I've never had much of an ego. So when I began searching last fall for a new position as an academic librarian, I applied to universities whose size and reputation was on par with, or lesser than, my own.
It didn't really occur to me to try to move up the institutional ladder. After all, I was mainly just trying to escape from my current position as an instruction-and-reference librarian at a medium-sized university in the South. I liked the job and felt a strong connection to the university since I had been raised in the area, but the library itself was another story: Four years of internal squabbles and personal grudges were enough.
So I was more than a little dismayed when I sent out my first batch of applications and got no response.
Then a former supervisor told me that she had received a telephone call from a director of one of the smaller institutions where I had applied. The director asked why someone like me with such an "incredible" (her word) vita would apply for an entry-level position there.
I was overqualified? Suddenly I began to worry that I had published, presented, edited, reviewed, and professional-serviced myself right out of a new job. What a pleasantly awkward position in which to find myself.
That got me thinking. Maybe I should use the vita that I had worked so hard to build to see just how far it could take me. Why should I confine myself to just one type of institution, to just one state or one region? I was young, mobile, and had nothing to lose by applying for pie-in-the-sky positions, except maybe postage. So, with the encouragement of friends and coworkers, I started to think bigger.
The payoff has been astounding. Since my first column, I've had two successful interviews at prestigious universities, resulting in two job offers.
The speed at which all of this has occurred demonstrates a truth about the market for academic librarians: There are many more jobs available than academic librarians to fill them. That reality leaves me to wonder two things. The first is why universities do not fight harder to keep the people they have and, second, why institutions do not put more effort into making a good impression during the interview and, thus, attract good candidates.
Let me illustrate the latter point. After a good deal of thought and reflection, I turned down the first job I was offered at a major research institution even though it would have meant a higher rank and salary than I have now. I spotted too many red flags during the interview process.
Candidates are expected to proofread everything -- twice -- but shouldn't hiring committees be just as careful? The hiring committee at this university made a number of careless mistakes: In letters it referred to me as a man. I received e-mail messages meant for other candidates. The person requesting information from my references got their names wrong, and somehow, one of my references got included on an automatic reply list and received a number of e-mails requesting a reference for another candidate.
Everyone makes mistakes but a pattern of careless errors is an indication of potential problems, especially if the person making the errors is your future supervisor.
I've also discovered that you can learn a great deal about a place in just a daylong interview. Little things make an impression, good or bad, on a candidate, from people making sure the candidate has a bathroom break to providing materials about the university and the region.
At that first interview, I had to ask for a break. And when I asked for information about employee benefits, the hiring committee didn't have any materials. I got no information on the city or the university, both of which have a lot to offer.
Finally, search committees should be prepared to answer difficult questions as well as ask them. Nothing makes a stronger impression than having a search committee sit speechless when asked a question about how evaluations are handled or about the institution's culture.
Happily, my interview at the second major university was different. It was a long two days but well worth the effort. I asked the same difficult questions I had asked at the previous institution, but this time I was rewarded with honest answers and observations about the working environment and culture.
The hiring committee made sure I was comfortable; I didn't have to ask for water or a bathroom break. The people who interviewed me seemed to genuinely get along. I didn't get the impression that things were perfect, but there weren't any warning signs either.
I just had a really good gut reaction to the place and to the people. So, I am taking the offer.
I realize there is no perfect place, and I also realize I'm not perfect. There are plenty of things I can do better, like learning to be more diplomatic. I have a sarcastic streak that isn't always helpful or appreciated.
I'm ready for a new challenge. I want an opportunity to grow both personally and professionally, and I wouldn't have the opportunity to do that if I stayed at my current university. And that makes me really sad. I can trace my family history in the county back to 1755. My grandmother graduated from here in 1933, and there is a building on the campus named for a relative.
I have strong roots to this place, and leaving it will not be easy. But sometimes I think my strong feelings about the campus have done more harm than good. A number of people have advised me not to "run off," but I don't feel like I'm running away so much as I'm running toward something bigger and better -- and healthier.