Essays and rants on libraries, technology, webdev, etc. by Ruth Collings

Getting the Job

A while ago I promised the internet at large that I would share the materials and planning that went into me getting my most recent job. I do not think that there is a fool-proof way to act in interviews or that there is even a best-bet way to get a job. This is just one data point. But it might give you some ideas. I also hope that it will make the academic hiring process a little more transparent to new job-hunters, or help others struggling with the job hunt to feel better about themselves.

Leading into getting this job, I was unemployed for almost 10 months. I was pretty depressed and probably averaged 3 applications a week. Some weeks were better than others. I did not get E.I., but I also did not have any student loans or consumer debt to pay off. I was living with my parents, in my hometown, in rural Canada. I watched a lot of sports on TV. I am white, have a boring hairstyle, glasses, am tall and skinny, have no tattoos or piercings other than my 1 in each of my ears, and have no visible disabilities, so I basically look the way that the interviewers will be predisposed to liking. I have an Anglo name and a bit of a local accent, but it's mostly not noticeable.

Finding Job Ads; the Resume & CV

My process for writing a job application that requires a cover letter and resume has been pretty much the same since I graduated from my MLIS. I spend a few hours each week skimming the RSS feeds and mailing lists I have for new jobs. I've included an XML export of my job feeds if you want to look at them, but they're fairly idiosyncratic. I was looking for mostly academic science librarian jobs, or jobs relating to library IT, or jobs outside of libraries in project management that don't actually require a project management degree. I am not qualified for pure programmer or web design jobs. My mix of interests in science and IT tends to work in my favour because there aren't actually that many of us out there on the market. I was also not willing to move across the border or across the country for anything less than a tenure-track position because I was very tired of moving. Fortunately for me, the holy grail appeared before I decided to give up and move to Qatar.

The promising job ads I then bookmark on with the due date in the bookmark description. Later, I go back and look at the ones that are due soon. Sometimes I discard them after reading them more carefully because I'm not qualified or it's a short contract. I started getting into the habit of saving the job ads as PDFs using "Print to PDF" because they'd get taken down and I'd never have examples for later. I have one folder I use for writing cover letters and a handful of variations on my resume and CV. I also have a scanned copy of my MLIS transcript and contact information for my references. If I tweak my CV or resume before submitting it, it is because I have something to add or there's something I don't like the wording of; I do not edit my resume or CV for every job posting. Frankly, there's not enough in there to be taking stuff out. I created the visual design for my cover letter and resume in 2014 and I've changed a few things, but mostly it has stayed the same. If you are going to spend time on designing your resume by hand in a word processor, learn how to use Styles/Themes properly in MS Word, it will save you a lot of energy down the road.

Cover Letters

I keep all my cover letters, although sometimes I accidentally save over them. I keep them all in the same folder, with the naming convention: YYYY-MM-DD Place Title.docx Example: 2015-01-03 McGill ScholComm.docx I used to write them in a separate file from my CV/resume and then paste them in after, but it was more efficient to write it in them directly. So I use a previously-written cover letter on the same topic or type of job and save as a new file with the new job in the title. Then I change the date and salutation. My first and last paragraphs are almost always the same, with some additions or removals, because they're mostly formal "thank you for considering me" stuff. I always keep my cover letter to within 2 pages, but I decide whether to single or 1.5 space it depending on how it looks aesthetically. I attack cover letters with the same mentality as an essay. The thesis is "I am perfect for this job" and I am making an argument using examples from my experience to make that point. I use the job ad as evidence of what they seem to be prioritizing or what this job seems to involve, and use those to choose my examples. When I've used an example before I'll copy and paste it from another letter and modify it to suit. For example, if the job ad mentions "consulting with diverse user groups" on a project, I will use the time I did user testing for our website before it's launch as my example. I will explicitly state that I believe that this example shows my skills in that area. There's no point in being shy.

Overall, most cover letters take me about an hour to write, even if it takes me all day to work up to writing it. Some cover letters require new writing from top-to-bottom, but some job ads are just so generic that my cover letter ends up being mostly stuff I've used before. I have submitted cover letters that I've written before with only the specifics changed. I didn't get those jobs though, so YMMV. I rarely leave my applications and come back to read them over again and I absolutely never show them to anybody before submitting them. This is my poor anxiety management strategy and has resulted in typos and mistakes before, but it keeps me going. Also I have a terrible memory and have been known to finish assignments early and then forget to submit them. Seriously. My CV and resume have been read over by my mother, who is an accounting professor at a university who has worked in industry for a long time, so she knows her stuff, and the people who act as my references have copies as well.

