Monday, February 1, 2016

How to apply for a library job, part 2: interviewing

Back in early December I posted the first part of How to Apply for a Library Job, which covered the initial application. I have been putting off part 2, but here it finally is.

Congratulations, you got an interview! Now don't blow it!

Before the interview

- Prepare.

Some time has passed since you applied, so go back and look at the job posting. Be prepared to talk about your experience and skills as they relate to each component of the job.

Learn some things about the library. Look at the sort of programs they have, if they've been in the news, any major staffing changes like a recently-hired new director. Visit ahead of time if you can. Think about what more you want to know, and prepare some questions (more on this later.)

Practice responding to common interview questions. Here's one place to start. There are several links to other sites, but if you scroll past them, there's also a whole list.

Go in with an agenda. When I prepare for interviews, I make a lot of notes with skills, traits, and experiences that I don't want to forget to mention. I also list specific examples of things I've done that I think they may ask about. It's much easier to answer interview questions if I can glance down at my notes to jog my memory. I also write down a few questions to ask the interviewers.

- Dress nicely.

You'll never go wrong wearing a professional-looking suit, but it's not strictly necessary. Particularly if you're heading back to work after the interview, you may not want to do so. Wearing some of your nicer regular work attire should be fine. I honestly don't pay much attention to what people are wearing, unless it stands out in a bad way. I once interviewed a guy who was wearing a t-shirt with visible spots on it. It was just for a page job, but still, if the candidate can't be bothered to put on something clean that's sort of a red flag. (Same for the reverse by the way: I once was interviewed for a job by a library director wearing a shirt with an obvious stain on it. I wasn't impressed.)

Although it differs from conventional wisdom, I don't think that visible tattoos or facial piercings are inappropriate. I want to get to know the people I'm interviewing and body art can be important. But many people choose to cover up their tattoos or remove piercings for interviews, and that's a good idea if you want to be on the safe side. Even if those things are fine on the job, some interviewers may still consider it a bit much for an interview. Some hiring managers want to see that you can play the game. I recently interviewed someone with a facial piercing but didn't even notice it until about halfway through the interview, but for some interviewers it might really stand out.

At the interview

- Be on time. In fact, be early.

Give yourself a lot of time to get there. Obviously this will differ based on your geographical area, but around here there are frequently unexpected traffic snarls and construction, and our public transit is often late. But if you give yourself plenty of time and are still unavoidably delayed, just call ahead and let us know. If the weather is horrible and the going is slow, we probably already know because we were in it too. It shouldn't be a deal-breaker. We're not monsters.

- Be pleasant, make eye contact (but not too much), and try not to fidget.

I know you're nervous, but try not to let that get in the way of letting your personality shine. Smile and make eye contact (but don't stare into the depths of our souls, that really makes me uncomfortable.)

Even if you're not relaxed, try to appear so because fidgeting can be distracting and it's kind of infectious. There was this one time I was interviewing for a job, and I was holding a pen in my hand and flapping it back and forth nervously and it suddenly flew across the room. I don't recommend doing that.

- Be yourself, but be your best self.

I look for someone who is friendly and enthusiastic and can tell me why they're the best person for the job and why they are excited about it. This is no time to be modest: be proud of your accomplishments. Be honest about your shortcomings when you have to, but emphasize the positive. If you're a librarian, you're probably passionate about what you do and we definitely want to see that come out. I also want to know why you want this particular job, and I want to know how much you want it. If someone doesn't seem like they really want the job very badly, I am more likely to hire someone who does.

- Answering those difficult questions.

You're probably going to get stumped somewhere along the line. As long as you don't say something that raises a red flag, it isn't going to destroy your chances.

You might be asked for an example of a time that you did something in particular, or handled a specific sort of situation, and you haven't done that actual thing. That's ok. You can talk about something that is vaguely in the same realm, but it would be great if you also talk about how you would approach the situation if faced with it. This still gives us valuable information. (And don't feel like your examples all have to come from a library setting - telling stories from other types of jobs is perfectly fine.)

You'll probably be asked about your weaknesses, or areas in which you want to improve. Be honest. And don't try the old "I work too hard" because I can see right through that. This isn't a trick question, it's one about self-awareness. It definitely helps if your weakness isn't in an area that's crucial to your job. If it's a reference job and you say that you're not very good at customer service, I probably won't hire you. But I will be satisfied if you say that your business research skills aren't as good as you'd like, and that you've just signed up for a webinar on just that topic. We all have areas in which we need to improve, and I just want to know that you're aware of yours and at least thinking about tackling them.

If you really don't know the answer to a question you can talk about how you'd figure it out. Say you're given a sample readers advisory question and you're supposed to respond by listing some books that you would suggest. If you actually can't come up with any, just talk about how you would approach the question. What follow-up questions would you ask the patron? What tools would you use? Talking your way through a thought process for a specific situation may not exactly be an answer, but it's telling us how you think, which is very valuable.

Interview questions aren't designed to trip you up, or at least they shouldn't be. I've definitely heard of some that sound like they are, but I certainly don't want to leave someone speechless. My goal in interviewing candidates is to get to know them so I can decide whether or not I want to work with them, not to put them through some sort of harrowing test.

We know that you're nervous, and we probably are too. Some of our questions might be lengthy and you may start to answer, only to forget the second part of the question. It's better to ask us to repeat it than to just not answer the rest. Some of our questions might also seem perfectly clear to us, while they aren't to you, so ask clarifying questions if you need to rather than just guessing what we mean. I've reworded interview questions after several candidates seemed to misunderstand them.

- Have questions for the interviewers.

Finally, you should be asked if you have any questions for the interviewers. In the name of all that is holy, have questions. You can't possibly already know everything about the job or the library. Not long ago I interviewed someone who already worked in my department previously and had left just a few short months before. He managed to have some questions, and they were good ones. Ask about the work culture, the leadership style of the person you'd be reporting to, the biggest challenges of the job, what the interviewers like the most about working there. There are a ton of things you can ask. If someone I'm interviewing doesn't have questions, my impression is that they're not terribly interested.

After the interview

- Send a thank you note, I guess.

We are apparently divided on this matter. Just like wearing a suit, it can't hurt to send a thank you note. I personally don't care because in most cases I know whether or not I'm interested in hiring you by the time you walk out the door. You also probably already said "thank you" before leaving, so I think sending a note is kind of redundant. Still, many hiring managers expect them and it certainly shows that you're still interested after meeting them and hearing more about the job.

- Don't be discouraged if you aren't hired.

You don't know how many times I've wanted to hire more than one person we've interviewed, but I can only hire one person for one position. The position I mentioned in my last post about this, the one with 62 applications? We interviewed only 6 people. Just like there were great candidates (even ones I know personally) who didn't get an interview, 5 people interviewed really well and still didn't get the job. I hired the guy who has already worked in my department, recently, and did a great job and got along very well with everyone. Of course I did. My point is that there's nothing the other candidates could have done about it. And if I had 6 positions open, I would have been happy to hire the other 5 people as well. Which brings me to my final point...

- If you really want to work in that particular library and another job opens up, apply again. Don't think that because you weren't hired before, your chance has passed. Maybe you weren't right for that particular position and another position that is open is more suited to your skills. Or maybe they hired an internal candidate. Or maybe they wanted to hire both you and another person and couldn't hire you both and had to make a tough decision. In which case, now is your chance. (This also goes for those who didn't even get an interview. Sometimes there are so many good candidates we just can't interview everyone. Apply again!) I certainly hope that some of our past candidates will show up again the next time we're hiring (which, for my own sanity, I hope isn't soon.)

I hope this has been helpful. And good luck out there!

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