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.

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?

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