Professional References

I have three professional references: a former boss from when I was a reference intern during my MLIS, a professor from my MLIS whom I took a few classes with, and my co-worker from York University that I did a lot of work with. Prior to my York job I used an undergraduate professor I did a research project with. These people were picked strategically not just because I thought they'd give me a positive review, but because they actually relate to the examples I will be using in my cover letter and interview. This is the one document I won't be sharing because they don't need their personal contact information public. When I was first looking for a job after my MLIS I kept a website updated with my job applications as I submitted them, but this time around I got somewhat lazy and didn't. It is a useful way to get people to stop asking you what you last applied for though, because they all start to run together after a while. When I got an interview I told my references immediately since there was very little turnaround between when I heard I got the interview and the actual timing of the interview. I emailed them thanking them in advance for their help and gave them copies of my most recent CV.


When I got the offer of an interview, I started a new folder just for the documents relating to this job. This included a copy of the ad, a copy of what I'd submitted to them (cover letter & CV), and my interview itinerary. I was informed that I would be required to make a presentation on the state of scholarly communications. The presentation prompt was two paragraphs long, so I distilled it into a few major points. I wasn't given a strict time limit, since it was the last thing on the itinerary, so I could have run however long I wanted to, but one person talking for more than 20 minutes is boring. I liked the template I came up with for my York University job presentation and I got that job, so I used some parts from that in this one. One sort of superstitious thing I do is that I make the colours of the slides match the institutional colours of the place I'm interviewing at. It also saves me from spending hours tweaking colours until I like them. I ended up summarizing the two paragraphs into one question each that could fit on a slide. I then divided the presentation in half along those lines. I didn't like the way it turned out divided up that way because I was repeating myself too much. I ended up coming up with three major themes that related to the questions and dividing it up like that. I am a big fan of extremely boring slides and never use pictures unless they're actually necessary because I want the audience to listen to what I'm actually saying, not looking at the screen. There are all kinds of philosophies on what kind of presentations you should give, though, so don't take my advice.

My attitude is that my presentation is also a pitch for why I should be hired, not necessarily my deep thoughts on the topic, so I stick to my overall strategy of using examples as evidence of my competence. Everything I include in a presentation has been carefully considered. Example: should I include my Twitter handle in the sign-off? That might look frivolous, but it also might make me look in touch with the scholarly community and one of my strengths is my online network and engagement. When I am making the slides they are serving as an outline to my talk, and then in the Notes section I include what topics I actually expect to hit on for each slide. I think through repeatedly how I'm going to structure what I say and how best to explain certain things. I don't like actually having notes in front of me though, so they're just there for me to build up a memory of prior to the talk. Writing it out like this helps me avoid repeating myself or ending up in situations where it's actually better if I had explained that first... I'm not one for practicing out loud in front of people, but I've had plenty of practice presenting to an audience. I go through it in my head multiple times, sometimes mumbling to myself. I will time myself once, but I know from experience that a 20-slide deck is worth 30 minutes. If the material is more dense I'll expect 2 minutes per slide though.


Because I had a limited amount of time to prep for this interview, I prioritized the presentation. I'd had a job interview immediately before that so part of my preparation from that carried over, but the jobs were very different. My method of preparing can be divided between practical and questions. Practical problems include what I'm going to wear, what shoes I can wear, snacks I should bring, preparing my bag the night before, making sure I have all my chargers, making sure my presentation information is backed up on a USB and online, and printing out a copy of anything I'll need and putting it into a plastic folder. Usually the things I print off are a map of the campus with the route to the interview location marked, a copy of my application, a copy of my references' contact information, the itinerary, and my questions for the interviewers. I believe I also had to fill out a disability disclosure form and send a copy of my transcript ahead of time.

Question preparation is what it sounds like. I come up with a list of probable questions and rehearse in my head what my response would be. I get this list of questions from previous experience, from gossip with other librarians, and from websites. You can't prepare for every question, but they tend to fall along predictable themes. I have my stock of examples from writing cover letters, but sometimes there are some stumpers. "When is a time you have managed conflict?" is an easy one. "What was the last ILS you worked with and what were it's pros and cons?" would be tough because I had never really used one before this job. The only thing I actually remember from the interview itself was the fact that they didn't ask the "what is your greatest weakness?" question. For this interview I crowd-sourced a list of potential questions to ask an employer at the point in the interview where they ask if you have any questions. It's tough to ask the questions you really want the answer to, like "do you have any money?" or "is this a toxic workplace?" so you have to come up with proxy questions and ways to discern the answers second-hand. I never really have any questions, but apparently that's the wrong answer, so I picked a few from what I was given by Twitter.

The Day Of

I was close enough to the job site to drive up the day before and stay overnight at the local inn, which was billed directly to the university. I spent the night before the interview making sure my stuff was together and going over my presentation and question answers one last time. I made sure everything was plugged in and charged and that my bag was ready to go.

