Over the past few weeks I’ve had a bunch of conversations with colleagues who have recently gone through the process of hiring a new staff member in their archives, and many were surprised at how many people were making basic mistakes. So I asked for input from my friends on Facebook and Twitter, and based on the comments of real-world archival managers, here are some things to keep in mind when you’re going through the process of applying for a job:
Cover letter and other materials:
Follow all the directions and requirements in the job announcement–no exceptions. Attach all supporting materials that are requested in the announcement. Make sure these attachments are in commonly-used applications (such as Microsoft Word) or converted into PDF documents so that the reviewers can open them easily.
Make sure all supporting materials (including your resume or CV) have your name prominently displayed on them so that reviewers can easily track what documents belong to each applicant.
Try, as best you can, to determine the correct gender for the person you are addressing. If you aren’t sure, use “Mr. or Ms.”
Address the job requirements specifically in your cover letter – this is especially important at larger organizations where all applications may be filtered by a human resources department and not the selection committee.
Maintain a professional tone in all your communications. Avoid using exclamation marks or emoticons. Do not invite the reviewer to coffee or lunch. Do not offer to work for less than the posted wage.
Keep your resume or CV appropriately brief. It’s tempting to include every award or publication, but bear in mind that reviewers have a mountain of applications to read. The length of your resume should reflect the length of your career–of course if you have more experience, it will be longer–but have someone look at your resume with a critical eye if you suspect it’s longer than it should be. (Or, as one friend wrote, “If you’ve earned two master’s degrees, it’s probably time to drop all of the awards you received in high school.”)
On the other hand, a friend wrote: “In a nutshell. Describe all your experience, even the small stuff, that relates to the job description. Do so honestly, but don’t edit it out. For example, if the job calls for cataloging and all you know about it is the course in library school, list the course in library school. If I have two candidates that are otherwise equal and attractive, I’ll take the one that lists *something* on a skill than nothing. If I know they’ve been exposed to cataloging in a course means that I don’t have to start from ground zero. Especially important in interviews.”
Include the number of hours worked per week for non-full time positions. This can make a big difference if there is a minimum requirement. If they are asking for 2 years experience, make sure your internships, part time positions, volunteer hours get included in that total. It might not be clear how many hours you really have accumulated.
Don’t include sections in your resume if you have nothing to put in them (example: don’t have a section for “Language Skills” if all you have to say is “English only.”)
Proofread all your materials carefully, especially if you are sending out multiple applications. Make sure you have the correct name for the institution, and be sure there are no typos. (No, spellcheck alone is not enough.) (But, by all means, spellcheck.)
Before listing someone as a reference, contact them and make sure they are willing to serve as a reference. It may be uncomfortable for both of you if someone doesn’t want to be a reference, but that’s better for you than if they don’t give you a strong recommendation.
Did I say proofread everything you send out? Let me say that again. For a lot of jobs, attention to detail is crucial. If someone has a huge stack of applications to go through, a careless mistake might mean you’re instantly out.
For a phone interview, make sure you have a quiet place and a good connection during your interview. It doesn’t help you if your reviewers are distracted by background noise or if your cell phone drops the call during your interview. And, please, don’t eat during a phone interview.
“Never exaggerate what you know–in either application materials or interview–in a vain attempt to give the impression that you meet the qualifications. Everybody will see right through you. Kiss of death.”
Once again, be professional. Here are some suggestions from managers: “Never get into a discussion with the interviewer about how incompetent your current manager/co-workers are.” “Don’t mention that you’re getting married sooner or later and how the job does/does not fit into your personal plans/goals and/or how much your significant other likes/doesn’t like the city/employer.” “Don’t try to talk politics. Or religion. Or both.” “Don’t say f**k in your interview.” (Yes, someone really did that.)
Know who your audience is. Ask who will be involved in your interview and find out as much as you can about them–what is their role in the institution? Have they published anything? What is their educational background? You don’t have to turn into a private detective, just do your best to understand the background of your interviewers. Similarly, if you have to make a presentation, ask who the audience will be for this so that you can tailor your material to your audience. As one person wrote: ” If you’re presenting to a group of archivists or special collections folks, you probably don’t need to waste their time explaining why preservation is important – but this would be understandable if the audience is mostly administrative non-librarian staff.”
Be prepared. Read everything you can about the place you are interviewing. Be familiar with the information they provide to the public about their collections, their digital projects, their annual reports and strategic plans. Have questions ready for your interviewers about their program. You can impress them just as much with the questions you ask as with the way you answer their questions.
Be careful how you ask questions about the atmosphere of the workplace. It’s appropriate to ask your interviewers to describe the management style or what a typical day is like, but . . . I had several people share questions that people asked that just sounded, um, weird. If you’re coming from a bad working environment, don’t make that clear by the questions you ask.
Never respond to a question like “what experience do you have with XYZ?” with “none” and then stare at the interviewers. Always say “while I have not personally handled/processed/written a policy for XYZ, I do know from my reading/observation of others/conversations with my former bosses…” Always find a way to demonstrate your knowledge, even if you don’t have experience.
Be respectful. Even if you think the people who are interviewing you don’t know as much about archives as you do, don’t be condescending or lecture them about what they’ve been doing wrong. Don’t be dismissive of their current practices or physical environment–for example, don’t sputter and make a fuss if you find out they’re still using typewriters and a card catalog.
Someone suggested a whole post devoted to how to handle going out to lunch or dinner as part of the interview, and I think that might be required. But for now: don’t order something you’ve never eaten before, don’t order the most expensive thing on the menu (unless the others do likewise), don’t comment on how odd or “strange” the food is.
Be conscious of what messages your email address sends about you. You may have picked something that you think is clever or cute, but a potential employer might not see it that way. Try to pick a neutral and professional address based on your name. For some people, an AOL or Hotmail email address also raises red flags because these are systems that have fallen somewhat out of common use, and they may indicate that you are not keeping up with current trends. If you are concerned about this, sign up for a free Gmail address.
Be mindful that prospective employers will probably try to find out everything they can about you on the Web. This means your blog, your Facebook account, your Twitter account, listserv messages–anything that they can find. (And, remember, these are usually information professionals, so they know how to find information.) If you are looking for a job, do your best to make sure that nothing you’ve posted casts you in a bad light–for example that you goof off at work or that you don’t respect your current employer. Of course, you are free to express your opinions on political or social issues, but bear in mind that if you express strong views this may be taken into account by your potential employers–for better or for worse. Any information you publish about yourself on the Web may be taken into account, and if it’s not favorable it may be the factor that tips a decision against you. (Or for you, I should add–good blog posts, listserv comments, etc. could tip the decision in your favor.)
I know a lot of you will read this long list and say, “well, duh, everyone knows that!” Well, apparently not everyone does because this post is based on real-world experiences of people who are hiring. (Yes, someone really was eating during a phone interview.) I know a lot of this is very basic, but as I said, apparently there are still people out there making these kinds of mistakes. Doing all these things right won’t get you a job if you aren’t the most qualified person, but making some of these basic mistakes might cost you the job even if you are the most qualified person.
If you’ve got more advice to add (or a question) please leave a comment. I’m thinking of running a follow-up post with advice to people who are hiring, so if you’re a job seeker and want to give some feedback on the hiring process, let me know (email@example.com).