Want to get a job? Read this post

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.
  • Interviews:

  • 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.

    General pointers:

  • 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 (info@archivesnext.com).

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  • 15 thoughts on “Want to get a job? Read this post”

    1. Great list, Kate. I’m not a manager (wise choices, dear employers), but I’ve been on a number of interview committees. I have always appreciated people who have been willing to show their personalities (if they’re good ones that is!). In a world of plenty, employers will have a number of qualified applicants. Show them you’re special.

    2. RE: lunch/dinner – If you find out ahead of time about the dining event, be sure to make any food concerns known. I was once taken to a seafood restaurant as part of an interview, and I don’t eat fish. It was awkward.

      And for hiring managers – if you schedule interviews for longer than 1.5 hours, be sure to include restroom breaks as a courtesy. If it’s a day long interview, then try to provide some down time for the person too – a quiet time for the person to regroup and refocus, even if it’s just for 15 minutes in one of your conference rooms.

    3. Excellent list. For several years, I worked in the career center of a small university, helping students and alumni with resumes and interview skills. You would be amazed at the things people think are acceptable in both areas. I would also add: don’t wear a kilt to an interview if you are a man (heard tale of that one, but wasn’t the interviewer); don’t try to negotiate pay or benefits until you are offered the job; and don’t smoke just before (or on a break during) the interview — it’s unpleasant and your interviewer will be able to tell no matter how much breath freshener you use.

      Amen to Archivista on the bathroom breaks too! Interviews make people nervous and when that is combined with water or coffee, it’s a dangerous mix without bathroom breaks.

    4. As a an echo to t’s comment, I’d also like to add that in addition to showing one’s personality during an interview, it also behooves you to have a few interesting personal stories that you can work into your answers to the questions you’re asked during the interview. By answering questions in a more personal way, you will stand out more to the search committee (hopefully in a good way). Don’t give a boring textbook answer when you can add some of your own personality to the response.

    5. I’d also suggest that you revise your resume each time you apply for a position to focus on the skills and applicable experience for the specific job–not some generic resume the career center advised on developing. And I’d stress Kate’s point about really checking out the institution to which you are applying–it shows your interest in actually working there and gives you the ability to ask questions that are real and meaningful to helping you decide if you want to be part of that organization. I can’t tell you the number of applicants we’ve interviewed who hadn’t really bothered to do some thorough research on our organization.

      And then there is always the simple act of making eye contact with the interviewer(s)…and bringing along samples of your work if they’ve not asked for them (and don’t bring the longest, most dense piece you’ve ever done….)

    6. Thanks to everyone who has commented–I hope this is helpful to our job-seeking colleagues.

      Here’s something that came up on the listserv today, initial results from a survey of people who do hiring, done by Arlene Schmuland:

      “The results so far are intriguing. Here’s some quick samples: nearly 80% of you advertise your open positions on the A&A listserv and nearly 80% of you want applicants to differentiate between paid and volunteer experience on their resumes. The first I expected (well, actually I expected a little higher) and the second is not something I’ve seen in a lot of our incoming applications so that probably fits in the category of something our applicants need to hear from us.”

    7. A fairly obvious one here – if you are given a list of standard interview questions prior to interview then READ THEM and jot down answers.

      I was once on a panel and a very promising candidate failed to get the job because he didn’t take advantage of this feature of the interview process.

      I can see how it feels like you are cheating somehow but you need every aid you can get, even if you are brilliant.

    8. The article is very interesting. It shows us the main points to take into account before and during the interview. In fact, I think that in a job interview, there are 2 steps: a “before the interview” and a “during the interview”. This article can help us to prepare the first step and to keep in mind how to act in the second step by avoiding some behaviours. Thank you for this article, I am sure it will be useful to a lot of people.

      I’d like to add something to the comment of meela. In fact, I once had a problem with the standard questions in my first job interview. The interviewer asked me about 3 qualities and 3 weak points and the problem was that I thought of it only few minutes before the interview and I kept in mind only 3 qualities and 1 weak point, so it seemed like I was a pretentious person.

      So, I invite you to prepare these questions because they are very recurrent.

    9. Thank you Kate, It’s a great list.
      There are some items that are obvious but other items are very interesting in order to apply for a job.

      I would include in your list:
      – Never lie. It’s preferable a shorter CV than a false CV.
      – Be ordered with cover letter and other materials.
      – Look after your orthography. It’s painful to read a CV with spelling mistakes.
      – Include a good photograph of you.
      – Include the current date at the resume. It’s a way to check the validation of a CV.

      Maybe that some suggestions are also too obvious, but as you said “apparently there are still people out there making these kinds of mistakes”.

    10. Thanks for your help!
      I’m finishing a degree of documentation and worked as an intern in archives, libraries and documentation centers, and I believe that these indications will be very useful for professional interviews in my future interviews
      Usually we go to an interview unprepared and I think that these basic steps should be taken
      into account in the educational content of all degrees, applied to each specific course.
      Thanks for all!!

    11. I agree with what you have said, Kate. I think that if you want to do a perfect interview you should take care of your clothes. This advice is basic, and maybe is one of the most forgotten.

      On the other hand, I think that gestures are very important. Lots of companies use psychological services with specific training for reading corporal language. Don’t cross your arms or legs, because that shows that you are nervous and you are adopting a defensive position.

      Other thing that you should take in care is your position. You should sit down with your back in a straight position, and your hands should be as still as possible. It is important to look into your speaker’s eyes too.

      To sum up, you have to show respect, attention, confidence and interest.

      Thank you for your help

    12. When you get to the interview stage, wear clothing that is appropriate, but comfortable, and preferably, makes you feel like a million bucks. This may seem like a little thing, but when you feel that you look your best physically, that confidence translates as part of the process. I’ve been on both sides of the interview table, and I can say that wearing shoes that pinch (not broken in enough!), or uncomfortable/ ill-fitting under or outer garments (bra straps that slip, socks that fall down, too-tight dress shirts, etc.) makes you fidgety, and is distracting to both the interviewer and the person being interviewed. Instead of thinking up brilliant answers and questions, you end up worrying about your clothes.

      It may seem superficial, but every little bit helps, and it’s better to not provide distractions that you don’t want the search committee to have. Having an interesting conversation piece accessory may be useful too (a lapel pin/brooch, favorite scarf, or for men, attractive but interesting tie), especially if the item has a story to it (a gift from a colleague? purchased at a particular conference or during a trip?). It helps the search committee to keep all of the candidates sorted in their brains (oh, yes, the one with the lovely music-themed scarf/tie…) with GOOD impressions, not BAD (oh, s/he fidgeted a LOT during that session and seemed uncomfortable…).

      $.02, for what it’s worth.

    13. Congratulations on your website, and especially for this blog.

      Most of us know we have to follow some basic rules in Job Interviews but sometimes those “key recommendations” are forgotten because we’re a little nervous wondering what will happen…So is always important to remember these tips!

      I will give you other pieces tips:
      I personally wouldn’t employ anybody who wasn’t on time for the interview or somebody that would make me jokes (I think a job interview isn’t the time or place to be a comedian…)

      Carmen TG

    14. Really great suggestions and comments by all!

      The one thing I constantly run into with cover letters that instantly puts an applicant out of the running:

      Don’t say you have excellent written communication skills or attention to detail if you’re not going to proofread your cover letter (or have someone else look it over for you–a second pair of eyes is always a good thing)!

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