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Career Strategies for Librarians
Making the Most of the Transition from Student to Professional
by Anne Jumonville

As I have recently discovered, there is a strange period of adjustment when you first transition from life
as a library school student to that of a practicing librarian.  I graduated from library school several
months ago and although I was lucky enough to accept a position that began almost immediately
afterward, that didn’t necessarily mean I immediately stopped thinking of myself as a student and just
“switched” to being a professional.  Of course, I had previous work experience to draw upon; I had
gained valuable practical experience in a library while in school. In short, I had done many of the things
that career advisors, mentors, and library school professors encouraged me to do—and I’m glad I did.  
But as I have had a few months to contemplate the change from being a student to being a professional,
I’d like to complement the wealth of advice on how to be one or the other (student or professional) with
something a little different: how to mine your student experiences for inner resources that you likely
already have and can use as you transition into professional life.

How You Make Choices

A near-universal aspect of library school programs is that there are many courses and tracks to choose
from.  Some people know exactly what they want to take and this is not much of an issue; for others,
figuring out how much to embrace a variety and how much to focus on a particular area is more of a
struggle.  If, like many librarians, you thrive on intellectual engagement for its own sake, it can be difficult
to focus your attention and direction.  Yet regardless of how you experience the array of choices as a
library school student, there is a “professional corollary” to that experience: making choices and
commitments, which often also means coming to terms with the fact that you cannot do or experience
everything.  In short, you have to shut some doors in order to continue moving forward. You will have
choices to make as a professional just as you do as a student, and beginning to understand how you
make decisions, large or small, what motivates and inspires you, and the patterns in those decisions
and influences can help you carve your own path in the world of professional development.

The “Outside” World

No matter what the particulars, obviously your life encompasses much more than merely being library
school student: family, friends, work, other interests—many things!  Depending on what else you have to
juggle while in school, you may often feel like you don’t have as much time for coursework or other
aspects of school life as you’d like (lectures, events, experiences, friendships, etc).  Since many people
have written with much more experience than I have about what it is like to juggle a professional life with
other responsibilities, what I’d like to suggest here is that while, yes, the “juggling” continues, there is
another benefit to reflecting on this fact: it’s true for patrons, too!  Here’s what I mean:

We’re all situated.  Whether you work with students and faculty members in an academic library, as I do,
or another context, remember that your service to your patrons is embedded in a much larger context for
them, and that is true whether you are in a public service position or a more technical area.  Sometimes
you may know a little bit about the context of people you serve, occasionally quite a lot or even more than
you wanted to know, and other times, you’ll have no idea.  So just as you as a student have to balance
your time and responsibilities, understand that patrons are doing the same thing.  

Feeling appreciated is great, but … be careful.  Keeping the fact that your patrons have other things
going on in their lives can help you when someone doesn’t seem to “appreciate” what you’ve done or
doesn’t seem to want to delve as deep as you would into a particular subject, activity, or proposal.  And
while this observation is in many ways old news to people in service professions, it is surprisingly
difficult in practice!  Reflecting on how you have felt in times when you were particularly stretched
between commitments as a student can help you recover a sense of empathy when the more enjoyable
rewards of service—gratitude and engagement—are running low.   And of course, it can’t hurt to keep
this in mind with coworkers and colleagues as well.

Doubt and Uncertainty

It seems that many library school students (including me) have at some point questioned whether
graduate school was the right decision.  You may find the courses are too difficult or not difficult enough;
the social dimension not what you expected; the demands of school in addition to everything else in life
to be very stressful; or even at times feel plagued by a sense that perhaps this is not what you wanted
after all.  

