The Annual Conference as a Job-Hunting Tool:

Tips for Students and Recent Grads

By Lisa Campbell, University of Pittsburgh

This year, I rode to ALA's annual conference in a van with eleven soon-to-be graduates of the University of Pittsburgh's MLIS program. They all had plans for the weekend. Some students wanted to get books signed and take in the exhibits. Some came for speakers or events, intending to explore specific topics in librarianship. Others wanted to find jobs, and came equipped with suits, resumes, and high expectations.

The students whose primary goal was employment quickly became discouraged. There were few booths at the placement center, and several weren't hiring. NMRT's Resume Review Service was fully booked by Saturday afternoon. One student said recruiters were reluctant to take his resume unless he lingered and kept talking, while another shared unpleasant encounters with vendors who seemed uninterested in talking to students. Katherine Johnson, an MLIS student at Dominican University, shared her frustration on Michael Stephens' blog Tame the Web, attributing the dearth of recruiters to the current economic climate and technology-driven changes in the hiring process.

Even though they planned ahead, the students I traveled with encountered unexpected situations. No one anticipated that transit between hotels and the McCormick Center could take as long as 40 minutes. Some found crowded socials difficult to navigate. The Book Cart Drill Team members had choreographed their routine assuming they would be facing the crowd, not the judges. Despite these difficulties, most of the students reported positive overall experiences. One student said, "I found that some of the events I hadn't planned on attending... were the most fun and led to great conversations and new connections."

How can students increase the likelihood of a productive conference experience? Every conference will have programs, speakers, and services that don't live up to their descriptions. The placement center may have been disappointing, but it was one of many constructive opportunities available to students. A flexible, proactive approach to conference planning can help students make the most of their time.

If you're planning to use a conference to complement your job search, consider the following tips:

Plan Ahead.
Many library organizations, including NMRT, publish annual conference guides and articles for first-time attendees. These documents will give you tips on travel, scheduling, funding opportunities, and preventing burn-out. Archived issues of Footnotes contain personal accounts from students and new professionals that can help you refine your own conference goals and expectations. May and August issues typically contain the most annual-specific information.

Use tools like ALA's online event planner or printed conference preview to identify sessions that might interest you. If you're interested in a specific committee, section, or roundtable, see if they have a list of sponsored events. You can also use ALA JobList to find orientations, workshops, information sessions, and programs specifically for job seekers.

If you are planning to visit the placement center, consult ALA Joblist to see which institutions will be present and what positions they are advertising. You may have better luck with recruiters if you approach them with questions about a specific position.

Networking does not have to be complicated; you can strike up a conversation with the person sitting next to you on the shuttle, or you can attend socials, luncheons, and committee meetings. If you have trouble conversing with strangers, consider arranging one-on-one appointments ahead of time or signing up for NMRT's conference mentoring program.

If you've already submitted an application for a position, look for librarians and staff from the hiring institution. The conference is a great place to personally express interest and ask questions in a less formal setting than a job interview. You may be able to find out who is on the search committee, or why the position is vacant. If you haven't begun your job search, look for librarians or human resources staff from institutions and regions that interest you.

Some events are more conducive to networking than others. If there is a specific person you want to talk to, try to approach them when they're least likely to be busy with professional duties. The best times I found were shortly before or after a scheduled event, or during a small luncheon as opposed to a large meeting or social.

Make sure to follow up with people you talk to. Ask for a business card, and write some notes on the back to help you remember the discussion. E-mail a thank-you to anyone who goes out of his or her way to meet with you or offer helpful advice.

Dress Appropriately.
This is a much-debated issue. I believe job seekers should not dress casually, though many attendees do. At my first annual conference, every librarian I met who had administrative, supervisory, or leadership responsibilities was wearing business attire. I tried to dress more formally in Chicago and found that I felt more confident engaging vendors, colleagues, and potential employers.

Build Your Resume.
Look for opportunities to become professionally involved. If your resume lacks practical experience, consider joining a committee or pursuing publishing opportunities. Some committees are difficult to join initially, but NMRT offers guaranteed committee appointments for members. Once you join a committee, make sure you contribute; passive membership can count against you.

If you aren't able to participate in the Resume Review Service, consider asking other librarians to look at your resume. Look for relevant programming as well. Speakers at this year's NMRT President's Program, "Job Hunting in a Recession," gave excellent advice on customizing resumes and cover letters to specific positions, and using the resume format to demonstrate organizational skills.

Stay Positive.
Sarah Johnson, one of the speakers at the NMRT President's Program, stressed the importance of maintaining a positive attitude during a job search. It can help you cope with lengthy hiring processes and numerous rejections. One of the students I traveled with applied for nearly twenty positions before landing an interview.

Conferences can be stressful, but they can also be fun. Be flexible, treat yourself well, and don't get discouraged if you don't come home with an offer. If your experience isn't what you anticipated, use it to improve your planning for a future conference!