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Career Challenges: Crossing borders

20 February 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Gus MacDonald
Career Challenges: Crossing borders


Over the past 7 years of my career as a librarian/information professional I have worked at Microsoft (5 years), Oxfam (1 year) and after a very short stint in a terrible temp job, I have worked for the NHS for upwards of 6 months, so I can only talk from my experience from these industries. Put like this, it seems that I’ve made an easy transition across very different industries. Not bad for someone that fell into this career by accident. However, as some of you may know, moving across industries with library experience on your CV and an MA/MSc that people are surprised to see exist can be incredibly hard. Actually, hard is an understatement – it can be awful!

BUT, and it’s a big but, it has been worth it. While I have turned down some excellent job offers (Civil Service Fast Stream, I’m looking at you), I have become a better librarian/information professional because of the variety of industries I have worked in. When I started, I never had an aim to work in a specific type of library, to this day I have never worked in an academic or law library, but you never know – I might. And that’s 70% of the battle – if you want to move across those industry borders (as it were) you have to be willing to accept that the first role you land in, may not be the dream but a stepping stone. BUT this ‘stepping stone’ is how you learn about the industry and also helps you to decide if it is a good fit for you. This is definitely something I found when I moved to Oxfam in a significantly junior role and realised that it wasn’t for me. In it’s not going to be your forever place. While it’s well documented that forever jobs are very much Not a Thing Anymore – libraryland did not get this memo, and you could be interviewed by people who have potentially never worked anywhere else. Approaching a job like it’s not your forever place gives you an incredibly empowering mind-set of ‘how much can I achieve while I’m here’ that will probably lead to you staying there for longer than you planned! Equally, Staying in one place is also fine; it is up to you to decide if an industry move is the right thing for you and how much you want to focus on your development, both personal and professional.

How quickly you can make those first steps into a new industry can depend on the industry that you are looking to work in. If you want to work in museums, for example, then yes, you do have stick it out, because odds are you are waiting for someone to die retire. But if you have a mind-set where you want to learn, build your experience and develop but you’re not too fussed about where you’re doing it, you can find plenty of opportunities! I appreciate that this is not always easy, and this does touch on issues of privilege and actually having the means to spend ‘spare time’ chasing those volunteering opportunities. The other option is look around your current workplace and engage with your team and manager about where you would like to develop. (It doesn’t always work though). And if you’re more about the experience you can get instead of the name of the organization on your CV then keep reading, because the next bits are for you.

First thing to do, pick which industry you want to work in – it can be as ridiculous as you want. At the moment I would love to work for ASOS or Spotify because they’re growing companies doing great user-centred work. <- This is the thing I care about. What do you care about? Is it collections? Is it people? Is it archiving? Whatever your kink is, get exploring - it doesn’t have to be limited to a specific job title, and it doesn’t have to be in a traditional library. Different places have different definitions of what a role does, so don’t limit yourself but latching onto the title that you think you know.

Job titles like ‘Governance’ ‘Data Protection’ ‘Wireframe’ ‘Taxonomy’ are all things that your MA/MSc will have given you some knowledge of. If you have an interest in one of these fields then it is important to build on what you know and tailoring your previous/current/hoped for experience to suit the area you are interested in moving to. If you don’t have the experience – but you are really (really) interested in an area it will shine through. I know, I know, it’s really easy for me to say and it can actually be really hard to do. For instance, I recently found out that one of the contributing factors to me never getting an interview at a university library is that I just haven’t been doing the application form properly. I wouldn’t know that – it was only when someone who worked in a university HR department told me and explained the points system to me that I discovered where I was going wrong – it’s actually the worst thing to find out AFTER you’ve written your application, but at least I know now right?! Highlighting how your skills and experience transfer to a new industry is the tricky part. Outside of libraryland – it is very very hard to make people understand the value of what you do. But it is not impossible – it just means you need to take your CV apart and refit it for the role.

