewers what about the job appeals to you, but like question #6, make sure you provide evidence of why you're suited to it and make sure you don't get caught up on one element of the job only and fail to address others. It's another easy way for you to remind the interviewer what is so special about you, your experience, and your skills and why you're the match they want.

And I know I was trying to get through these and it's not fair to you all to keep you hanging, but I just can't write more in this entry today. It's already way too long. So hang in with me please, I'll give you the first runner up and the pageant winner next time. Along with some other typical questions that the survey respondents reminded me about when they took the option to fill in the blank line. Besides, don't you want a little time to digest this?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Interview part 4: So why do I matter anyway?

The personality questions. I threw a few queries about this in on the survey because I'd recently been chastised by somebody (not one of my candidates) who thought they shouldn't matter. All that should matter was their ability to do the work. And I'm going to try and keep my opinions out of this--as much as I'm able to anyhow, which probably won't be much--but you will see them creep in so let me get my bias out there and get on to what the survey respondents said.

I ask the hated personality questions though I will admit, they're sometimes cleverly disguised as experiential questions, and my ones that are clearly personality (if you had one word to describe yourself) aren't often so much about personality as they are about whether you can keep your answer short or how you react to weird things out of left field. At any rate, whether you can tell if I'm asking a personality question or not, I listen just as closely to the personality subtext as I do to all the information you're providing me in your answer. I've worked in more than one place that had long-time baggage of employees having gone postal. Suicides, violence against co-workers, restraining orders, involuntary commitment to treatment centers, harassment lawsuits. (I wasn't involved, okay? In fact, most of it happened before I came there.) It's not just a matter of working with the public, it's a matter of working with colleagues and supervisors. Even the little problems and disagreements that we all have sooner or later, those put huge dents in productivity, not just of the people involved in the dispute, but amongst everybody else who witnesses it. And it sticks around, affecting morale, for years. To sum up: the job is never just about the work. There are very, very few archives jobs that isolate a worker to the extent that you will not have contact with others regularly.

Okay, enough of Arlene. Let's go on to what others had to say.

First question was: In an interview, do you ask questions that are intended to assess the personality of the candidate? 82.5% said yes. Chances are? You're going to be asked the personality questions. 8 of the 10 people who said no were from academic institutions, 1 from corporate, one from federal governments, so pretty much a representative sample from most of the types of people who filled out the survey.

So for the ten people who said no, why not? The options were: it's irrelevant, it's unnecessary, it's unfair, and then a fill in the blank. They could choose multiple responses. Nine of them answered the question. One said it's irrelevant, and left it there. One said it's irrelevant and unnecessary, and left it there. Three just said it's unnecessary. One said it was unnecessary and explained that it was so because the all-day interview process provided plenty of observation opportunities. More on the others in a moment, but I'd like to point out that if you read the answer to the previous question, 17.5% of respondents not asking personality questions, to mean that 17.5% of respondents don't attempt to assess personality, you'd be a little off. The two that said irrelevant? Probably they don't assess, but that's only 3.5% of our respondents. The three that said it's unnecessary with no other explanation? They could go either way. Either they don't feel it applies to the job or they agree with the one who said it was unnecessary because they could assess personality through other routes. For the remaining three, one noted that s/he does try to gauge personality somewhat but tries not to let it influence decision-making much since that could be unfair, one said they were watching out for legal restrictions, and the last said that they assess, but not by direct questioning and talked about the other types of questions in the interview that can provide this information like problem-solving experiences and so forth.

Not a one of our respondents--even the one that said in the comment that s/he felt it might be unfair--took the opportunity to check the survey response of "it's unfair." Bottom line? Your recruiters don't think it's unfair to assess personality. Even if you do, you're probably stuck here. Best to accept that you're going to have to deal with questions like this, no matter what your opinion of them, and figure out how to deal with them instead of letting yourself be surprised by them.

But let's look quickly at those that said they do ask personality questions. Here's the options I provided:
  • To ensure the candidate can work with the public, donors, or others outside the immediate department.
  • To ensure the candidate will fit in well with co-workers in the department.
  • To ensure candidate responds well to supervision.
  • Other
Respondents could select as many as they liked. And boy, did they ever. 86% of them said it was to ensure the candidate can work with people outside the department. A slightly different 86% of them said it was to ensure the candidate can work with co-workers (and one of those stressed the value of teamwork), and 76% said it was to ensure the candidate responds well to supervision. Most people chose more than one answer, and the vast majority chose all three. Three of those that chose all three decided to add some more information as to why else they might ask such questions: to see if the candidate can handle criticism and face complexity, to see how the candidate might fit with the institution, and last, to see if the candidate is passionate about the subject focus of the institution.

One respondent added a comment which I'd like to follow up on. "I don't think questions targeting personality are successful. Better to catch demeanor, ask for experiences with donors, coworkers, etc." Honestly, that's why when I ask the "use one word to describe yourself" question I'm not actually looking for the answer. Unless the person describes himself/herself as rude, or obnoxious, and then I might actually pay attention to the content of the answer. That's why I ask questions like "tell us about a time when you worked on a collaborative project" which is, essentially, a question about experience and I do want to know the experience, but I also want to know how you did with that kind of experience: how do you do in teams? What role do you play? And so forth.

So chances are, that your interviewers are going to be looking for personality information. How much this will figure into their decision-making is going to vary.

So what role does personality play in the hiring process? Obviously, it matters to our recruiters. But how much? Tough to say, not just because I failed to ask. I won't hire somebody just because they've got a great personality. But if I have two semi-equal candidates and it's clear that one is going to fit in really well in the institution and the other isn't, it may very well work its way into the hiring decision. And if I have somebody who isn't going to get along with anybody else, isn't going to take direction or isn't going to be able to work with others, no matter how good their experience and credentials, I'm probably not going to hire them. I have the ability to bring that into the search because of the nature of the positions I have. All of mine are faculty and to be faculty means you have to participate in the university and community, usually via committees, and if you can't deal with others you can't function well on committees. If you can't meet the service obligation of your workload, you're not going to make tenure or past the reviews along the way to tenure.

And again, if these things are important to the job: working well with colleagues, a service mentality, the ability to take direction, if these things matter to the job and they're not things you want to deal with, this is your opportunity as a candidate to assess whether or not this is the right job for you. If they're asking a string of questions that you don't feel are at all relevant to the position and are maybe indicating that these people are a little weird? Perhaps it's time for you to pull out of the search.

I'd also like to point out that a lot of the personality I'm evaluating for--and apparently so are our survey respondents--is based around how well you function with others. Other personality traits? Not so important. I don't care if you're shy, if you have an obsession with Lost (though please, don't subject me to the blow-by-blow plot descriptions: you know who you are), if your sense of humor runs toward Little Britain instead of Jeff Foxworthy. Not so important. Are your co-workers going to feel comfortable working with you? Are they going to be able to rely on you to be fair, to hold up your end of a joint project, to ask the right questions because they're the right questions not just because you enjoy being contrary? Can they rely on you to be flexible and maybe cover a ref desk hour or two that wasn't on your schedule because they've just had a family emergency? It's little stuff, often heading toward intangible, but it matters in the workplace.

And although it's impossible to predict exactly how somebody will fit within an institution--personality-wise--the recruiters still assess this because sometimes it is possible to see how a person won't fit within the institution. And then the recruiter has to figure out if that matters and if it does, how much.

Next up: something a little more straightforward. The standard interview questions (or what I thought were the standard, anyhow.) What are the questions you can expect to be asked?