The morning of the interview, I woke up with enough time to get dressed, eat breakfast, and then wait for my drive to the campus. It was extremely cold (-20 degrees celcius) with a strong wind and the roads were very icy. I fortunately knew what to expect and dressed accordingly. I wore a maroon faux-brocade dress with black tights and black leather knee-high boots with solid soles and only a small heel. I also wore a scarf, gloves, and my black peacoat jacket, but forewent my usual hat to preserve my hair. This did not really work. I used a black professional-looking shoulder bag made of water-resistant polyester for my laptop, prep material, miscellaneous electronics, and usual purse paraphernalia. I also had a small carry-on sized rolling suitcase. It wasn't really necessary for a one-night trip, but it kept my dress nice. In my bags I brought some snacks, chocolate, and a tea carry mug that could also be used just for water.

In good weather I could have walked to the campus, but the committee chair offered to pick me up. This is probably more likely in a small town than a large city where you could have gotten a cab. In the rush, I forgot to give the room key back to the inn, so we had to turn around and go back once. But, like I said, small town, so it didn't make us late. There was supposed to be a walking tour around the campus, but given the weather I passed on that. When I arrived at the library, where the interview was to be conducted, I met with the University Librarian for a semi-informal talk. I now know that because of the union contract for faculty covers librarians, the UL, as management, is not allowed to be on the hiring committee. He had some interview-like questions for me designed to discern my opinion on various current topics in libraries and library IT.

I was then ushered into the staff room where I had date squares and some water as a snack with the rest of the librarians, staff, and a couple science faculty. It was fairly informal and I mostly talked about where I was from and what I had studied in school. I then went to meet with the Director of Human Resources across campus in the admin building which was a bit of a trek. I was pleased to meet with their HR department because it hadn't happened in previous interviews. Finding out about the pension and benefit situation in detail was very helpful as well as additional faculty perks like free gym membership. I then had another short break where I ate a granola bar, went to the washroom, and refilled my water bottle.

The real interview was next. It was about 1.5 hours long and involved the search committee sitting around a table and taking turns asking me questions from a sheet. As I said earlier, I remember virtually nothing about the questions I was asked, only that most of them were expected. The interview committee consisted of four full-time librarians (including the archivist) and two professors of the faculty of science. At the end of the interview I asked a few questions about the job, but at this point I had already discerned the answer to most of my questions through my conversation with the University Librarian and HR. The committee then took me to lunch at the Faculty Club café.

My final meeting of the day was once again all the way across campus with the Provost and Vice President Academic & Research (which is all one person). We repeated a lot of the "where are you from" niceties and talked a bit about scholarly communication.

I then had a short break before my presentation, which was held in a small theatre-style lecture hall in the library. By the time I reached this point I had already covered a lot of the topics in my presentation when I was talking during my interview, so that was a little annoying. I felt like I was repeating myself. The presentation was nominally open to the public and a few non-members of the search committee were there. I got some good detailed questions on the state of scholarly communication, especially given the very recent update to national granting bodies' rules on open access. I tried to be reasonably honest in my opinions, but generally tried to remain neutral and optimistic. I think I actually connected best with the two science faculty who were on the committee and did work in programming and GIS. The final item on the itinerary was to meet with science faculty, but there was no formal event planned so I just hung around in the room after my presentation talking in case someone new showed up.

I finished the interview relatively early and went home.


After the interview was over, I knew from the union contract that I should expect a response within two weeks, which I did get. I got an informal offer over the phone from the university librarian including salary. I told him I would have to think about it. A few days before this interview I had also had another interview, so I wasn't sure how long to wait to hear back from them. In the end, I never heard back from them at all. Four days after I was made the offer I accepted for the original salary listed. I was emailed a scan of the contract which I signed and scanned and emailed back. I was then physically mailed a large package of documents including all the pension & benefits forms, HR forms, and the union contractual agreement. I filled out all but the pension forms and mailed copies of those back. When I started work I arranged a meeting with my HR rep and made sure I had all the forms filled out correctly (I didn't) and she went over with me how to fill out the pension information. This was more for my peace of mind than theirs.

When I arrived on campus for my first day I was taken under the wing of one of the reference librarians and she made sure I had a tour of the campus and got me set up with my faculty ID card and basic IT access. She also made sure I had office supplies and knew generally where everything was in the library. I met a lot of people right after one another and I'm terrible with names. Having somebody dedicated to trying to answer all my questions and an actual planned on-boarding process was very helpful when my predecessor had already left. I started July 2nd (July 1 is Canada Day and a federal holiday) so I have had a lot of time to get into the swing of things before the students arrive. (It's never enough time, though).


In conclusion... I got the job. Everyone seemed very excited to have got me to come work at MtA and I hit the ground running. Two months into the job I feel simultaneously that I've been here for a while and not nearly long enough.

I have included some of the files I mentioned above for you to download. The XML file you should be able to import into most RSS feed readers, if you are so inclined.

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