Especially if you are job searching, you may find yourself simultaneously experiencing frustration,
disillusionment, and confusion while also needing to make quick decisions about future applications,
willingness to relocate, and other factors.  I don’t think there’s a way around some of these challenges
and the uncertainty they bring, although certainly they force us to reexamine our goals and ourselves,
which can be fruitful.  And as you probably know, they don’t exactly come to an end when you do move on
into the next phase of your life.  But don’t despair—this is not to say that the effort you put into library
school was worthless or that you are doomed to a life of uncertainty!  I bring up this more difficult side of
moving into a new profession because being able to move forward while experiencing uncertainty and
anxiety is an important skill, and one that being a student in library school gives you the opportunity to
practice in small, contained ways.  And that skill will serve you well no matter where you end up.

Expect a Change of Pace

Life can move very quickly when you’re a student. While that may continue to be true depending on your
situation, this is also a case in which, at least in my experience, there are some important differences
between the pace of professional life and student life.  As a student, even if you are taking distances
courses one at a time, you may still feel a sense of what a full-time student feels—the intensity and
brevity of graduate school life.  It seems like everything has to be known and decided yesterday in order
to take advantage of the next course, internship, interview, etc.  Of course, if you just want to get your
degree and move on with life, the fast pace may be a blessing!  

Professional life can be busy too, but a willingness to let things come to fruition is also important. In
other words, remember that while you may have needed to decide several things very quickly in order to
follow a certain path in school, it can be a good idea to allow yourself more time to experience a
particular aspect of your job/library/ institution, especially if it’s something that causes you some
uncertainty or anxiety.  No longer being constrained by a semester or a summer can be something of a
relief if you let it!  So do not worry if developing a sense of  professional identity takes months or years,
and practice having faith that any uncertainty you experience along the way will be clarified by the benefit
of experience to come.  This won’t mean you’ll be spared all difficult decisions from now on, but you can
anticipate that some aspects of your professional life can and should take time to develop.

Two Last Practical Tips

So what does it really mean to put this kind of reflection into practice?  While what works for me may be
different than what works for you, I’ll conclude by sharing two strategies I used during my first few
months on the job and how they helped me:

1. Spend 30 minutes a week just writing down what you did that week, especially during times you may
feel more adrift or unsure of where to direct your energy. I wrote down little things, like questions I asked
my colleagues that week or meetings I attended, which helped me focus on what I was learning and
doing, not just what I didn’t yet know or do.  Then, I also wrote briefly about how the week felt.  After a few
weeks, I could go back to my notes and make connections between how I spent my time and how I felt
based on concrete details, which was very helpful to me in planning my activities for the future.

2. Making comparisons: broaden the context.  You’ve probably heard or even told someone to “stop
comparing yourself to others,” but I think we all know that it’s not really that simple.  Especially when you
are new or just learning how to do something—like in a classroom setting or internship—it’s hard not to
make those comparisons and end up coming up short.  For example, let’s say I notice that a colleague
is a great teacher, and I start to measure myself as a teacher in terms of who is better, my colleague or
me.  But what if I look at the situation from the library’s perspective: having more than one person who
excels in a given area of librarianship gives the institution depth; having a variety of skills gives it
breadth.  And wouldn’t you, as a part of that institution, want it to have both?  A simple way I remind
myself of this when I feel a comparison coming on is to practice saying “and.”  As in, my colleague is a
great teacher, and I am a great teacher.  Substituting an explicit “and” for an implicit “or” can help you
recognize and redirect your thinking and keep your confidence intact.

Conclusion

I hope these reflections help you wherever you are in the process of becoming a professional.  You will
hear over and over how important it is to “have experience,” but being able to learn from your experiences
and reflect on them is a large part of what makes them valuable.  So, have faith in the experiences you’ve
already had, even those you may tend to dismiss because they aren’t “practical” or “job-related.”  If you
let it, library school can be a surprisingly useful source of self-knowledge that can help you step into
professional librarianship with confidence in the process.

About the Author

Anne Jumonville graduated from the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information
Science in May 2010.  She is currently an Information Literacy Librarian at Trinity University in San
Antonio, TX.

Article published November 2010

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represent the views of the LIScareer editors.