In restructuring your CV and making the most of your experience as a library/information professional, focus on all your people/technology/innovation skills. For instance, how good you are with people. This is such a big win; the majority of recruiters will be looking for someone for the role who has the ability to deal with ‘difficult situations/people’. What about project management? Have you coordinated a collection shift? A library move? A marketing project? Take it out of the ‘library’ context. Reposition it. You focused on your users, you used basic techniques to develop a service to make it more successful. What does this tell someone? That you understand how marketing works, how benchmarking works, you know how to run a successful project, that you know how to appeal to different stakeholders and how to align what you do with strategy. If you’re teaching – even better. I bet you would do amazingly as a trainer – need to help people learn how to use new technology, need to talk people through how to use a programme for the needs of their organization - you can do that, because you’ve been working on those skills longer than most people in the room with an even tougher audience. I don’t recommend mentioning your awards etc. because outside of the library context people won’t really care (galling I know), but saying things like ‘my work has gained international recognition’, ‘my workshop/presentation on x topic’ has been picked for circulation because it has wide-reaching applications, sounds pretty good. One of my tricks is to find out what people read in the industry I am interested in and then consume it like fresh avocadoes on sourdough. Half of a successful interview is sounding knowledgeable about the industry – so find out what the publications are – Twitter and LinkedIn are great for this, there are so many hashtags and groups that if you put in a bit research you can pull out some really useful information. I had no idea about 75% of what Microsoft/Oxfam/NHS did – but I did all the things I’ve mentioned here and I got the jobs. I also got rejected for a lot of jobs as well – and you will too – because remember, to the person on the other side of the table, who comes from a different industry, you represent risk. How will you, as a new employee mitigate that risk – this is what you need to prove in your interview, using all the tools I’ve mentioned above.

It is hard to reposition everything you’ve done to suit the needs of one organization. Enthusiasm goes a long way in this case because if you can show in your cover letter, your CV and when you get to interview that you may not have that native ‘I’ve been working in this industry for x years’ but you have many transferable skills that they would be silly not to hire you, then you’re in. You may also have to consider dropping a rung on the pay ladder to do it. And this can be one of the main reasons why people don’t make the leap – because when you reach a certain stage in your career, taking a pay cut just to work in a different industry isn’t worth it sometimes. People like to pretend that money doesn’t matter, but it does, as do your external responsibilities. I can’t imagine anyone’s partner being 100% thrilled at you coming home and saying ‘Got a new job and in the industry I’ve been dreaming of but I have to take a 4K paycut!’ No one wants to do that!

It’s something to think about – really honestly. Because it’s great to move across, but not if it’s going to impact your quality of life. When you’re in this position, looking to cross industry borders, you need to have a sit down and think about why you want to leave you current role – what it is about the other industry that calls out to you – is there a way to incorporate more of this into your current role? Then you need to talk to your manager. Some managers will respond really well to you asking to do more, have more space for projects etc. Some won’t and will be genuinely really concerned at you doing (what they perceive to be) things to rock the boat. I don’t have an answer for those situations – in one role, I threatened to leave and ended up staying for an extra 18 months and did a lot of very stretching activities. Another role was so awful that they offered me a new role and then let me leave a month early.

So, weigh up your options. In an ideal world, it would be like going into an ice-cream shop and trying lots of different flavours before settling on the one you like at that given moment in time. Remember though, that whatever decision you make, at that point, was the right one for you. You can’t predict that a job will turn out to be good or bad and you will never know unless you try. More importantly – taking yourself out of your comfort zone and even repositioning the work that you’ve done for something new is an incredibly educational experience and valuable for your own personal development. Because sometimes it’s good to stop and take stock of where you in your career.

Natasha Chowdory's article is the third in a series of personal career stories. We asked library and information professionals around the country to share their stories of how they've addressed a particular challenge in their professional lives.

Earlier articles from Kathryn Aylward and Matt Imrie are also available.

We have refreshed CILIP’s careers content to better reflect the challenges we face, whether it be starting out, rejoining the workforce, looking out for new opportunities or stepping up into leadership roles.

If you're not a CILIP member yet, now is a great time to join. Your membership gives you access to a broad range of career enhancing resources including online short courses, webinars, discounted events and chartership.




Contributor: Natasha S. Chowdory
Published:  14 February 2019


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